Fashions of the Traditional Indian Sari

Upon going to India, I was not nearly prepared enough for the bombardment of smells, spices, colors and culture that struck me as being so different from any of the ones I had ever seen in the United States. One of the main differences that caught my eye and immediately piqued my curiosity was the Indian sari. The sari, which can be spelled sari, saree, or shari, is a common garment worn by women in south Asia. The term itself is derived from the Sanskrit language and its meaning translates to ‘strips of cloth’. This form of clothing has been worn for thousands of years in this region and can be seen depicted in various historical texts, art, and holy writings. The sari is commonly worn by women in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka as a symbol of grace, beauty, and cultural pride.

sari in New Delhi IndiaOn our recent trip to India with Go Eat Give, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit a sari shop in Chandigarh. There, we learned quite a bit about the styles and ways in which saris are worn, in addition to the many different kinds of fabric and pattern. Upon entering the shop, we were surprised to see wall to wall saris stacked to the ceiling. The shop owners, although male, demonstrated how to tie a sari, and the different articles of clothing that you need in order to wear a sari properly.

The typical sari seen on the streets of India and southern Asia is about 5-9 yards in length with a width of at least 2-4 feet. The fabric is usually cotton, chiffon or silk in most cases, but varies from region to region. It is draped across one shoulder, sometimes revealing part of the torso. The reason why the navel or midriff is left bare in many sari styles is due to the belief that this is the location from which comes life and creativity. This area is to be left uncovered in order to pay homage to this belief.

When visiting India or your local sari shop, you can see sarees in every fabric, color, style and shape. Most saris are detailed with incredibly intricate patterns or embroidery. Being a student of design, I quickly became obsessed with the trends and styles of these beautiful cultural gowns. I came to notice that not only are there countless ways to wear these traditional outfits, but that the design varied according to the region, climate, and state.

In addition to giving it unique style, the coloring of saris also holds meaning. Red saris are typically seen during Indian weddings, for the color red is thought to bring good luck to the bride and to her marriage. Orange is also a color you see frequently because it signifies luck, and is representative of saffron, a commonly used spice in India. Green overtones are symbolic for festivity and celebration. Below, you can see an example of the numerous colors of saris as well as a model of how they are worn.

sari store in India
An assortment of sarees, cholis, and other traditional Indian dresswear displayed at a storefront on the streets of Chandigarh, India.

While there are countless variations of how to wear a sari, there are a few styles that are commonly seen, such as Uttariya, which is the part of the wrap that covers the upper body and many times the head. The typical sari is made up of a large piece of cloth and a blouse and petticoat, which must be tailored. The fabric that goes over the petticoat and blouse is versatile and is made to fit most sizes. Another common style is the Kerala mundum neryathum, which is a traditional two-piece sari. The one-piece sari is typically seen as a more modern invention that borrows from western culture.

The blouse that is worn under the sari or shawl on the other hand is called a choli. The common choli is short and somewhat tight fitted, revealing the midsection. Historically, cholis used to only cover the front of the body and leave the back open. This was as much due to India and south Asia’s hot climate as well as past stylistic preferences. This particular kind of backless sari can still be seen in parts of the state of Rajasthan today.

A shop owner explains embroidery details while displaying various styles of sarees.
A salesman explains embroidery details while displaying various styles of sarees.

As for sarees that are worn for special occasions, the wedding sari remains not only the most interesting but also the most popular. A traditional Indian wedding sari is red in color and made of the finest silk. It is complimented by ornate amounts of jewelry, such as bangles, necklaces, nose rings, rings, and exquisite gems and jewels that are designed or hand-sewn into the sari itself. Indian wedding saris are typically very expensive and ornamental due to the fact that Indian weddings are some of the biggest events thrown in India, if not in the world. The typical Indian wedding can easily consist of over a thousand guests and a designer wedding sari can set you back a few thousand dollars.

An Indian wedding is a much bigger deal than it is in the United States because Indian culture believes that a wedding between two people is more than just a legally-binding affair. It is a sacred bond that must be honored, respected, and blessed by the Gods in order to bring both families honor, peace, and happiness. It is partially due to these beliefs that typical Indian weddings run so large, and also why the bride’s sari is the most ornamented and elaborate of them all.

