At the time, my mother was on a quest to find the perfect rendition of this traditional woman’s garb for my trousseau, and it had to come from this northern Indian city with its famed silk weavers. The weavers’ craft was in danger of extinction because of the increasing prevalence of power looms, she explained, even though the quality of the handwork was incomparable.
The jobs of the Varanasi weavers, once estimated at a half million men, may have been fading out back then, but on a trip in late 2013 I discovered that efforts were underway by two companies — the socially conscious New York fashion label Maiyet and the Mumbai chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — to reinvigorate the ancient skill by employing the weavers and inviting tourists to visit them as they work. About 700 people have taken Maiyet’s tour; more than 650 have gone on Taj’s.
To help create sustainable businesses, Maiyet gets some of its materials from communities in developing countries. It began its initiative in Varanasi in 2012; the next year, a workshop opened in the nearby village of Ayodhyapur, where it now employs 15 weavers.
The fashion line’s work in Varanasi got the attention of David Adjaye, a star British architect whose international works include the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Mr. Adjaye is now designing Maiyet’s building for the weavers, which is to be completed in 2016.
Meanwhile, Taj had started resurrecting the desolate village of Sarai Mohana, five miles from Varanasi, which has a large concentration of weavers. Taj’s plan was to have the weavers make saris for its employees and guests. Since then, the village has been turned into something of a tourist attraction.
Varanasi itself sprawls on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about an hour’s flight from New Delhi. A maze of narrow and winding lanes, it is considered India’s holiest city. During the day, Hindus bathe in the Ganges as a blessing and for spiritual salvation; at nightfall, the river glistens magically from the glow of thousands of candles floating on the water.
For centuries Varanasi was a hub for the silk trade. The gossamer fabric, woven by hand on long wooden looms, is recognizable to aficionados by its refined feel, substantial weight and audible rustle.
While the efforts to revive the craft are seen by many as laudable, they are likely to help only a tiny percentage of the local population. Even so, these endeavors have spurred hope in the area and have given tourists another reason to visit.
Read the rest of the article at the New York Times