Essential Guide to Buying Kanchipuram Saris in India

Silk sarees in India.
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Silk saris from Kanchipuram, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, are among the finest saris in India. As is to be expected, there are a lot of fakes out there. Sometimes, it's not easy to spot them either.

What Makes Kanchipuram Saris Special?

Kanchipuram saris (also called Kanjivaram saris) are often referred to as south India's answer to north India's Banarasi silk saris from Varanasi. They're distinguished by their motifs, and heavy silk and gold cloth.

Due to their prestige, they're only worn on festivals and other important occasions.

Silk weavers in Kanchipuram are believed to be descendants of Sage Markanda, a master weaver who wove tissue from lotus fiber in Hindu mythology.  Due to the intricate nature and complexity of the Kanchipuram saris, it takes between 10 days to a month to complete one.

Genuine, original Kanchipuram saris are woven using pure mulberry silk from neighboring Karnataka and gold zari (thread) from Gujarat. Three silk threads are used in the process, which gives the saris their weight. A Kanchipuram sari can easily weigh two kilograms, or more if a lot of zari is used!  The bodies and borders are woven separately, and then interlocked together making the joint so strong that the border won't detach even if the sari tears.

Kanchipuram sari borders are usually very different in color and design to the rest of the sari.

All kinds of motifs are woven into their patterns, such as suns, moons, chariots, peacocks, parrots, swans, lions, elephants, flowers, and leaves.

Protection of Kanchipuram Saris

Kanchipuram saris are protected under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act 1999.

Only 21 cooperative silk societies and 10 individual weavers have been authorized to use the term. Any other merchants, including textile mill owners in Chennai, who claim to be selling Kanchipuram silk saris can be fined or jailed.

If you're buying a Kanchipuram sari, make sure you look out for the special GI tag that comes with authentic saris.

Types of Kanchipuram Saris

Nowadays, there are three types of saris.

  1. Pure silk and pure zari. These are the original, genuine Kanchipuram saris with three silk threads used to weave them. Prices start from around 6,500 rupees for a sari with a simple border. Elaborate saris can cost 40,000 rupees. The price may even reach 100,000 rupees.
  2. Pure silk and textile/half-fine/tested zari. These types of saris are very prevalent. They're lightweight, have attractive colors and designs, and the price starts from as low as 2,000 rupees. The drawback is that the zari may deteriorate and turn black over time as it's not pure.
  3. Polyester/silk mix and pure zari. These types of saris look like the original Kanchipuram silk saris but weigh and cost less. The saris can also be made using pure silk but only using a single thread (not three). Expect to pay around 3,000 rupees upwards.

    This means that when buying a Kanchipuram sari, you'll need to be specific about the type you want. Don't just walk into a shop and ask for a silk sari!

    Where Should You Buy Kanchipuram Saris?

    If possible, buy them in the place that they're made -- Kanchipuram. Located less than two hours from Chennai, it can easily be visited on a side trip from Chennai. As well as saris, Kanchipuram is famous for its multitude of temple, so there's plenty to see there!

    Don't rely on guides or taxi and auto rickshaw drivers to take you to sari shops, as they're likely to  suggest places that earn them commissions. There are many shops in Kanchipuram selling fake silk saris, so do your research beforehand!

    Saris are available from both government-run cooperative silk societies (where the profits go directly to the weavers) and commercial stores.

    The best option depends on what type of sari you want.

    Cooperative societies, most of which can be found along Gandhi Road, sell genuine Kanchipuram saris with pure silk and zari. The price is higher and there's less variety to choose from. However, the quality is guaranteed. Popular cooperative societies include Arignar Anna Silk Society (be wary of imitations), Murugan Silk Society, Kamakshi Amman Silk Society (renowned for exquisite bridal saris), and Thiruvalluvar Silk Society.

    Commercial stores have a much wider range of designs but the quality is not as good. These stores will mostly sell saris that are not made with pure zari. Of course, this is fine if it's what you're looking for! Just be aware of the difference. The most popular stores are Prakash Silks and A.S. Babu Sah. Other recommended stores are Pachaiappa's Silks, KGS Silk Saris, and Sri Seethalakshmi Silks (they have a good collection of heavy silk saris). Most of the stores are located on Gandhi Road and Mettu Street.

    Note that the pure zari used in Kanchipuram saris is a silk thread covered with flattened silver in the center, and gold on the outer surface. To test the zari, scratch or scrape it. A red silk should emerge from the core.