Silk is given an alluring twist at the looms of Tribhuvanam. Suganthy Krishnamachari

While agriculture was the most respected occupation in Tamil Nadu in ancient times, weaving was not far behind. There are references in Sangam literature to show that silk, cotton and woollen clothes were woven in Tamil Nadu. While weaving was largely the job of men, it was destitute women and widows who spun the threads. These women used to be called ‘Paruthi Pendir,’ says Puranaanooru.

Dr. Rajagopalan, popularly known as Malayaman, says, “Textiles were classified as aruvai (cotton), thugil (fine material) and kalingam (extremely fine material). Nattrinai speaks of superfine material with embroidery. According to Puranaanooru, the threads used for kalingam were finer than the fibres inside the hollow of a bamboo. Silk fabric was referred to as ‘Noolaak kalingam.’

There are no references to where the silk thread came from. Nor is there any mention of sericulture in these ancient texts. There are, however, records to show that the British tried to foster sericulture in Tamil Nadu. The records of the Madras Government prior to 1791 do not mention silk cultivation, although there are scattered references to earlier attempts at sericulture. There is a reference to two weavers in Uraiyur, who, under the orders of Hyder Ali, had reared silk worms. In Trichnapoly, there was a weaver who had been sent by Tipu to Bengal to learn the silk trade.

Dr. James Anderson, Physician General at Madras, had 5,000 mulberry trees in his garden in Nungambakkam, which he had planted in 1771. In 1791, he managed to rear silk worms successfully.

His worms completed three evolutions in six months, whereas in Europe, worms underwent one evolution in a year. Twelve cocoons raised in his garden produced ten and a half grains of silk against six, which was the average output in Bengal.

Mulberry plantations

There were others who reared worms in places such as Vepery and Town in Madras. There were mulberry plantations in Seevaram, near Kanchipuram, Chingleput, Pallavaram, Thanjavur and Palayamkottai too. Mambalam, to which area most people head these days when they want to buy silk, was considered a good place to have mulberry plantations in! In places like Tenkasi, the mulberry bush was referred to as ‘Kambli chedi’- woolly shrub - and the tree was not allowed to grow beyond a height of four feet.

In 1794, the East India Company established a filature in Tiruvallur, near Madras, and even built a bungalow called the ‘Silk Bungalow’ for the Superintendent. Sericulture interested King Serfoji too, and in 1821, when he was on a pilgrimage to Benares, he sent worms from Bengal to Thanjavur, with instructions on how to rear them. Interestingly, he instructed his men to feed the worms not mulberry leaves, but those of the ilandai tree.

Thanjavur is not only rich in culture but in weaving traditions too. The Jury on Silk and Velvet in 1857 remarked on “the evident desire for improvement in the already good quality of the silks from Tanjore, shown by a departure from the old pattern.” Dr. Forbes Watson’s list of silk from South India talks of silver and gold embroidery from Thanjavur and even silk piece goods from Trichy and Thanjavur.

Despite the glowing reports about silk manufactured in the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam region, silk from this area never caught the popular imagination the way Kanchipuram silk did. “Kanchipuram has the advantage of proximity to Chennai, which we don’t,” says Haridas, former Director of Tribhuvanam Silk Weavers’ Co-operative Society.

Some of the houses in Tribhuvanam have four looms. Most have at least two. The whole family is involved in weaving, says M. Vasu, whose wife Shanti joins him at the loom when her household chores are done. “We use two-ply thread for the warp, and three-ply or four-ply for the weft,” says Durgaram.

By default, Tribhuvanam saris have only a single side border, but double side borders are made if orders are placed. The designs are a mix of the traditional and contemporary, but the saris come without blouses. Isn’t that a drawback? “We tried making saris with blouses, but there were no takers, and we had to sell our products at a loss,” says Shanti.

Vasu and Shanti belong to the pattunool coomunity of Saurashtra, whose ancestors migrated to Tamil Nadu from Gujarat centuries ago. There are 25,000 people involved in silk weaving in Tribhuvanam, says Haridas.

A speciality of Tribhuvanam saris is the way they are folded. They are pleated, and folded so that when unfolded, the pleats fan out, giving it the name visiri madippu. “This would make it easier for a bride to drape the sari, because the fold is such that the lines of the pleats are clear. All she has to do is to pleat it along the lines of the fold,” explains the salesman in THICO Silks, the government authorised showroom in Tribhuvanam. “Only pure zari is used in our saris,” he adds.

I notice that the saris have only zari borders and no thread work borders. Shanti says, “I was part of a women’s self-help group, and I went all the way to Madurai to learn the art of making thread work borders. But buyers were not interested. So we stick to only zari borders now.”

People in and around Thanjavur and Kumbakonam still prefer the Tribhuvanam saris, even for weddings. But the saris are yet to gain the popularity they deserve outside that region. The government should take steps to bring the lovely Tribhuvanam saris to public notice, and to popularise them.