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Fine silk over fast fashion: The last hand-weavers of India's holiest city

Written by Helen ReganOmar Khan, CNNVaranasi, India

Known for its many temples, mysterious holy men and bustling ghats along the River Ganges, the Indian city of Varanasi also produces some of the world's finest silk saris.

The handwoven Banarasi sari, with its intricate motifs and generous use of gold or silver zari -- or thread -- is widely sought after, especially by brides seeking to make a statement during India's vibrant wedding season.

But the traditional handloom weavers in Varanasi are facing competition from modern powerlooms that can produce silk saris cheaper and faster.

And, it has forced the industry to search for ways to make finely crafted saris relevant in an age of social media and fast fashion.

Walk through the narrow lanes of the silk weaving neighborhood of Pili Kothi and the clackety-clack sounds from the looms fill the air. Situated in Varanasi's northeast, Pili Kothi is one of a handful of weaving communities in the city.

A handloom with magenta thread ready to be made into a sari in Varanasi, India.

A handloom with magenta thread ready to be made into a sari in Varanasi, India. Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

Methodical and perennial, the handloom weavers' tune wafts between the ramshackled red brick houses as it has done for generations.

Yards of delicately handwoven silk spill out of old wooden handlooms -- splashes of magenta and gold dazzle through the gloom of dimly-lit, stiflingly hot workshops.

"I was born and brought up here, and worked in the workshop right there where my father and grandfather worked," said Ranzan Ali, 56, a Varanasi master silk weaver as he sat cross-legged in an anteroom adjoining his workshop.

Ali is a third generation handweaver and says his family has been practicing their craft in Varanasi for about 100 years. It's a similar story for most weavers here.

The community is mostly Muslim -- the trade is intertwined with India's caste system -- and many of the workers are men who pass their artistic skills from son to grandson. They are poor and most don't have a formal education, earning just a few thousand rupees ($30-50) per sari, which can take a month to create.

A silk weaver weaves gold zari into silk fabric at his pit handloom in Varanasi, India.

A silk weaver weaves gold zari into silk fabric at his pit handloom in Varanasi, India. Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

Ancient links

The Banarasi sari is named after the city itself -- Varanasi, or Banaras as it is locally known. It's a brand, a piece of history, and a point of pride for sari wearers and weavers, traders and designers.

While the exact origins of Varanasi's silk industry is shrouded in myth, ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts reference the city as a cotton-weaving hub. It was during the Mughal period, beginning in the 16th century, that silk weaving flourished there, influenced by the courts of the Persian masters.

For centuries, the city on the Ganges has been a spiritual destination for pilgrims and a waypoint for traders and travelers, attracting philosophers, writers, and skilled artisans from around the region.

Varanasi became famous for its weavers who wove generous amounts of gold and silver zari into their silk brocades, which were heavily embroidered with elaborate patterns and designs.

Trends for certain motifs have evolved over time and there is an endless array of designs that embellish a Banarasi sari, including florals, animals and birds, vegetal patterns, jal designs and geometric shapes.

Intricate brocade of a Banarasi sari in the Holy Weaves showroom in Varanasi, India.

Intricate brocade of a Banarasi sari in the Holy Weaves showroom in Varanasi, India. Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

Making a fine, silk Banarasi sari is a masterclass in skill, artistry and patience. Weavers can take anywhere between a few weeks and six months to finish just one piece. Longer, if the motifs are particularly intricate.

For 15 or more hours a day, Ali and his fellow weavers sit at their pit looms, throwing a shuttle carrying silk thread back and forth.

"Nowhere in India is it done on this scale like here. You won't find this handiwork anywhere else in the world," said Ali.

While every piece of fabric has a yarn that runs across the length (the warp), and one that runs across the width (the weft), the brocade of the Banarasi sari is made using an extra weft technique -- meaning that additional threads are woven into the fabric to create the decorative motifs.

"It's very minute, it's very fine and you're doing it with your hands. You have to look at the zari very carefully," said Ali. "It's very precise work and not every worker can make it. It's a specialized skill.

Master silk weaver Ranzan Ali ties together each individual thread to the handloom from his workshop in Varanasi.

