“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend—and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”- Mark Twain on The city of Varanasi.

Considered one of the oldest cities in the world, with recorded evidence of human habitation estimated as far back as 3000 years, Varanasi, also known as ‘Banaras’ or ‘Kashi’, is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Nested near the banks of the holy river, Ganga, or the Ganges, Kashi is considered the cultural & religious hub for Indians especially Hindus. In fact, its location on the banks of the sacred Ganges River also contributes to its prestige as an important site of pilgrimage. Apart from the religious significance the city also holds the prestigious trade monopoly for being the manufacturer of the famous and beautifully crafted ‘Banarasi sari’. This world-renowned weaving heritage goes as far back as 800 years & is an important factor contributing in the city’s trade as well as tourism. Considered amongst the finest in India, ‘Banarasi saris’ are made of finely woven silk and decorated with elaborate embroidery and engravings. The quality of these designs, aided by a local climate conducive to silk handloom weaving, has put Kashi at the helm of India’s silk weaving industry. The Kashi weaving industry also stands as a symbol of synergetic and composite culture, merging Hindu and Muslim patterns in its sari designs.

The ‘Banarasi Sari’ is predominantly woven on hand looms by highly skilled weavers. This ancient practice has undergone innovation & change over the years. However, in the past few decades, an increased share of weaving has been done on power looms. The ‘Banarasi Sari’ craft is specific to certain areas of Kash i- Lohta, Bazardiha, Rohaniya, Chiraigaon, Lallapura, Ramnagar and Badi Bazar.

Weavers Of Kashi

Weavers were considered in high regard as skilled craftsman and artisans since ancient times. While they have always labored hard, their skills and unique products placed them in relative prosperity within their communities. Typically a weaver’s entire family is involved in the occupation. The number of Kashi workers and families associated with weaving is uncertain, as no extensive survey has been conducted. However, unofficial estimates have placed the total number of workers at around 500,000. ‘Karkhanas‘ or weaving centres are spread all over the modern city and the weavers, known as ‘Kaarigars‘ often work under the guidance of a well managed Karkhana. The workshop of a single loom weaver is called ‘Bunker‘. A master weaver may have 15-20 weavers training/employed under him. There are two traditional weaving sectors in Varanasi- Alaipura and Madanpura. Both groups have their own unique compositions and weaving techniques.

The Challenges

Lack Of Education Leading To Exploitation : A majority of ‘Kaarigars’ or weavers have little or no education. Weavers are typically dependent on traders for their livelihoods. The traders purchase saris in bulk from weavers and sell them in a market which typically leaves an average earning of only 600 to 700 rupees per sari, which may take 15 days to complete. Weavers are only paid by traders when the sari is actually sold in the market.

Inhumanely Long Working Hours :They often work 10 hours a day for 10 to 12 days on a stretch to complete one sari. During this period, a weaver might be helped by his family in the creation of intricate designs and stitching. Usually female members of the household help with this task, essentially serving as unpaid workers. While this work is critical to sari production, it is assigned little value or status, and is usually not considered in sari pricing or labor wage fixing.

Adverse Effects On Health : Weavers and their families suffer from a range of health problems. Many develop respiratory ailments related to breathing due to fibers and dust from the fabrics they work with. There is a high level of tuberculosis, particularly Multidrug Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB), which can be induced from exposure to silk and cotton fiber. Due to bad socio-economic conditions, weavers cannot afford regular health check-ups or medical treatment.

Children Denied Education : The children of these weavers are either dropouts from school or have never enrolled, usually because they support their parents in weaving.

Involvement Of Middlemen : Due to unavailability of markets, the involvement of middleman and brokers along with unawareness of how the principle of demand and supply in trade works, these weavers are paid insufficient, minimum wages for their craft. Many weavers have switched their traditional occupation and moved towards other trades to earn a livelihood. This has put the weaving industry’s future in jeopardy in Kashi.

OUR ENDEAVORS AND PROJECTS

Sewa International has been involved in the upliftment & reinvention of the weaving trade in Varanasi by helping poor weavers in backward areas of the city through skill enhancement programs & by establishing Microenterprises to help weavers become entrepreneurs. Our emphasis though, is not just limited to the trading aspect of the city, rather, is focused on the overall development & welfare of the entire region, therefore, we also remain committed to the health, sanitation & education verticals through various programs. “Swacch-Shikshit-Kushal Kashi” was started with the aim of reviving the dying handloom industry of Banaras and has evolved with multi-pronged holistic interventions in the fields of education, health, sanitation & agriculture.

Kushal Kashi

Focused on skill development, especially empowerment of women through livelihood generation initiatives & programs, the main objectives of ‘Kushal Kashi’ are –

  1. Enriching the socio-economic status of weavers.
  2. Self-employment for handloom weavers & helping establishes micro-enterprises.
  3. Skill enhancement by providing vocational training in color combination and value addition.
  4. Providing marketing support to weavers by organizing Trade Exhibitions.
  5. Facilitating modification of looms, to enable product diversification suited to the export market.
  6. Providing Social welfare & security to weavers.
  7. Women’s empowerment via skill development programs & training initiatives.

EVENTS

Handloom Training Programme :  Sewa International initiated a 10-month long handloom training program for the welfare of weavers in Ramnagar. This event was organized at the office of Sewa International, Ramnagar, Varanasi. In this training program, there were 20 weavers that working with Sewa International Bharat. These weavers had quit weaving for the last 10-15 yrs, and they were engaged in menial labor. Sewa international united them under a common objective of weaving and motivated them to reinvigorate their passion. Through this training program, our motive was to provide better information about weaving, dying, designing and coloring  from experts and to associate them with Governmental and non- Government Organizations for the marketing of the produced items by our weavers.

The training was provided to 20 weavers of Ramnagar and Ayodhyapur with the assistance of Master Weaver Durga Prasad Maurya and Ramasre Maurya. Shri Darshan ji, Pearl Academy of Delhi and Nishi Singh also participated in the training sessions in Ramnagar and along with the master weavers, other weavers also received training. Master dyer Vakar Ansari imparted invaluable lessons on wrap coloring to the weavers.

Participation In Exhibitions : Products of weavers like stoles, dupattas etc. were showcased at Janpath house, New Delhi, Ode to Earth, Gurgaon Mela, Dastkari haat samiti in Delhi haat where Smt. Jaya Jaitely, founder of Dastakari haat bazaar visited and encouraged the weavers. The products were also sent on Myroots.com & ethnicdiva.com via e-marketing so that weavers can be benefited by online stores.

A silk & handloom mark awareness camp was organized on 23rd Aug, 2016 where Sri. Ramesh Chandra, Senior Executive (Silk Mark) & Sri. Brijesh Kumar Shukla, QA Officer (Handloom Mark) provided their valuable guidance to our weaver community. A total of 82 weavers participated in the event.

Awareness Programme:  Under the Banner of Silk mark organization of India, Sewa International Organized an awareness program called Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM). On April 20, 2017 Sewa international structured the program for their weavers regarding the Importance of Silk mark and the BHIM app for the enlightenment of which Mr. Ramesh Chandra, Deputy Director (instructor) of Silk mark organization of India was chosen.