Mohammad Sirajuddin is one of the last few artisans in Varanasi who weave Banarasi silk saris by hand. Industry-made alternatives and cheap imports from China have endangered his livelihood. Banarasi saris are known for their intricate patterns, floral designs and radiant golden brocades.

They derive their name from the city’s ancient name - Benaras. These saris are widely popular and are sold for a hefty price in the market. But the cost of inputs and cuts taken by middlemen leave little for the weavers. Sirajuddin says his family tradition of weaving the sarees by hand would continue only as long as he is alive. All of his neighbours have already switched to electric looms for their garments. The saris made on the electric loom lack the subtlety of hand-woven textiles and are sold for half their price. But, they take a fraction of the time to finish.

India textile trade has historically been a cottage industry. But it has gone through a series of ups and downs. During the 18th century, European settlers flooded India with cheaper textiles made in their factories. This shrunk the market for hand-woven garments made by Indian weavers. A few years post-independence, local handicrafts were shielded from the international market. However, the 1991 economic reforms opened the country to cheap goods yet again.

Local Indian weavers could not compete with Chinese yarn and fabrics. The economic recession post the Covid-19 pandemic has also added to the weaver’s problems. Experts say local weavers need urgent protection to preserve this tradition that could otherwise disappear.

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