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Varanasi’s Muslim Silk-Weavers Battle Mechanisation, Communalism and Politics

The absence of opportunities and a documented fall in handloom work has pushed many to move to other textile hubs.
Haji Munna Creations’ Shahid Junaid, the eighth generation in a family of master-weavers, sits next to a pile of pure silk brocades ready to be shipped to outside buyers. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

Varanasi/Azamgarh: Hunched next to a handloom shuttle, Talat Mehmood’s face sees a rill of sweat drop from his forehead as he pauses to explain his predicament. The 38-year-old resident of Varanasi’s Madanpura neighbourhood has been working as a Banarasi handloom weaver, or karigar since the age of 14. But in nearly 25 years, “never has our work dried up so much as it has today”, he says. 

Mehmood is one of the city’s last few thousand hand-based artisans or weavers. Popularly seen as both Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency and a city of religious significance for Hindus, eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi has also been a site of syncretism, the abode of Lord Shiva as well as home to the ancient Buddhist site of Sarnath and mediaeval-era mosques. 

The city has just as well been deeply marred by growing communalism, with rising Hindu nationalist politics across the country and the medieval-era Gyanvapi mosque now at the centre of a legal dispute that has taken its toll on the area’s social fabric

Varanasi’s Madanpura locality’s Banarasi silk weavers seated with their handloom shuttles as they work on weaving a brocade sari with gold zari. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

Amidst all this, Varanasi remains home to a world-renowned community of weavers of lustrous brocades – popularly known as the ‘Banarasi’. Most historical accounts trace the origin of Banarasi silks to somewhere between the 16th and early 17th century, originating in Gujarat. Those from the region are believed to have pioneered this art of weaving silks using the interlacing technique of warp and weft (colloquially known as ‘tana-bana’). 

After the famine in 1603, weaving communities and merchants migrated from Gujarat to the north, with many settling in Varanasi and receiving the support of Mughal rulers, who helped popularise these brocades. Such royal patronage made Banarasi silks synonymous with luxury, with this attire being sought after for ceremonial and festive occasions. 

Till the late 20th century, the weaves remained a staple in bridal and ceremonial trousseau as well as designerwear. But the past few decades since the 1980s have seen a steady shift towards mechanisation, with machine-operated power looms squeezing the handloom weavers out of business. The cost-efficient machines have added to the workers’ woes along with the threat of cheaper, mass-produced fake silk saris and synthetic Chinese yarn replacing the time-tested pure silk and zari (threads made out of gold or silver wiring, usually embroidered into Banarasi saris).  

Where once, artisans like Mehmood worked on “at least 5 to 6 Banarasi saris” in a month, he now finds himself receiving just 2 or 3 commissions monthly. Hailing from a family of six generations of weavers, he rues that the industry has no future. “If a pure silk Banarasi sari sells for Rs 40,000 in the market, weavers like me at the bottom of the chain would only get Rs 2,000 to 3,000 out of this. We’re barely able to earn Rs 10,000 a month now”, he said, adding that “nobody from the new generation” (including his own children) wants to enter this line of work. 

Also read: ‘Doesn’t Matter if We Sell Vegetarian Food’: How UP’s Muslim Eatery Owners Are Losing Livelihoods

Mehmood’s plight is not unique. It is reflected across the Muslim-dominated industry of weavers and artisans. Although there are no recent official estimates, Union Textile Ministry data from 2019 says that the city is home to at least 1 lakh weavers, and houses close to 80,000 handlooms. Locals estimate the total weaving population, including artisans and master weavers or gaddidaars to be close to 3 lakh. But these numbers are gradually dwindling. 

According to the national award-winning gaddidaar Haseen Mohammad, the decline began in the 1990s. The fourth generation in a family of weavers-turned-intermediary producers, Mohammad has nearly 70 karigars working under him in the older part of the city’s Peeli Kothi neighbourhood. 

“Till the 90s, weavers who used their hands made up 75% of the silk-weavers, and 25% used powerloom machines. Today, the situation is the opposite”, he said, adding that barely 25% of the industry has handloom weavers now. He estimates that close to 1.5 lakh weavers in the city work in power looms and only 25,000 are left working by hand. 

The influx of power loom machines has not only sounded the death knell for weavers using the ancient handloom technique, but the shift to modernisation has also come at the cost of quality. The market for Banarasi silks has been flooded by cheaper polyester and Chinese silk yarns, fake zari, and machine-made weaves. 

Spreading out an intricately woven tanchoi silk sari, Mohammad emphasises, “Handloom karigars make real silk saris, but the market is full of fakes thanks to power loom machines. Most people cannot tell the products apart, but 90-95% of powerloom saris use fake, cheap materials. Where we need 10 days to make one sari by hand, they can make 3-4 saris in just one day using the machine”.  

