The variety of life makes this silk city rich, writes Luke Slattery.
Dusk falls on Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities. Down by the terraced ghats a carnival crowd gathers for the nightly river blessing to "mother" Ganges, but there are no such attractions in the Muslim artisan district. All you get as the light dims is a lattice of pale sky hanging over a darkening warren of zigzag alleys a shoulder or two wide. It's then, as day passes to night and the aromas of home cooking mingle with the ever-present stench of putrefaction, that you really notice it: the furious clack-clack-clack of handlooms.
Here in the textile quarter of Pili Kothi they work late into the night. By the harsh light of naked bulbs, the handloom weavers manipulate a fretwork of threads with the artistry of concert pianists. Ever so slowly, gilt arabesques and paisley patterns spread over the finest hand-dyed silks from Bangalore. And yet the weavers of Varanasi, for all their artistry, are poor, overworked and pretty much unnoticed. There's big money and star status in art, but only a meagre living for artisans.
Tonight they have an audience of two: me and Sribhas Supakar. A textile designer of the Brahmin caste, Supakar contracts these Muslim workers to create bespoke fabrics for the luxury market - mostly modern revivals of traditional techniques and motifs. When they're not working for him they are weaving exquisite silks to adorn the temples of the Buddhist community, which has one of its great centres of pilgrimage at nearby Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching.
"The weavers are making gyasar brocade tonight," Supakar says as two young men pause from their work. One, wearing a white crocheted cap, sits cross-legged; the other dangles his legs through a gap in the floor. "The pattern is Tibetan and the fabric will be used for a Tibetan monastery."
The designer snaps a phrase in Hindi to one of the weavers, who compliantly peels back a sheet of fabric lying atop the finished section of his work to reveal an elaborate and densely textured floral motif, dominated by crimson and gold. The work is dazzlingly intricate. How is it done?
"The first step is to prepare an art sketch," Supakar explains. "The next is to enlarge it onto graph paper to detail the up and down yarns used in weaving. Then we make punch cards in accord with the graph paper and lace them together. The punch cards are above the loom, in a serial arrangement, and they are used to control the warp thread through the cords on the loom to create a pattern."
Supakar motions for me to follow and we take a flight of stairs to a meeting room carpeted in rugs. Within minutes Hasin Mohd, the company's owner, arrives and as he eases himself into a cross-legged pose on the floor we take his cue. His family has been in the Varanasi silk weaving business - he uses the older word Benares when talking of the sacred city - for more than 200 years. It was his father, Haji, who forged the connection with the Buddhist community. Today many of Mohd's Tibetan fabrics, all woven on handlooms, are sold in Kathmandu.
It was a brilliant piece of entrepreneurship on the father's part, for the result is what Mohd describes as a "very regular business" spread across the secular-luxury and religious markets, and in a city as saturated in spirituality as Varanasi you can't go wrong. "Most of the weavers in the city area are Muslims," says Supakar. "In the villages there are Hindu weavers, too. In history, the periods of Mughal emperor Jahangir and Shah Jahan were the most fashionable for weaving techniques and dressing. But today there's no difference in the weaving skills of Hindus and Muslims."
It can take months to weave a Varanasi silk sari or wall hanging, and in a world where time is the most elusive commodity of all these fabrics are the ultimate in handmade luxury. The Varanasi textile trade is flourishing: about 25 per cent of the city's population of four million is involved in textile manufacture and sale. The government has stepped in to create "handloom clusters" ringing the city, and silk emporia are as common here as cafes in Sydney and Melbourne.
A work of genuine brocaded Varanasi silk can be bought in situ for as little as the equivalent of $100, while a quality "wedding sari" more than five metres in length - or the equivalent work fashioned into a bedspread or wall hanging - might fetch six times that amount.
Supakar works at the high end of the market. At his home, a modest fourth-floor apartment, he unveils brocaded fabrics, woven from gilt thread, that cost $1000 a metre. "Such fabrics require a huge amount of design development, special looms and up to five weavers working at the same time," he says. His father was an authority in textile design and he has followed in his footsteps, devoting himself "to the uplifting of the handloom industry".
Few Westerners come to Varanasi for the fabrics alone. They are lured by the city's spirituality and antiquity. Visitors are told with mantra-like frequency that this is the world's oldest inhabited city and it's true that Varanasi induces a sensation, hammered home by the ceaseless cycle of Hindu rituals, that time has not so much stood still as turned back; that we face the past not the future.
The best known of the Hindu rites is the evening river blessing. At the terraced ghats by the Ganges, priests wield conical lamps bearing some 30 tongues of ghee-fuelled flame - a little like upturned chandeliers - as the air thickens with incense and a cacophony of chants, drums and gongs. Indians also travel to Varanasi for these rituals but unlike foreigners some will come to die: the burning ghats of Varanasi work 24/7 reducing corpses to ash that can be swept downstream by the giver and taker of life, mother Ganges. To foreigners the ghats are a spectacle; to Hindus they represent a bridge to eternity.
A short walk from the ghats I find Ajit Kapoor, a second-generation Hindu silk merchant. Kapoor sells work from 30 villages. "They are cottage industries, but when I say 'industry' I'm not talking about factories of 500," he says. "People are working in houses. Muslim and Hindu together. Neighbours. No problem."
Much of Kapoor's trade is aimed at the local market. "Every Indian wants to come to Varanasi once in his life, and many Indians from abroad return here to visit," he says in English delivered with a lilt. "They love to come away with a Benares silk." In India, however, fashions have drifted from the sacred city's traditions. Disco - or Bollywood - saris bedecked with bling have superseded traditional designs. Handloom textiles, Kapoor laments, "are getting less and less".
He graciously offers advice for buyers: taking a thread from the end of a bolt of silk, he lights it. "Here, take," he says when the flame dies. "Smell. Burns like hair. That's real silk." He repeats the procedure with a few threads from a cheaper, synthetic material and the resulting melted black mass is as stiff as plastic. While it's hard to imagine a silk merchant setting fire to his finest fabrics, Kapoor says he's more than happy to extract a thread to prove a point to a potential customer.
I leave Kapoor and step into the lanes of the old city, close by the Ganges. Pilgrims and tourists thread the lanes. Vendors peer from hole-in-the-wall shops. Half-glimpsed idols festooned with marigolds stand in the darkened alcoves of household shrines. The sacred city's miracle is not so much its deep past - in truth there are older continuously inhabited cities - as its vital present. The human warp and weft of Varanasi, its tapestry of Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, even Catholic faith, is a thing of beauty.
But of course that, unlike a Varanasi silk, is not something you can buy. That you must see.
Air India has a fare to Varanasi for about $1110 return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Sydney passengers fly non-stop to Delhi (12hrs 35mins) while Melbourne passengers transit in Sydney and then to Varanasi (1hr 20min). See airindia.com. Australians require a visa for a stay in India of up to six months.
A standard room at the Gateway Hotel Varanasi, owned by the Taj group, starts from $150 a night. See thegatewayhotels.com.
Threads of India runs a textile tour of north India which takes in Kolkata, Lucknow and Varanasi. See threadsofindia.net. Asia Discovery Tours has a "textile and lifestyle" tour of north India with two days in Varanasi including a visit to a silk brocading workshop. See asiadiscoverytours.com.au. Or visit silk showrooms recommended by your hotel.
Mehta's Silk, Aayushaman, a large showroom offering many types of silk and a view of weavers at work. Tiwari International, Hukulgani, is a large modern showroom on the same model as Mehta's Silk. Locals also recommend the traditional Garib Ki Dukaan at Gali Rani Kuan.