A silk brocade fabric decorated with gold and silver threads, gyaser (also known as gos-chen in Ladakh) is used in religious rituals in Buddhist communities and is characterised by a discontinuous supplementary weft pattern.
Weaving has sacred and mythical associations in Ladakh, with sacred textiles believed to grant protection and blessings to the person wearing it. It is also associated with fertility and procreation, with the textiles and the loom representing sexual union and the creation and protection of life. Thus, the weaving of sacred textiles such as gyaser was not undertaken by monks but would be imported from China, Tibet and eventually from the looms in Benares. While there are no written records indicating the introduction of the fabric to India, visual records suggest that the trade and use of gyaser in the country began c. tenth century CE during the Namgyal dynasty of Ladakh (1460–1842), with the textile being one of the items imported to the region from China. Missionaries travelling between Lhasa and Ladakh also brought back brocade samples to their monasteries, usually as unstitched fabric, robes or on the borders of stitched boots.
Gyaser was introduced to Benares (present-day Varanasi) in the mid-nineteenth century by traders from Tibet as well as traders from the Marwari community who had settled in Kalimpong, which had emerged as an important commercial centre between Tibet and India. The gyaser made in Benaras gained popularity in Ladakh and Tibet due to its relatively cheaper costs compared to fabric from China, as well as the cheap cost of labour in Benaras and the higher quality of gold zari and fabric.
By the early-nineteenth century, Benaras had become an important brocade-weaving centre, primarily producing kinkhwab, which was popular in the Mughal court as well as among the royalty in Ladakh. While this fabric was traded to Ladakh via Punjab, Kashmir and Kalimpong, it differed from the gyaser in its lack of Buddhist motifs. Tibetan traders also frequently visited Benares and introduced the gyaser to Benares weavers, which they would imitate. Subsequently, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, weavers in Benares began producing gyaser featuring Chinese designs and Buddhist motifs.
Trade fluctuated briefly during the 1950s and 1960s due to the closure of international trade routes to Ladakh after India’s independence and following China’s occupation of Tibet, which led to the displacement of several Tibetan communities. Trade from Kashmir and Punjab also slowed, with traders suspending travel to Ladakh. However, demand rose again after the displaced populations from Tibet had resettled across India, where they established monasteries and resumed religious activities. However, the suspension of trade routes was instrumental in driving the nobility and monastic clergy of Ladakh to source gyaser for personal and religious use directly from the weavers of Varanasi.
In Varanasi, gyaser is made primarily in the area of Pili Kothi, which is known for its expensive brocades that incorporate real gold zari thread. The men draw the design on a graph, make the punch cards and dye the threads, and the women are engaged in the preparation of the multi-ply yarn. The weaving is primarily carried out on the jacquard loom, with the punch cards used for the patterning. The cloth is woven to lengths of about twenty-eight inches, with hand-patterning of motifs using metal silver or gold zari.
Due to the sacred associations of the fabric, the design and colour of gyaser have not undergone major changes over the years. The fabric features Buddhist symbols such as the eight lucky signs, the thunderbolt and bell, the lotus, clouds and dragons. In the 1980s, following the Vishwakarma revival effort by the Indian government and collaborations with Martand Singh, gyaser weavers began incorporating newer, more universal designs in the fabric, such as geometric patterns, to appeal to a wider market. Gyaser pieces also began featuring patterns such as the Rusnata (Russian medallion pattern) and the flame pattern, and metallic gyaser that incorporated twill-bound lozenges. More recently, the exhibition Between Land and Sky: Woven Gold from Gyaser Tradition (2019) incorporated gyaser into saree designs by Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan.
Today, gyaser is woven primarily in Varanasi, with weavers replacing pure gold and silver threads with synthetic fibres to speed up the weaving process and lower costs. Gyaser woven in Varanasi is supplied to Buddhist communities in India and exported to Himalayan Buddhist countries and prominent Buddhist centres in Southeast Asia, the USA and the UK. It continues to be used in religious rituals, especially in Buddhist monasteries as altar and seat covers, monk robes, mounts for thangkas, decorative borders in hats and stitched boots. It is also used to make loom-woven products for everyday use, such as shawls, cushion covers and floor mats.
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