So, What is a Period Sari Anyway?

So, What is a Period Sari Anyway?
By The Honorable Lady Meenakshi da Gama,
Barony of Caer Galen, Kingdom of the Outlands.
Fig. 1 The Kiss, Bijapur about 1600; Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, pg 31
One question that gets asked again and again is “are saris period?” 1 In the context of India2,
this is basically the same as asking, “are clothes period?” 3 Women wore saris of differing types
and styles through out Indian history.4 The more correct question would be, “what do period saris
look like and how were they worn?” This paper is an attempt to at least begin to answer that
India has a long history of both exquisite textiles and wrapped garments - that is, a garment
that is not sewn, but is either tied or pinned on the body of the wearer. Wrapped garments can be
seen on both men and women in some of the earliest Indian art. The Ajunta caves, which date from
the 1st to the 6th century CE, have numerous examples of women wearing lower body saris, mostly
simple wrapped skirts.5 Much has been written and speculated about the Indian preference for
wrapped garments. In fact, it is not uncommon to read books that state that the sewing of garments
was unknown in India until the coming of the Muslim invaders. While this is clearly contradicted
by the historical and artistic record (there are sewn garments shown in the Ajunta caves, for
example) it demonstrates the clear association of wrapped garments and India.
One reason that is sometimes given for the Hindu preference for wrapped garments is that
cloth pierced by a needle is said to be unclean, and therefore unfit to be worn by the Hindu priestly
class, the Brahmins, or for anyone to wear in a ritual situation. This preference for wrapped
garments for Hindu holy occasions is clearly present in India today, but it is unclear how long this
has existed. Regardless of how the association came about, the link between India, in particular
Hindu India, and wrapped garments is quite clear throughout period and through the modern day.
For many, the ultimate expression of the Indian textile and wrapped garment traditions is the sari,
which is still worn by a large percentage of Indian women, at least on special occasions.
The major focus of the paper will be the saris of the Deccan Kingdoms between 1550-1600,
as this is one of times and places with a number of paintings from different artists and different
places with clearly identifiable saris. 6 However, some other types of saris will also be discussed.
This paper will not discuss how to wrap the depicted saris, but if there are available directions to
how to wrap the depicted style, note will be made of where to find the directions.
For the purposes of this paper, all references to period should be taken in mean the SCA period, any time before 1600.
However, it is to be understood that Indian costume had a long and complex history, both social and costume. Just
because it is “period” to wear something in one particular time and place in Indian history, it can not be assumed that is
was “period” to wear that piece of clothing at any time and place in Indian history. Care must be taken to ensue that
pieces come from the same time and place. Otherwise one could end up wearing the equivalent of a Viking apron dress
with an Elizabethan ruff.
For the purposes of this paper, the term India is used to describe the Indian subcontinent.
For this purposes of this paper the term sari is used to denote a woman’s wrapped garment that constitutes a major
portion of the clothing of the wearer. Although men do wear wrapped garments in India, they are not included within
the scope of this paper and will not be discussed.
See, e.g. :Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Technique, Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping;
Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in Ancient and Medieval India.
The Ajanta Caves, Artistic Wonder of Ancient Buddhist India; Benoy K. Behl Harry Abrams Inc., New York ISBN 08109-1983-4
The Deccan Kingdoms include Ahmadnagor, Bijapur and Golconda. These kingdoms had Muslim rulers, but a large
and active population of Hindus and other religions. The Deccani Kingdoms are generally regarded as more
cosmopolitan and integrated then the Mughal Empire to the north.
The Cloth
As a sari is a length of un-sewn cloth, the starting point of a period sari is the “periodness”
of cloth and decoration. Although a full exploration of all of the period types of cloth in India is
beyond the scope of this paper, a brief discussion of some of the most common types of period
Indian cloth will aid in the understanding of what types of cloth a period sari could have been made
from and how they might have been decorated.
