Chanderi, believed to be mentioned as Chaidnagar in the Puranas, is a historical town in Madhya Pradesh. It is located in the northern part of the Malwa plateau. Some historians consider the 6th century king Ched to be its founder. Mythological references to Chanderi have been traced to the Mahabharata. Shishupal, a local chieftain, challenged the coronation of Yudhisthir and was subsequently beheaded by Krishna. According to a Mahabharata tale, Raja Nala left Damyanti asleep in the forests of Narwar. She then walked through the dense foliage and reached Chaidnagar.

Chanderi doesn’t only have historical relevance. Its craft weaves a tale of tradition also. The weaving tradition that occupies pride of place in any account of Chanderi today. Its shimmering fabrics have survived through time and changing rulership. There is a mention of Chanderi weaving in the Imperial Gazetteer of India. It reads: “Chanderi has long been famous for the manufacture of delicate muslins.” The cloth is of unusual fineness and delicacy. The colored gold and silk borders are of surpassing beauty.

Mughal Period Weaves

The state of Madhya Pradesh lures visitors with its glorious past, architecture, and crafts. Chanderi weaving, whose significant marks can be found in the 13th century, achieved status in the Mughal period. In the 19th century, the fabric became popular because of its fineness. It was compared with the fine muslin fabric from Dhaka. Earlier, dhoti, turban, and safa made of Chanderi were very famous in various parts of India. The saree came rather late. Pure cotton cloth was used. But he gold and silver zari, weaved in the form of motifs and borders, was originally sourced from Russia and France.

In an earlier period, weavers used the throw shuttle (made of animal horn) method for weaving. Two people at one loom used to work then. With the advancement of technology, the weavers started working on a fly shuttle pit loom. Only one craftsman would weave the sophisticated Chanderi saree. This has also increased production and the economic conditions.

The Chanderi sari dates back to the 13th century. (Photo courtesy of Madhya Pradesh Tourism)

Clothing For Courtiers

The fame of Chanderi sarees and consequently of the town that shares their name is historic. But neither the garment nor the fabric originally existed as we know them today. In fact, merchants travelling the major trade routes from Delhi through Gwalior and Ujjain to Warangal would bring a steady supply of pure, hand-spun cotton yarn, not silk, as raw material and bring back cartloads of woven cloth for safas (long scarves for weddings) and pagris (turbans). The fabric, spun as fine as 300 twill, was greatly desired in the royal courts of the north as well as the south of India. The late 15th century is replete with paintings of courtiers attired in this fabric, considered fit only for high nobility.

The Bundela Rajputs, who ruled Chanderi after the Mughals, continued the tradition of patronage of local weaving. They insisted that their royal emblem of two lions be carried on the fabrics as a mark of quality. Chanderi also made its mark on the international textile circuit, as European chronicles attest.

Jeweled Cut Work

Weaving of the saree began only in the late 18th century. Chanderi sarees competed with Jamdanis and were a prized possession of the aristocracy.

Some Chanderi weavers also incorporate Banaras-influenced patterns like meenakari or patella (jeweled cut work). At present, silk thread for Chanderi weaving comes from Varanasi. The cotton comes from Coimbatore and Bangalore, and gold and silver come from Surat. The techniques of weaving, using cotton in the weft and silk in the wrap, are what set the craftsmanship of these weavers apart from others. The weaves are evolving with the demand and trends, making the sarees more elegant with a traditional touch infused with modern styles. With Bagh prints, contemporary geometric patterns, and traditional motifs, Chanderi sarees are available in a variety of attractive designs.

Possession Is Priceless

The pride of every Indian woman, luxurious Chanderi sarees are so delicate that they are only meant to be worn for special occasions. They are a treasure which every bride carries with her. The demand for intricate designs is still in vogue and, accordingly, the price can go up in lakhs. The expertise of the weavers matters most!

There is an interesting story which reflects the fineness of the fabric. Emperor Akbar was presented a small hollow of bamboo which had a length of Chanderi weaved cloth. When it was spread out, the emperor was surprised to see that the cloth could cover even an elephant!

Resonating sounds of the working looms in the “Bunkaar colony,” situated in the “Bahar Shahar”, or outer area, produce a rhythmic music. And it is an unusual sight to witness that weaving, where a single thread is placed with careful counting. Although mostly male weavers dominate this industry, women are involved in the winding, weeding, and joining the warp.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 17 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from...