Kimkhab – The Royal Fabric

What is common between HH Dalai Lama, the King of Bhutan and Hollywood actor Brad Pitt? It’s Kimkhab, a hand-loomed fabric representing the radiance of enlightened mind.

Visit the narrow lanes of Pili Kothi area behind Yamuna Talkies in Varanasi. The sound of power looms working in full swing will accompany you. Pili Kothi is the hub of Banarasi saree and Tibetan brocade weaving in the city.

The great connect

A forerunner in this industry is Kasim Silk Emporium, a 250 year old enterprise which was awarded the Prince Albert Award by the British government in 1886 for their quality of exquisite workmanship of Kimkhab.

“Tibet had an old link with our ancestors who via the silk route would go to Kalimpong and Sikkim. Known for their skill, they were given some designs to weave by Tibetans. Buddhists use kimkhab and it was even used in Russia during the orthodox period. What started as a slow experiment is today so successful that we provide fabric to various monasteries all over the world. HH Dalai Lama has worn our fabric. The coronation and wedding outfit of the King of Bhutan was woven by us. The outfits for the Hollywood movie, Seven Years in Tibet including those of Brad Pitt were also woven here in Pili Kothi. Varanasi is where most of the country’s well known designers come for exclusive hand woven materials,” adds the proud Adnan Ansari, the fourth generation of the Ansari family who manages Kasim Silk Emporium.

The intricate style and usage

Though the same loom is used to make both Banarasi sarees and Tibetan brocade, the width of the loom for Tibetan brocade is 23 inches – almost half the width of the Banarasi saree loom. Not more than 4 mt can be woven at a time and it takes almost a month and half to weave. The two main types of brocade are gyasar and gyanta. In gyasar, the warp is of silk with the weft being a combination of silk and zari, which gives the fabric a rich and heavily woven appearance. In gyanta, the base is coloured and the design is made of resham. The base for Tibetan brocade is silk and it is woven as a fabric. Today, many Buddhist organisations use the fabric with heirloom designs to make shrine and throne seat covers, which have the eight auspicious symbols of the Tibetans and their monograms. Sanjikusha is a plain gold fabric whose warp is pure silk and weft is pure gold thread. While thangkas are made with Buddha in the centre, fabrics with the khaddi, chandi and badal designs are also popular.

“Khaddi is a geometrical pattern, chandi refers to a flower while badal means clouds. Ortaksun is a dragon design which is meant to protect the Buddhists from natural disasters and ill health. These are used for interior decoration of Buddhist temples. Not just existing monasteries but also representatives of new monasteries come to Banaras for these fabrics,” adds Hasin Ahmad Ansari.

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The process

The primary person in charge of the brocade weaving is the weaver, while the second man is the one in charge of the extra warp. Working as an apprentice, the second man learns the nuances of the craft. When the loom is being set up for brocade weaving, its purpose and design are taken into account.

A fabric born out of patience and the will to go beyond the obvious is made with original peacock feathers. Patches, clutches, Indo-western wear and upholstery are also prepared using the peacock feather fabric. The base of the fabric is silk and the weft is prepared from peacock feathers. The thread of 23 inches is prepared by knotting the single 2 inch peacock feather strands together. The yarn is then made followed by the preparation of the loom. An 8 metre piece takes 2 months to prepare. In a day, only an inch can be woven when a weaver weaves for 10 hours. The cost for the peacock feather fabric starts at `5,500 per metre.

The fabric can be classified in terms of the total layers of the threads. When three layers of thread are used, it is known as Tipara. When there are four layers of thread, it is known as Chaupara. And, when there are seven layers, it is known as Satpara. The names translate into the number of the layers of threads used.

Famous across borders

Tankama and chuba are silk gowns worn in Mongolia, Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal and this fabric is also woven in Varanasi. The traditional colour is maroon. The weavers of Tibetan brocade are so specialised that they exclusively weave only these items.

Written by Khursheed Dinshaw

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