India was famous throughout period for the quality and variety of its cloth. The Roman
historian Pliny the Elder complained that too much of Rome’s gold was being sent to India to buy
cloth.7 India was famed for its weaving of silk, but was especially famous for its weaving of cotton.
The quality of Indian cotton was praised throughout written history, starting with the Greek
historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE8, and Vasco da Gama and later Portuguese wrote
extensively about the incredible variety and quality of the textiles found in India.9 In addition, for
much of period, India was the sole source of colorfast cotton dyes in many colors.10 Therefore, only
India could produce multicolored fabrics that did not fade and run together with washing.
India’s multi-colored cotton textiles where widely exported to both the west and the east.11
Other than some exported examples, few period Indian textiles are known to exist. However, many
period sources refer to the to the quality and variety of textiles that were produced in India in period
both for export to other countries and for use in India. Period sources discuss several types of
decorated fabric in India during period. These include embroidery12, brocade13, (both embroidery
and brocade were done with textile thread and with metal thread), block printing, including with
gold leaf14, hand painting15, tapestry weave16 and those most Indian of textiles, ikat and bandhani17.
In India during period, block printing was the mass production way to decorate fabric. For
more expensive and elaborate textiles, the same basic dye techniques were used with the designs
being applied by hand instead of by block printing. At Fostat, in Egypt, numerous fragments of
Indian block printed cottons dating from the 10th to the 16th century have been discovered.18
Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, pg. 34.
India & Portugal: Cultural Interactions,
Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics; Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum. Vol. II;.
Woven Cargoes: Indian Textiles in the East;
Indian Embroideries; Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum. Vol. II; Indian Embroidery,
Indian Textiles in the Seventeenth Century,
Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics; Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum. Vol. II:
Trade, Temple and Court, pg. 113
Indian Ikat Textiles;, Indian Tie-Dyed Fabrics, Historic Textiles of India at the Calico Museum. Vol. IV.
Costumes and Textiles of Royal India, pg. 36; Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics;
Fig. 2 is a picture of a fragment of a block printed textile found at Fostat.
Although less well known in the west during period, the most coveted Indian textile for most
of those trading with India was ikat, particularly silk ikat. The term ikat is used to describe all
textiles produced by first tie dying the thread in multicolored patterns, and then weaving the fabric.
Ikat is not actually a period term, but is now used among textile historians to describe this type of
fabric almost exclusively. Ikat will be used in this paper of the sake of clarity, as there are numerous
period terms. One type of ikat that is specifically mentioned by sources starting in the 10th century
is the patola, or double ikat.19 A double ikat is when both the warp and the weft threads are tied and
dyed, creating patterns with as many as five colors.
Bandhani is used to describe fabric that is decorated by tying the fabric in patterns, then
dyeing the fabric. Bandhani is the technique that is generally called tie-dye, but since the term tiedye does not differentiate between fabric that is dyed before or after weaving, the more specific
term bandhani is used in this paper. Period bandhani is created by tying and dyeing small sections
of fabric to create complex patterns, as seen in Fig. 3. The large swirl patterns that are created by
“tie-dye” today do not appear to be a period type of tie-dying.
Indian Tie-Dyed Fabrics, pg. 20
Fig. 3. The Young Manohar and the Scribe, 1591 Indian Miniatures of the Mugal Court, pg, 139
Of the period sources that discuss the cloth the saris are made of, both cotton and silk are
mentioned.20 It is often hard when looking at the various miniatures and other period art to tell
which of the many textile decoration techniques was used to create the depicted sari. So when
choosing a sari for its period qualities, one is forced to say that “this sari was made with period
techniques and looks like one shown in the miniatures” because we cannot be certain what
technique was used to create a given sari in a given miniature. In the discussion of the various
images the techniques that could have been used to create a textile that looks like the one shown
will be discussed when possible.
