One of the most beloved traditional handloom sarees of West Bengal is Dhaniakhali saree deriving its name from the place Dhaniakhali in Chinsurah subdivision in Hooghly district. Hooghly district is home to some of the oldest cottage industries like silk and cotton handloom weaving, brass and bell metal manufacturing, oil pressing, village tanning and others. The cotton and silk weaving industries thrived under the patronage of European settlers but had their fair share of ups and downs during the British reign.
Dhaniakhali saree is often called as the ‘golden crop’ of handloom sarees. It is extremely popular for its rich colourful combination, compactness, design, colour fastness and long-lasting property. Dhaniakhali used to be well-known for its superfine cotton dhotis but as the demand decreased, the weavers took up weaving sarees as a source of alternative income. The sarees underwent a gradual change from narrow borders and jalchuri of dhotis to a more modern dobby and jacquard system to incorporate contemporary themes, motifs and patterns.
Locals say that the original Dhaniakhali saree used to have an off-white cotton body with a narrow-coloured border. Red, beguni, orange and green used to be the only colours available in the pre-dyed yarn. The borders used to have fine stripes above them and sometimes a serrated-edge motif. The border was gradually broadened to add a dobby or jacquard pattern which has now become a signature. Now, it is dyed in numerous colours and adorned with combinations of peacocks, stripes, checks and others. Muga silk, Art silk and zari are also used to create exciting new designs.
A plain coloured border called matha paar or beluaari paar with a tooth-like formation warp (lengthwise yarns) woven on the upper edge of the border is one of the earliest types of Dhaniakhali saree. Lal border (red border), lal daant paar (red tooth-edged design), pota maach dure (fish pattern on both border and body), pota barfi daant dure (tooth and diamond pattern on body and border), Muga dure phool paar dure (Muga silk stripe with flower border), Muga kalka paar (Muga with paisley border), Ganga Joli (off-white stripes in the body with an extra warp two band border on either side) and Kalaka paar dhakka (paisley border with receding body stripes) are some of the oldest types of Dhaniakhali sarees.
Later on, latapata (creeper), narkel phool (coconut flower), kalka paisley and others made their way into the border. Dhaniakhali saree in its present form is woven in flying shuttle or pit loom using 80 feet/100 feet cotton yarn in warp (lengthwise yarns) and weft (crosswise yarns).
A local bamboo reed called sar is used in the weaving of the saree to group two warp threads. It gives flexibility and desired texture. Hank yarn sizing is adopted here and the starch for sizing contains sago, arrowroot, rice, wheat, puffed paddy etc. Denting order of special types like 3 ends per dent followed by 2 ends per dent and 3 ends per dent followed by leaving a dent blank makes for aesthetically pleasing designs. The picks per inch (number of weft threads per inch of woven fabric) is always more than the ends per inch (number of warp threads per inch of woven fabric) which is the most unique trait of this saree.
Extra warp designs like floral, abstract, historical backgrounds, temples, colour patterns, buttis and others are produced using dobby or jacquard method. Dhaniakhali saree has kheju churi design thread arrangement (braid of special weft threads of twisted cotton yarns in two colours) woven in the pallu which is more prominent than those seen in other Bengal sarees.
Today, Dhaniakali, Shantipur and Phulia engage a large workforce to produce their gold standard saree. This centuries-old Dhaniakhali saree received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2011.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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