For those such as 54-year-old weaver Mohammad Ahmad, the rise of power loom machines is “a byproduct of the 1990s and the Narasimha Rao government”, he said while pointing out that liberalisation and privatisation marked the beginning of their decline. 

Ahmad informed this reporter that he and four of his brothers have been doing this work for over five generations. “All of us, even four of my own children, are associated with weaving. But it is very bad for us right now,” he rued. 

Mohammad Ahmad from Nati Imli weavers’ colony demonstrates the use of a power loom machine. He estimates that the original handloom Banarasi silk weavers now make up less than 20-25% of the city’s weavers. Photo: Sabah Gurmat.

How a lack of institutional support and existing policies leaves weavers in the lurch

While no recent official data exists, locals and academic experts both assert that Muslims make up a majority of Varanasi’s skilled Banarasi silk artisans, with many estimating between 70 to 80% of the city’s weaving community to be Muslims.

In 2007, a report published by the Textiles Committee, under the aegis of the textile ministry, said that the master weavers or grihasts are mostly Muslims, and the weavers or karigars working under them are both Hindus and Muslims. The report also notes that “about 70% of the weaving force belongs to Banaras city…of which, 90% are Muslims.”

A prominent weavers’ community leader, Sardar Maqbool Hassan, concurs. Speaking with The Wire, Hassan said that Varanasi has at least 2 lakh power looms, “and Muslims would constitute at least 70% of the labour in these.” 

Hassan believes that the large industrial presence of Muslim weavers gives a feeling of “being indirectly targeted”. Enlisting the gaps in schemes and policies, he said, “Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has come, a lot of schemes meant for weavers have been shut down, such as the weavers’ ID cards which allowed us to access Bahudi funds.” 

The Bahudi fund scheme helped weavers access credit for covering medical costs, expenses for healthcare and, as per Hassan, “also assisted in getting our daughters married”. 

Also read: Homes Demolished, the Right to Fish Denied: The Lives of Gujarat’s Muslim Fishermen

Meanwhile for Umm-e-Habiba, the twin policies of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods & Services Tax or ‘GST’ – which came into effect under the BJP government in 2016 and 2017 respectively – have made life difficult. Women weavers such as Habiba make up nearly 20 to 22% of the overall weaving community

Habiba works in a warehouse in the town of Mubarakpur located nearly 96 kilometres from Varanasi. “There is a GST of 12% on our work and a 5% tax on yarn. If a Banarasi silk sari is sold for Rs 10,000, handloom weavers like me will earn Rs 1,500 to 2,000, but now with GST and demonetisation, even that earning has dropped”, the 24-year old added

The advent of power loom machines has also pushed women out of the industry. Until a few decades ago, women – usually daughters, wives and others from weaving households – were involved in the cutting of threads and rolling of yarn, but this work has now been mechanised. 

24-year-old Umm-e-Habiba, who weaves on a handloom shuttle, works on a kattan silk yarn in Mubarakpur town. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

But not everyone agrees with locally popular perceptions regarding the weavers’ decline. Shahid Junaid, an industry insider and master-weaver from the reputed house of Haji Munna weavers,  feels that “several of the BJP’s schemes have been well-intentioned”, conceding that their implementation was a bigger problem

Junaid enlisted a number of schemes under the Union and state government that were launched with much fanfare, but “no one knows now what has become of them”. An eighth-generation weaver, Junaid points to the ‘Usttad Yojana’, ‘One District One Product (ODOP)’ and other initiatives in this regard

In 2015, then union and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi launched the ‘USTTAD’ scheme in Varanasi, aimed at “ensuring the growth of traditional artisans” of the city. At the launch, Naqvi had also expressed confidence in the scheme’s ability to provide jobs to youths from the minority community. But Junaid told The Wire, “You can go and ask every weaver, but nobody here would know how to avail this scheme”. 

The UP government’s similarly hyped One District One Product (ODOP) initiative aimed at promoting manufacturing growth in the state, invoked a similar response. “The ODOP scheme promises loans, but our community doesn’t want loans with high-interest rates that make it far too inaccessible. How will an unlettered population of karigars be filing papers and keep going to offices? Weavers need and want the government to buy our products, like they used to with Cottage Emporium, All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Co-operative and others”, Junaid emphasised. 

Master weaver Haseen Mohammad agrees. “I don’t know how to put this, but since the arrival of the BJP and Yogi government, we don’t expect the government to provide patronage to cottage industries like ours.” 