The various parts of a sari need to be defined in order to discuss the types of decoration seen
on period saris. For convenience, the naming conventions used by Chantal Boulanger in her book
will be followed here.21 A sari is a rectangle of fabric. It has an upper and lower border that run
along the selvages, a body and two ends. The more decorated end is called the pallav and the other
end is the mundi. The mundi does not show in many types of wraps, and is often not decorated
differently than the body of the sari.
Types of Wraps
There are an enormous variety of images of what is clearly wrapped clothing in Indian art.
In addition, there is any number of images in period Indian art where it is unclear if the garment is
wrapped, sewn, or both. With some exceptions, it is often difficult to say for certain how the
garment in the image was wrapped. Therefore, the recreating of period wraps must concentrate on
creating the “look” of a period wrap.
Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Technique
Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping,
Fish Tail
One of the more widespread types of saris is commonly called the fish tail22, seen in Fig. 4.
All of the women in this painting appear to be wearing fish tails. The fish tail is a “pants wrap” that is, a wrap that wraps each leg, creating pants. A variety of pants wraps are common on both
men and women, particularly in early periods.23 On the fish tail the pallav hangs down in front of
the wearer, creating a “tail”. The bottom borders go around the ankle and up the front of the legs.
All of the saris in Fig. 4 have quite narrow borders and pallav.24 The woman on the far right has
small dots in the body of her sari. This could be bandhani, resist block printing or brocade.
Fig. 3. `Rama’s Marriage, Virupaksha Temple, Vijayangara, 15th century. South Indian Painting, pg.
Vijayangara wrap
In the Vijaynagara Empire an apparent variation of the fish tail developed during the 16th
century.25 This wrap is seen in Fig. 4. The saris have a variety of decorations, including stripes,
dots and complex patterns. The patterns could be block print, brocade, painted, ikat or
embroidered. Comparing the images to surviving textiles, it seems most likely that the patterns are
For how to drape this sari see: Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping, pg. 19. and Baroness Lakshmi
Amman’s web page at
Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping; Sari: Styles, Patterns, History, Technique;
This is generally true of period saris, and often markedly different in modern styles of saris. The modern styles
currently run to wide borders and wide, elaborate pallavs.
A proposed way to wrap this sari was developed by Baroness Lakshmi Amman and is shown at
block printed. The strips are likely to be woven, but could also be painted. The borders are narrow,
as is the pallav and are decorated in related or identical patterns on a given sari. One body is
undecorated, but most are decorated in a simpler pattern than the borders and pallav.
Fig. 4. Women, Virupaksha Temple, Vijayangara, 16th century. South Indian Painting, pg. 96.
Deccani wrap(s)
The Decanni kingdoms present a unique opportunity to those trying to study period saris.
The kingdoms’ artists developed a realistic style, depicted women, and a number of paintings
survive from different kingdoms and artists of about the same period. The painting in Fig. 1 is one
of the most easy to interpret images showing what is unmistakably a “nivi” type of sari. The nivi
wrap is a sari wrap with a front set of pleats on the skirt, with the body wrapping up over the
wearer’s torso. A variation of this is the “modern” sari wrap that is so common today. The pallav
can end up either in front or in back of the wearer.
Although the painting is from slightly out of period, it shows a type of nivi wrap that is seen
in Deccani art starting in at least in the 1560’s. The painting is discussed first to allow the reader to
familiarize themselves with the features of the Deccani wraps with a painting in a more western
style, which is hopefully easier to interpret
The sari appears to be wrapped with a longer sari than most modern saris. Saris made today
are generally made with a length of about 5½ to 6 meters. However, still in the Deccan today, many
traditional styles are wrapped with a sari 9 meters long. It appears that the Deccani saris shown in
the miniatures of the late 16th century are a nivi type wrap made with a 9 meter or so long sari to
allow for the copious pleats and long pallav wrapping.26 The front pleats are quite clear in the Fig.
