Reputed for their softness and distinguished by their gold-plated silver zari borders, also known as kasavu, Balaramapuram sarees and mundus are characterised by a body of unbleached, off-white cotton yarn of a medium to high thread count and are produced in a village of the same name near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
The technique dates back to the early nineteenth century when king Balarama Varma of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom and his chief minister brought a community of Shaliya weavers from Nagarcoil and Valliyoor in Tamil Nadu to weave garments such as the mundu, the neriyathum and sarees for the royal family. The king also patronised the first handlooms in the region, leading to a rise in demand for handwoven garments.
The warp threads are starched, strengthening them to sustain the tension of the weaving process. While they dry, they are sized using a brush to soften the threads and remove loose fibres. The warp is then transferred to the loom manually to begin the weaving process. Traditionally, Balaramapuram garments are woven on a pit loom using throw-shuttles or fly-shuttles. A weaver picks out the motifs by hand using the lace-weaving technique, in which each extra weft thread is controlled manually and interlaced with the warp, such that the resulting motif shows on both sides of the fabric. The primarily floral motifs are rendered in a range of colours, with red, dark green and gold being the most common. The temple border is a common feature of the sarees and is often integrated with a type of border known as puliyilakkara, often with a thin band of kasavu running adjacent to it. The golden kasavu borders are woven with a rib weave.
The kasavu is usually sourced from Gujarat while the cotton is acquired from markets in regions neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Owing to the steep price of pure gold kasavu, weavers have increasingly been using what is referred to as half-fine, or gold-plated, kasavu. Today, over twenty-two thousand handlooms are in operation in Balaramapuram, in addition to a number of power looms that manufacture other garments such as shirts and dress materials. In 2009, the Balaramapuram handloom cluster received Geographical Indication (GI) status from the Government of India for their territory-specific production and characteristics.
Ghose, Ruchira. 2017. Mapping Indian Textiles: Approaches to Display and Storage of Indian Textiles in Public Museums. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
“Kerala Piravi: History of the Simple Yet Rich Kerala Kasavu Sari.” 2018. The Indian Express. March 28. https://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/fashion/kerala-kasavu-sari-history-kerala-piravi-4916857.
Ministry of Textiles. n.d. Study & Documentation of Balaramapuram Sarees & Fine Cotton Fabrics: The Pride of God’s Own Country. Mumbai: Textiles Committee, Government of India. http://handlooms.nic.in/writereaddata/Balaramapuram%20Sarees635701520378938440.pdf.
Ranjan, Aditi, and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Handmade in India: A Handbook of the Crafts of India. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2007.