Also read: In India’s ‘Brass City’, an Overwhelmingly Muslim Workforce Stares at a Looming Crisis

Electricity subsidies have also proven to be an issue of contention, especially since the arrival of the BJP-led government helmed by chief minister Adityanath which in 2019 did away with the flat rate subsidy measure for power loom weavers. The subsidy scheme was first introduced by the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) government in the year 2006, and following the BJP-led government’s withdrawal of the scheme in 2019, it was reinstated in April 2023 after much protest. Now known as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Power Loom Weaver Electricity Flat Rate Scheme, the intervention has drawn flak again, thanks to weavers having to shell out much higher bills under the new scheme. 

Community leader Sardar Maqbool Hassan said, “When handloom usage declined drastically, the subsidies for electricity came to be in 2006 which mainly benefited powerlooms. When the Adityanath government came to power in 2017, things changed. Till SP’s time, we paid Rs 75 as electricity bill each month, per loom. After the BJP came to power, they instituted a policy which said that up to 120 units of electricity per powerloom would receive subsidies but after that, you would be charged. This year, we ended up paying Rs 400 instead of Rs 75. 

Hassan argued that as per the new scheme, weavers using up to five kilowatts (kW) of electricity were paying bills that were “over five times higher” than the previous rates even after accounting for natural price rises.

Others, such as weaver Mohammad Ahmad claim that the political tussle over subsidies goes deeper. Ahmad appears wary of a “religious divide”, stressing the creation of a ‘Bunkar (weaver) Hindu Yuva Vahini’ helmed by one Shailendra Singh. 

“They are big gaddidaars and master-weavers with at least 20-30 looms each, and have more resources. They even took out a bike rally, and are lobbying with the BJP and state authorities to receive subsidies even when they are not small-time weavers who need it. They want a subsidy up to 25kW, whereas the present subsidy is only until 5kW”, he said. 

When contacted, however, Singh denied these claims. “We have formed an organisation trying to collectivise weavers across religious and caste lines, because weavers here have no unions. It is called the Varanasi Vastra Bunkar Sangathan, and over 3000 weavers have joined us so far. One of the co-founders, Aslam Ansari is also a Muslim from a master weaver’s family”, he said

Haji Munna Creations’ Shahid Junaid, the eighth generation in a family of master-weavers, sits next to a pile of pure silk brocades ready to be shipped to outside buyers. Photo: Sabah Gurmat

Local weavers caught amidst growing social and religious fissures

Even as weavers such as Ahmad and Maqbool Hassan caution against the growing religious divide amongst weavers, adding to everyone’s woes is the city’s famous Gyanvapi mosque which has emerged as a key site of legal dispute and far-right consolidation amongst local Hindus. 

With the hearings ongoing in the Allahabad high court, many believe the issue has galvanised weavers along communal lines. Abbas Ali, a weaver in the Bajardiha neighbourhood, said that while the production side had historically seen mostly Muslims involved, “the traders and sellers of raw materials like zari have mostly been Hindus. But there is a sense that more of them do not want to supply or buy from us”.

Meanwhile, Singh believes that no such friction exists now. “Weaving has become more equitably divided. When more handloom work existed, 95% of the weavers were Muslim. But power looms have changed this equation, there’s now a 60 to 40 ratio of Muslims and Hindus in the Banarasi silk industry”, he said. 

Between contesting claims, though, locals also point to the growing dissatisfaction causing many to migrate away from producing the heritage silks. The absence of opportunities and documented fall in handloom work has pushed many to move to greener pastures, with textile hubs such as Surat, Bengaluru and Ludhiana emerging as top draws. Here too, some point to a “quiet moving away of Muslims”. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity, K, a prominent gaddidaar who claimed to supply to premium labels such as Raw Mango, Taniera and the Aditya Birla Group among others, expressed concerns about his family’s future in the trade. “Many from our community (Muslims)  have migrated and left Banaras. There is a massive migration away from Varanasi and I feel this has amplified since the 2010s. People are going to work in bigger cities like Surat and Bengaluru, because there is more money out there. No one sees a lucrative future here”, he said. 

Also read: How Are India’s Muslims Feeling?

Hassan further enunciates this, citing economic prospects. “A weaver here, on a good day can earn up to Rs 300 whereas in Bengaluru they’d earn up to Rs 600. Why would I want to keep living here?”

Hassan believes the only way out is to incentivise weavers, and the government to invest in the weaving community. He added, “I feel that they consider the profession to be an all-Muslim one. In reality, Muslims along with others (Hindus, Sikhs and several backward castes across groups) are all weavers, all of us will suffer and all of us benefit if they truly wish to uplift us and our craft.”

Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. This story is part of an ongoing series on the socio-economic decline of industries and businesses led by Muslims.

Reporting for her article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.

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