1, as is the sweep up around the body of the wearer, which are the distinctive features of the nivi
wrap. More on the wrapping of the pallav will be discussed in relation to other paintings, as this
painting shows none of the complexity of earlier pallav wrapping.
The choli (the blouse) has a deep v-neck with elbow length sleeves27. Mughal paintings of
the same period clearly show that the cholis of Mughal Empire are “backless”, that is they close
with ties across the back, leaving the back of the wearer at least partly exposed.28 However, none of
the Decanni paintings viewed to date show the back of the wearer, so it is not clear if the Decanni
cholis are backed or backless. Structurally, it is hard to see how a choli could have the depth of vneck depicted, be backless and still stay on the body of the wearer.
The decoration on the pallav is wider than in other, period, paintings, but the gradual
widening and increase of complexity in pattern of the pallavs can be seen during period, so this
should be considered a further evolution of the style. The patterns in the pallav could be brocade or
ikat. It seems unlikely that patterns as geometric as these would be created by block printing or
The body of the sari and the borders are both undecorated. The choli is of a contrasting
color from the sari, which appears to be true in all of the Decanni paintings seen in color by the
writer to date. Indian art in general tends to show a tendency to wear contrasting colors in clothing.
For how to wrap a basic nivi Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping; pg. 53
A choli is a short, tight top. They are common through out much of Indian history, see eg. Costumes and Textiles of
Royal India and Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in Ancient and Medieval India.
See, for example, Painting for the Mughal Emperor, Mughal and Deccani Paintings
Fig. 5. The queen touching a tree and making in bloom, Ahmadnagar 1565, Painting of the Deccan,
XVI-XVII, pg. 7
Fig. 6 Sultan Husain Nizam Shah enthroned, Ahmadnagar 1565, Deccani Painting, pg 33
Both Fig. 5 and Fig. 6 are from the book Tarif I Husain Shahi, which is a history of the reign
of Husian Nizam Shah I (1554-1565) of Ahmandnagar and his queen, Khanzada Humayun. The
paintings are unusual for the prominence of the Queen. The book in believed to date from about
1565, about the time of the death of Husian. Fig. 6 was later altered to obscure the queen. This is
believed to have been done in the reign of her son, who overthrew her regency in 1569.29
Fig. 5 shows the queen touching a tree, which causes it to bloom. This Dohada theme a
common theme in Indian myth, which demonstrates the beauty and virtue of the woman touching
the tree.30
The queen’s sari has two “pallavs” coming off her body. This is not possible with a normal
nivi wrap, as the other end of the sari is tied against the body under the pleats.31 It is not clear if the
extra tail indicates that the queen is wearing a different style of wrap, if she had a veil in addition to
her wrap, or exactly what is going on. According to Zebroski, there are four more paintings in the
book that show the queen which have not been seen by the writer, although it is unclear how many
of those were later altered to obscure the queen. Without further study, any discussion of the style of
wrap shown on the queen would be mere speculation.
The queen’s attendants in both pictures are all wearing a nivi sari with front pleats, which
are depicted in the “swoop” forward at the front of the skirt, most easily seen in the attendants on
either side of the queen in both paintings. The pallavs are wrapped up over the head and then down
the front of the wearer. The pallavs are generally tucked through the plate belts worn by the
women. As will be seen in later paintings, these belts are often used to tuck the long pallav into,
creating more draping around the body.
The saris all have patterned bodies. In most cases the patterns are in at least two colors.
Although it is not possible to clearly identify the patterns, they appear to be generally floral. One of
the attendants in Fig. 5, in addition to the queen, is wearing a sari with broad stripes. The pallavs
and borders are either decorated the same as the body, or have very narrow decoration. Zebroski
identifies the queen’s sari as bandhani.32, but give no reason for this identification. Bandhani could
produce the patterns shown, as could block printing, ikat and brocade. Embroidery is possible, but
seems unlikely, given the work required to embroider the whole body of a 9 meter sari.
