sarees tell stories

if it’s gleaming like that, it must be a gadwal

gadwal. when i was too young to know anything about sarees other than all women – yes, it was practically all the women i knew or saw around me – wore them, that word always intrigued me.

spending a lot of time in delhi while growing up, i was aware of garhwal, near the himalaya mountains in the north, a hilly place with lots of nice small towns and warmhearted people… many of whom came to delhi in search of work.

did my mother mean that place when she called her saree a gadwal? were these pretty sarees from there? so why did she pronounce the name in that funny way?

gadwal. with the soft flat d / द sound.

not garhwal. with the rolling d / ढ़ sound which you don’t have in the english soundscape at all.

she had a really pretty one, sea green cotton body with a dark purple magenta border, its zaree catching light. i’d hear my aunts and mother’s friends talk about someone or the other’s beautiful gadwal. the combination was of particular interest, it had to be unusual even unorthodox but not amateurish. 

you had to get the colours right.

it was much later that i discovered that the source of these happy discussions was indeed a place called gadwal.

just shy of two hundred kilometres from hyderabad, is the town of gadwal. lying somewhere between two rivers i have only heard of and never seen, tungabhadra and krishna, gadwal is part of the jogulamba gadwal district in telengana now. 

oh, to be born by the tungabhadra… krishna flowing on the other side.

i mean, those river names sound so pretty, how can they possibly not have beauty scattered around them. i know i am getting carried away.

ok, back to the prosaic. a few hundred years ago, in the 1700s if my research is right, a kingdom called gadwal samasthanam flourished here, vassal state of the powerful nizams of hyderabad. 

the queen, maharani adhi lakshmi devamma, is said to have inspired the craft of gadwal sarees. she had weavers brought in from coastal regions and the “jari chiralu” were devised. “chiralu” is telugu for sarees, “chira” is saree. “jari”, i am guessing, refers to zaree or gold and silver coated thread. gadwals used to be called “mathiampeta” once, but in time it acquired the name of the town where the looms brought it into being.

curiously, the queen didn’t go for an all silk saree. she could no doubt afford it, if one is to go by the fancy fort and temples built in her time. usually, when royalty is involved with garment, it’s all about silk. yet, i murmur to myself, there are exceptions. the dhakai jamdani, but that was in ethereal muslin. the paithani, also originally of cotton body.  the kanjeevaram… yes, yes, became synonymous with silk much later. 

still, intrigued me this choosing of cotton with silk edges by the queen, at a time of nizams and durbars, as foreign powers vied for influence and courts flaunted their riches. could it be because it was too hot to be wearing silk in that arid deccan land? or was it because this was cotton growing country and great hand spun cotton yarn was readily available? and because it fed the farmer, the yarn maker, the weaver even while pleasing the queen?

from the cotton fields of telengana, images courtesy uploader. a friend tells me, “the loose cotton from plants is called patti (t soft), when it is woven into a cloth, it is simply called kaatan.”

gadwals traditionally have pure, fine cotton bodies with rich silk borders and pallu. that is their most distinctive mark. and the curious deep gleam of the zaree, yes that.

i particularly noticed this when i went looking for my gadwals the other day. it was day time but the light was low. i slid open the wardrobe panel and scanned the shelves of cottons, couldn’t spot any of my gadwals. a little frantic, i stood on my toes to peer at the shelf above. and there among a stack of cottons, something called out… a steady secure gleam.

i knew even before i went to pull it out what saree it was.

really, how do you do that? i wanted to ask the saree. 

it was a white one with purple border and pallu that i’d bought for my mother’s sixtieth birthday many years ago. a calming breeze drifted by, everything settled down. 

the lustre of subtle, poised zaree catches and stores memory perhaps.

things change, gadwals are made in only silk also nowadays. those two similar looking greenish yellow and green and yellow checked ones are in silk. so is the grey one. 

but the contrast border story is still intact. as is a hint of delighting zaree somewhere, even if not on the entire border. the brocaded motifs come from nature and local architecture mostly. specific and intricate weaving techniques are in use. the borders and pallu are woven separately and attached to the body in the “kuttu” tradition. of course, gadwal now has a gi or geographical indication. only gadwals from this terroir (yes, a saree has that) are considered authentic. 1930s they say were good years for gadwal.

i had a lovely encounter with one of my gadwals the other day, and as i write i am beginning to think it’s time i looked for a new one… maybe in orange? with an off beat contrast? what say?

………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

sarees tell stories | cotton gadwals from kolkata, mumbai, hyderabad, bought over the years. yellow and checked silk gadwal silks from abhihaara social enterprise, hyderabad, bought in 2020. you can find them on instagram @abhihaara

more gadwal stories at

i had to wear a saree today

and

a tale of two sarees


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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Lalita Arya
    February 11, 2022 at 12:58 am

    You look gorgeous in your sarees always. thanks for writing about them – and about this gadwal one- unknown to me, even though I live in the Garhwal regions, your reference to clarify makes sense. thanks.

  • Reply
    indrani robbins
    February 15, 2022 at 10:04 pm

    lalita, how lovely to see you again. thank you so much for reading this. yes gadwal is in telengana… and garhwal up north. used to confuse me madly. how are you? thank you so much for enjoying the read and also liking me in my sarees.

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