I have to admit that at the end of the day, one of my favorite experiences of India was having the opportunity to see and study saris and the way they are worn. They are a beautiful representation of Indian tradition and it was refreshing to see so many women walking around with such a beautiful display of their culture. The Indian saris were so stunning, that every member of our Go Eat Give group bought at least one – myself included!

Sati – An Ancient Hindu Practice

Sati, meaning “good wife” in Sanskrit, refers to a very interesting and ancient Hindu mourning ritual, which generates quite a bit of attention due to its historically radical means of an end. Sati is a ceremony that was practiced after the death of a woman’s husband, during which the mourning woman was required to be burned alive in order to show mourning and devotion to their lost spouse. It began around the 10th century B.C. The ceremony was first practiced by the wives of kings, until it gained popularity in the Hindu religion and was practiced by other regional groups.

It use to be part of the Hindu religion that if a married woman’s husband was to fall ill and die or perish in battle, the spouse was expected to immolate; or end her life as an offering, to the spirit of her deceased husband. When this act was being carried out, the woman would also have to do so on top of the husband’s funeral pyre. If a woman refused this act, she was typically sought after, and more or less forcibly convinced to agree to its completion. After a woman went through this ritual, she was then revered and idolized by her community as a holy woman, as well as an object of worship.

source: Wiki Commons
source: Wiki Commons

A Greek geographer by the name of Strabo who traveled to India with Alexander the Great noted that the majority of these women were in fact, happy to burn in sacrifice of their husbands. The few who did not see this act as honorable and refused to die, were shunned and seen as outcasts of their community. According to historical data, the practice of sati came about because marriages were typically formed by love (as oppose to arranger marriage) in ancient India. When these marriages would take a turn for the worst, the woman would often poison the man and continue on to find a new lover. To put an end to the murders and to protect the women’s virtues, a law was enacted that stated that a woman who was left without a husband was required to burn alive in order to join him, or to be cast out of the community and live out the rest of her days as a widow.

"Sri Rani Sati," an oleograph print published by S. S. Brijbasi, Bombay, c.1960's
“Sri Rani Sati,” an oleograph print published by S. S. Brijbasi, Bombay, c.1960’s

While this bit of ancient history seemed desolate and painful, it was done out of respect for the sacred bond of marriage and love. In the Hindu religion, marriage is a sacred bond that binds two souls together for more than one lifetime. Even the Hindu gods and goddesses lead married lives and respect the duties and bonds that come with the Hindu concept of love and marriage. Although this ritual seems violent in our Western culture, it originated out of love, respect, and dedication between spouses.

The act of sati was banned in 1829 in India, and as late as 1920 in Nepal. This practice was also not necessarily limited to India, but was seen widespread throughout Asia, and remote, bordering parts of Europe.

The Culture of Chai in India

While a lot of you out there are frequent chai tea drinkers, I’ll bet you didn’t know that chai originated in India. In fact, India consumes more tea than any nation in the world! Historically, ancient Indians used teas as medicinal herbal remedies to cure a variety of ailments.

Some of the Masala Chai mixes, or Kahra, were taken from ancient Ayurvedic medical writings. Although chai (translates to tea in Hindi) is not as frequently used for herbal remedies today, some chai makers prefer to add certain herbs or spices that have been scientifically proven to improve certain aspects of one’s health, such as turmeric or cumin, which is said to aid the sickly with rising fevers.

Workers taking a break for tea
Workers taking a break for tea

Typically chai tea consists of a boiled mixture of black tea leaves, milk, sugar, cardamom, peppercorn, cinnamon, cloves and various spices native to India. One of the most popular chais in India is Masala chai, the term ‘Masala’ simply meaning ‘mixture of spices.’ Chai, typically Masala chai, is so popular that is offered as a complimentary beverage to welcome guests, at meetings, shops, home visits, dinners and for breaks throughout the day.

Go Eat Give group that went to northern India got to experience this firsthand upon entering almost every business and home.

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Our Go Eat Give group having chai and cakes for Amanda’s birthday with one of our host families in India.