The cholis are again in contrasting colors, in addition having patterns on the choli fabric.
They have elbow length sleeves as seen the other paintings. It appears that this is a distinctive
feature of the Deccan.
Deccani Painting, pg. 17.
Id. pg. 18
Saris: An Illustrated Guide to the Indian Art of Draping; pg. 53
Fig. 7. Kamghodi Ragini, about 1595, Art of India, pg. 29
Figs. 7-9 all date from the same period of about 1595, and are believed to have been painted
by the same artist.33 All three are Ragamala paintings, which are painting that evoke the musical
mode of specific raga.34 A raga is a piece of music that evokes a specific emotion or mode, a
ragamala is a set of raga, literally a garland of ragas.35 This is a Hindu tradition in period, and
most of the ragamala paintings are painted at either a Hindu court, or for Hindu patrons.36
The orange sari of the woman in Fig. 7 has nicely depicted pleats, the body of the sari
diagonally going across the body of the woman and up over her head. The pallav comes back down
the front and is tucked under the belt to hold it in place. The pallav is wide and has a complicated
pattern. It appears that the painter was indicating that the pallav is gold, along with the man’s patka
(sash). If the pallav is gold it could have been produced by either weaving a brocade with gold
thread, gold thread embroidery, or block printing with gold leaf. Given the amount of gold, it is
believed the painting depicts gold thread brocade. The body of the sari has regularly spaced yellow
Deccani Painting, pg. 40.
Dancing to the Flute, Music and Dance in Indian Art, pg. 280.
Deccani painting, pg. 40
dots. In appearance, this would most closely resemble bandhani, but could also be achieved by
block printing, ikat or brocade. In India now, you can find saris that are woven with gold thread
and then decorated with either block printing or bandhani. The dying process will not affect the
gold threads, unless the threads are bent.
Interestingly, the patka of the man matches the woman’s sari. His jama (the long wrap front
coat) appears to be either block printing or brocade. The multi shaded indigo block prints were
quite popular, so it would seem likely that this is what the fabric would be.
Fig. 8. Patanasika ragini, 1590-1600, Painting of the Deccan, XVI-XVII, pg. 11
Fig. 8 shows three women in nivi wrapped saris. Again the pleats are clearly shown. In the
woman on the right the pleats are delineated with lines that are similar to the border. It is believed
that this was done to show the pleats and does not indicate vertical lines in the sari. It would be odd
to have such vertical lines on only part of the sari. Also, given the light color of the sari, it would be
hard to show the pleats otherwise.
The woman in the center playing the instrument has a translucent sari, as does the woman on
the right. Both saris have small patterns over the body of the sari. India was well known in period
for its translucent fabrics of both silk and cotton.37 The small patterns on the translucent fabrics
could be created by block printing in gold leaf, brocade or by embroidery. The first two seem the
most likely, given the difficulties of embroidery on translucent fabric. The pallav of the woman in
the center is gold colored. As above it seems most likely that this would have been created by gold
thread brocade, which would argue for the patterns in the body of her sari being created that way as
The woman on the left has a yellow/red colored sari. There appear to be horizontal stripes
running along the body of the sari. The color delineation of the skirt part being one color and the
part going up over the body is unusual for period saris. This could be indicating that this sari is also
translucent, as the sari would be darker where there are multiple layers caused by the wrapping.
Fig. 9. Dhanasri Ragni, Deccani Painting, pg 46
Unfortunately, Fig. 9 is in black and white, which makes it harder to see what is going on.
The saris of the central woman and the woman on the left both seem to have the same horizontal
stripes seen in Fig. 8 on the woman on the left. All three saris appear to be translucent if you look
where they go over the women’s heads. All three have highly patterned pallavs, which appear to
have floral patterns in them. None of the saris seems to have a border. The two on the ends appear
to have some patterning in the body of the sari. It is not clear if the one in the middle has such
In this painting the more complex draping of the pallav can be seen in the woman on the
right. The pallav comes down off her head, drapes almost down to the floor and then is tucked back
up through the belt.