Master silk weaver Ranzan Ali ties together each individual thread to the handloom from his workshop in Varanasi. Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

Changing industry

But Ali's way of life is under threat.

The electric powerloom has replaced most handlooms as they're able to churn out a greater volume of fabric faster than local handweavers.

"With the power loom you switch it on and it's working -- you are just standing there. But you have to constantly work with the handloom," Ali said, adding that if he had enough money he would buy a powerloom.

Ali says fewer young people are taking up handweaving.

"The new generation which was brought up on powerlooms has no idea how handlooms work. But handlooms are continuing in those houses and families where they've always had them. They continue that tradition," Ali said.

For now, handlooms can better handle the delicate silk that makes a fine handwoven Banarasi sari and there are some weaving techniques that currently cannot be done on a powerloom.

But as the technology becomes more sophisticated, handlooms could be made obsolete. "I think there is a point, not now but in the near future, where it will die," Ali said.

There are however, efforts to revive and modernize the industry.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a National Handloom Day to raise awareness of the handloom and weavers. And Modi's Make in India campaign, which encouraged businesses to manufacture their products in India, inspired a wave of designers to revive ancient crafts.

Umang Agrawal, founder and creative director of Holy Weaves, a manufacturer of handwoven textiles and online retailer in Varanasi, said that while these efforts should be applauded, alone they won't save the industry.

"If you want to revive or sustain the handloom industry, you have to keep the handloom relevant. You cannot make it thrive by supporting me or the weaver or anybody else along the value chain," he said.

'Don't want to become a typewriter'

Agrawal hails from a traditional Varanasi handweaving business family. He became a financial analyst and worked in Washington DC before bringing his business chops back to the world of traditional handicrafts, creating an online platform for genuine Banarasi saris and other handwoven textiles.

He said the online platform has helped take handwoven products to new customers inside and outside of India, including the US.

"Our objective is to make handwoven saris more easily accessible," he said. But the challenge of competing online is that the market is saturated with cheap knock offs falsely claiming to be handwoven or pure silk, Agrawal said.

Sitting in his showroom in Varanasi, the young entrepreneur said the key to keeping handwoven saris relevant is seeing them as a product, not a piece of art -- and being able to adapt to ever-changing customer demands.

Umang Agrawal, founder and creative director of Holy Weaves, a manufacturer of handwoven textiles and online retailer in Varanasi, India.

Umang Agrawal, founder and creative director of Holy Weaves, a manufacturer of handwoven textiles and online retailer in Varanasi, India. Credit: Omar Khan/CNN

"It comes to evolving the design language so that saris can be used for more casual occasions, and also not just the gilded Banarasi sari that you only use for your wedding," he said.

Social media has been a big player in driving the visibility and demand for handwoven saris in India.

In 2017, photos of Bollywood star Anushka Sharma wearing a handwoven red Banarasi sari designed by Sabyasachi Mukherjee to her wedding went viral on social media. Copycat saris sprang up almost instantly and her style inspired brides the country over. Bollywood stars and celebrities have been spotted on red carpets draped in the decadent Banarasi silk, their images posted to millions of Instagram followers.

Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma wears a Banarasi sari to her wedding to Indian cricketer Virat Kohli in New Delhi on December 21, 2017.

Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma wears a Banarasi sari to her wedding to Indian cricketer Virat Kohli in New Delhi on December 21, 2017. Credit: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

And top Indian designers are including Banarasi saris in their collections at various fashion weeks.

"Designers have always been doing special collections of saris, but it never used to receive as many eyeballs as it does now," said Agrawal, pointing to efforts to modernize the sari.

People are seeing, "so much social media focusing on saris, so much sharing the stories."

While Western brands have stormed the Indian clothing market, the sari itself is going through a revival.

In 2015, two friends started a social media campaign -- #100sareepact -- asking women to pledge to wear a sari for 100 days a year. More than 250,000 photos of women in saris have since been uploaded with the hashtag to Instagram.

But while renewed attention on traditional handweaving is great for the industry, Agrawal said, the handloom market needs to keep changing, and needs to continue to offer something new.

"I wouldn't like to see a day when I see these textiles in a museum," he said. "We don't want to become a typewriter."