While in India, Go Eat Give visitors had the pleasant opportunity to learn more about the process of how chai is created. This process begins with harvesting tea leaves, typically grown in higher plateaus of north India, southern slopes of the Himalayas, and Nilgiri hills in the south. Like wine, the flavor, strength, and acidity levels of the tea leaves depends on when they are harvested. Following the plucking of the tea leaves, the chlorophyll begins to break down, releasing tannins. This oxidization causes the tea to darken. This darkening is then stopped at desired stages that will determine certain qualities by heating the leaves.

With black tea, which is the tea used for chai, the leaves are heated as well as dried at the same time in order to lock in flavor. The caffeine in black tea is about one-third that of coffee, making it less acidic and easy to digest.

Shopping for teas at the spice market in New Delhi
Shopping for teas at the spice market in New Delhi

Once the leaves are dried, they are either bagged or sold to tea stores as loose-leaf tea. Most of the time, authentic Indian chai is prepared by using a decoction, or loose-leaf tea. The recipe is as follows – bring 1 cup water to a boil, add 1 teaspoon of tea leaves for every cup prepared. Add 1/2 cup whole milk (skim and 2% are newer options now found in India), as well as a combination of spices or tea masala. Let it come to another boil, then turn off heat. Use a strainer to pour the liquid into a cup. Add sugar as needed.

This generally takes more time than the quick tea bags that are mass-produced in most other places of the world. However, it does add a homemade touch to the preparation of this drink. However, for a short cut way to enjoy Indian chai, get the Tetley Masala Chai tea bags found at most specialty grocery stores around the world. (Go to smile.amazon.com and a portion of your purchases will be donated to Go Eat Give)

The Story Behind the Sikh Turban Wrap

When most people think of India, they think of temples, spices, and a land rich in color and religion. One of the five main religions in India is Sikhism. Sikhism developed in the fifteenth century and is native to the Punjab region of northern India. The term ‘Sikh’ itself originated from Sanskrit words meaning disciple, student, and instruction; which are some of each members most prided devotions. The main beliefs of this religion are depicted by the following the ‘Five K’s’ which consists of ‘Kesh’ (unkempt long hair), ‘Kangha’ (a small wooden comb), Kara (a steel or iron bracelet), ‘Kacherra’ (undergarment), and a ‘Kirpan’ (short dagger). For the followers of the Sikh religion, all of the aforementioned things must be kept on or close to the person at all times.

I learned about one of the five K’s, the turban, from a local host while on our tour of northern India with Go Eat Give. The size of the turban, which can be seen in all different colors and fashions, is directly related to the age of its wearer. For example, if an elderly man is wearing a turban, it will be quite large. A Sikh man adds another yard of fabric to his turban for every year of his age. This is why when you see a small boy who follows this religion, his turban may look more like a hair wrap with a small knot on the top. The reason the turban is worn is to contain their hair, which is never cut.       Khalsa sikh

The Sikh person who was our host in Chandigarh explained that to twist the long pieces of fabric into a perfectly created turban, the hair is braided from the neck up above the head, and then carefully tucked under a separate hair net, which goes under the turban. This hair net ensures that the hair will not slip out of place while also adding sturdiness to the headpiece. After this, the long pieces of fabric are carefully wrapped around the head in a layered, circular fashion to ensure support and neatness. This is done every day in the morning at least, sometimes multiple times a day. The process takes on average about forty minutes each time.

sikh kids at khalsa orphanage in Amritsar

As for the meaning behind the colors of the turban, most people choose a designated color to match their clothing or to fit the current fashion. However, there is a special meaning behind the bright orange head wraps that seem to be most popular. Orange color is representative of the spice saffron, which is one of the country’s most common spices and has a long connection in the past to the Sikh religion and its following. It is also the official Sikh color to represent wisdom and clarity of the mind.

Taking into consideration how much time Sikh followers spend each day maintaining and wrapping their turbans and head wraps, it is very clear that they are a very devoted and dedicated people that pride themselves on daily commitment and hard work in order to demonstrate their faithfulness and love of their religious beliefs.

Sikh students