It should be noted that the horizontal striping seen in Fig. 8 and Fig. 9 is not seen in other
Deccani painting of the same time frame. It is possible that the striping is showing draping of the
cloth or possibly some sort of crinkle cotton type fabric effect, instead of horizontal stripes.
Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in Ancient and Medieval India
However, Fig. 4 does show horizontal stripes on the sari, although that painting is from much
farther south. However the Deccani kingdoms and the Vijayanagara empires did have contact (in
fact the Tarif I Husain Shahi is in part about the conquest of Vijayanagara). If a version of Fig. 9 in
color can be found and studied, it might help make this clearer.
Fig. 10. Mahji and Shahji’s interview, Bijapur 1591 Indian Book Painting, pg. 53
The book Pem-enm is a romance by the poet Hasan Manjhu Kalji in 1591 in Bijapur. The
book has some spectacular paintings. Fig. 10 –Fig. 12 are from this book. These paintings show a
variety of women in the Deccani nivi saris. The set allows the viewer to study a variety of women
from servants, musicians and the Princess Mahji in their saris. The saris show a variety of levels of
decoration. In Fig. 10 Mahji is on the platform, separated from her beloved by a screen of fabric to
maintain zenana, the name for isolation of women in the harem in India. Her sari has gold patterns
on the body. The pallav of her sari is narrow with geometric designs. The gold patterns on the
body could be gold thread brocade, block printed with gold, or embroidered. The most likely would
be appear to be gold thread brocade since the patterning of pallav would be most easily produced
with brocade weaving. The yellow sari of the attendant behind Mahji has visible patterning on the
body, but it is very low contrast with the body. It also appears to have a border, best seen in the
edge coming down from her head and behind her arm.
Fig. 11. Shahji is United with His Beloved Mahji, Indian Paintings in the British Library, pg. 17
The pallavs seen in Fig. 11 are some of the most colorful and complex seen in period
paintings seen in period paintings. The two women in the front left corner have pallavs with three
colors, as does the woman in the white sari in the center right.
Fig. 12 Mahji pines for her beloved, Bijapur 1591, Indian Book Painting, pg. 55
In Fig. 12 Mahji is pining for her beloved, shown by the flames coming off her body. The
women in the front are squirting each other with colored water, a traditional game that is part of the
Hindu festival of Holi. The three figures together show the variety of ways the women draped and
tucked their long pallavs. From tucked into the belt to draped over the arm, the pallavs are clearly
an important part of the drape.
Fig. 12, Detail,
A close up view of Majhi’s pallav in Fig. 12 shows the best pictorial evidence the writer is
aware of for beading on saris in period. The white dots on the pallav appear to be pearls,
particularly when one looks at the white dots on the edge of the pallav. The geometric pattern on
her pallav has the appearance of the kind of patterns often created by ikat weaving.
So, what is the answer to the question, “what do period saris look like and how were they
worn?” A period sari is one created with one of the known period fabric techniques in either silk or
cotton. The colors are highly varied, basically any color capable of being made with natural dyes
can be found in the period artwork. If there is a border, it should be narrow. The pallav should be
narrow by modern standards, but can be fairly complex if the late period saris are being recreated.
The body is most often decorated in either spaced patterns or stripes. Among the period drapes are
the fishtail and the Deccani version of the nivi wrap. The modern trend of matching the choli to the
body of the sari does not appear to be a period look. Instead, the period cholis depicted are generally
of a contrasting color, although it may co-ordinate with the colors of the sari.
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Saris of India, Madhya Pradesh, Singh, Martand, General Editor, Chishti, Rta Kapur & Sanyal,
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Shining Cloth, The, Dress and Adornment That Glitter, Victoria Z. Rivers, Thames & Hudson, 1999
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