Indian Dressing – Part 1 – ‘Saree’

Traditional clothing in India varies from region to region depending upon the cultural traditions, beliefs and ethnicity of the people. The variation is apparent in the shapes, colors and material of the clothing. The significant difference is in the style of clothing.

Traditional Indian clothing for women usually comprises of a Saree, Lehanga-Choli, Ghagra-Choli, Shalwar Kameez, Chudidar, Half Saree (Langa Voni in South India) etc.

In this article, we will know the history and variations in Indian Traditional attire named ‘Saree’ or ‘Sari’.

‘Lady Going for Pooja’ by Raja Ravi Varma | 1848 – 1906 | Oil on Canvas

In ancient times, unstitched fabric was considered ‘pure’; this belief gave rise to the traditional saree in India, which brought grace and respect for the woman wearing a saree. It is generally a long sheet of single cloth worn over an inner long skirt tied from waist till feet (called lehenga – the petticoat), with a fitted upper garment commonly called a blouse (called ‘Choli’ in North India and ‘Ravike’ in South India). Depending upon the cultural and religious norms, each region of India has its own style of draping a sari.

In Sanskrit, the saree is called ‘Shatika – शाटिका’. In the Hindu Prayers, the description of Goddesses would have a word ‘पीताम्बरधारिणी – Pitambara Dhaarinee’ which means ‘one who is wearing a yellow silk cloth’, Ancient temple and cave depictions of Goddesses have always been adorned in sarees.

The earliest depiction of saree is believed to be a statue of a priestess, from the Indus Valley Civilization (2800 to 1800 BC) in a drape. It was believed that during BC period, the blouse was not considered essential as the saree would cover the whole body from chest till feet.



In 2nd century CE, a sculpture of woman from ancient Braj-Mathura was found in a full length saree. A statue of Yakshini was found in Besnagar (abandoned town in 6th century, came into prominence as ‘Bhelsa’ during medieval period – named as Vidhisha) with a full length drape.


Seetha talking to Hanuman


Seetha in Saree
In the Epic Ramayana, when Hanuman went in search of Seetha who was abducted by demon Ravana and was hidden in Lanka, Hanuman found Seetha sitting under an Ashoka tree. Valmiki, the poet of Ramayana described Seetha wore an unwashed, wrinkled, single yellow colored cloth draped in length. (here this cloth signifies a saree).
पीते नैकेन संवीताम् क्लिष्टे नोत्तमवाससा| सपंका मनलंकाराम् विपद्मामिव पद्मिनीम् ||
(Wearing an unwashed wrinkled single yellow wrap, not bathed since many months, not wearing any ornaments, she resembled a pond without lotuses)



Droupadi in the court

Droupadi in Saree
In the Epic Mahabharatha, when Yudhishtira lost the bet in the dice game, on the command of the evil Duryodhana, his brother Dusshasana dragged Droupadi to the court by holding her hair.

Vyasa, the poet of Mahabharata described Droupadi as ‘एक वस्त्रा अधोनीवि’ which means at the time when she was dragged to the court, she was wearing only one long cloth wrapped around her body.

When Dusshasana pulled her saree trying to make her uncovered, Lord Krishna saved her by making the saree so long that Dusshasana was tired and stopped the evil act.



Nala Damayanthi in the forest

Damayanthi in Saree
In the same Mahabharatha Epic, another story of Nala Damayanthi was told by Vyasa. Nala, king of Nishadha once lost the bet in game of dice played with his brother Pushkara.

As per the bet Nala left his kingdom and went to forest with his wife Damayanthi. In the forest, Nala saw some birds on grass and threw his only garment over them to catch them for food.

However, the birds flew away with the garment. He then tore a piece of saree of Damayanthi, wrapped around his body. As per this small part of the story, we understand that the women in Epics were described wearing sarees in one single piece or in layers.


Saree till 18th century
Till 18th century, the most common style of saree was a 3 piece form. One piece of saree was tied around waist with the pleats tucked into the back of the waist, second piece wrapped around the chest as a blouse, the third is a veil to cover the head with ends dropping on to cover the chest.

The other style was one piece saree. The length of this saree was of nine yards (approximately 8metres), the single cloth wrapped around the waist with one end draped over the right or left shoulder (according to the region) and other end tied around waist, folded in to pleats, passed through the legs and tucked into the back of the waist. This style was called ‘Kachha Neevi’ followed by the women of South India, Maharashtra and many other regions of India. In this style, a half blouse is stitched to fit till chest, leaving the waist part uncovered, as exposure of midriff (the naval region) was acceptable to the Indian culture. This style of saree was suitable for free movement and was considered to be very traditional, preferred during rituals and festivals.


The common texture of a saree was cotton that was cultivated and woven within India. General colors were picked from the tree barks, turmeric, lac etc. Later, silk was used with cottage industry of growing silk worms in many regions. Most of the ingredients for texture, color were taken from nature itself.

Post 18th century, the saree took different forms, length ranging from 5 yards to 9 yards. One of the style was – one end of the saree is tucked into the front part of the petticoat, wrapped around waist with pleats just arranged in front of legs, and the other end of the saree is draped over shoulder. This style is similar to Kachha Neevi, but the pleats are tucked into the front side of petticoat, so is just called ‘Neevi’. Some regions like Bengal, Odisha, Assam have style as the saree is worn without any pleats.

Different textures like polyester, nylon, georgette were introduced due to foreign influence. During freedom fight struggle, Khadi was introduced, which was welcomed by many women who considered the texture as India’s pride.

In the medieval period, it was believed that a type of silk saree was so finely woven that it was fit in a matchbox. A light weighted fine silk saree would pass through a ring fit for a normal finger size. In recent years, the weavers re-started the forgotten talent of weaving such sarees with sixty grams weight.

Various textures in silk are – Banarasi silk, Kanchipuram silk, Paithani silk, Mysore silk, Pochampally silk, Tussar, Uppada silk, Dharmavaram silk etc.

Banaras Silk & Kanchi Silk Paithani, Pochampally, Sambhalpuri (silks)


Even in cottons – Venkatagiri, Uppada, Chenderi, Bengal Cotton, Narayanpet, Pochampally, Gadwal, Sambalpuri, Patola, Mangalagiri, Guntur cotton etc are introduced. Embroidery work on Sarees. The designs also took various forms such as Embroidery, Zari, Tie-dye, Bandhani, Block-print, Kalamkari etc.

Even today, most of the Indian women prefer wearing the traditional attire saree and feel proud wearing different styles, textures, colours from simple to gorgeous.


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