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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee

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Contents

Gara Sari

Page 1

Introduction to the Gara Sari

The Word Gara

A Sari

Other Embroidered Silk Products

Definition. What Makes a Gara a Gara

Ghat Sari

Fabric

Fabric Colour

Embroidery

Kor Border & Bordered Sarees

Petit-Point Borders

Fashion & Style

Parsi-Irani Wearing Style

Companion Garments & Accessories

Jewellery Worn with the Gara

Garas as Art & Heirloom

Preserving the Embroidery Work of Damaged Garas

History of the Gara Sari

Trade with China

Manufacture in Surat, Gujarat, India

Chinese Embroiderers in India

Pheria Vendors - Vanishing Breed?

Chinese Embroiderer Colonies

The Door-to-Door Chinese Embroiderer

Parsees Learn Chinese Embroidery Techniques

Sources & Acknowledgements

Page 2

Designs & Motifs

Unusual Names

Making a Gara

Initial Steps

Embroidery

Care & Storage

Tanchoi Sarees

The Modern Gara

Sources & Acknowledgements

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Also See:

» Parsees & Iranis of India - Old Photos


» Termeh. Heritage Hand-Woven Silk Fabric of Yazd & Kerman


» Boteh / Paisley Motif


An heirloom hand-embroidered gara sari with handmade self-patterned (figured) silk body
An heirloom hand-embroidered gara sari with handmade self-patterned (figured) silk body
(Shown close-up below) Image credit: Purveen Meher-Homji

Introduction to the Gara Sari

Women against a tree. Note the laced or embroidered white sudra over the hips of the standing woman and the style of wrapping the gara around the shoulders and head, i.e. back to front, with a tuck in of the end at the front waist. The gara is not bordered at this end. This style of wearing the gara might be the Gujarati style.
Women against a tree. Note the laced or embroidered
white sudra over the hips of the standing woman and the
style of wrapping the gara around the shoulders and head,
i.e. back to front, with a tuck in of the end at the front waist.
The gara is not bordered at this end.
This style of wearing the gara might be the Gujarati style.
Image credit: Chest of Books
Zoroastrian children, Bombay, wearing embroidered jhablas (tunics), ijars (pyjamas), and topik (caps) from 'India and its Native Princes' by Louis Rousselet, 1878
Zoroastrian children, Bombay, wearing embroidered
jhablas (tunics), ijars (pantaloons), and topik (caps) from
'India and its Native Princes' by Louis Rousselet, 1878.
Image credit: Columbia

A gara is a sari traditionally worn on special occasions by the Zoroastrian Parsi and Irani women from India. While some garas may be valued at US$15,000 a piece, they carry with them a priceless heritage which is their worth in these pages.

Surviving garas often become a part of a family's heirloom - passed down from one generation to the next. At one time, a gara was a regular part of a bride's trousseau. We hope this tradition can be restored for in doing so it will revive and give new life to a dying craft in the age-old tradition of the village artisans of Yazd and Kerman who produced priceless pieces of silk embroidery including the Kermani pateh-duzi embroidery (see our page on termeh). The craft is well suited to a cottage or home industry.

The gara sari is defined by its fine embroidery and elegance. The concept has come to be known as Parsi embroidery and we were surprised to find the number of fashion-houses that use the terms 'Parsi embroidery' or 'Parsi embroidered'. It would seem everyone but Zoroastrians recognize this contribution to fashion elegance - a contribution that has come about by a unique fusion of fashion and culture from along the Silk Roads.


The Word Gara

The word gara (also ghara) apparently stems from the Gujarati word for a sari, but which has now come to mean a particular Indian Zoroastrian (Parsi or Irani) style sari. Gajja is a type of silk. The Parzor Project uses without explanation the term 'sali garo' as an original Chinese craft.


A Sari

In general, a sari is a woman's garment consisting of a piece of cloth of variable size and on average measuring about 47"/120cm wide by six yards / 5.5 meters long when open. While Maharashtrian sarees can be up to 9 meters in length, 5.5 meters is fairly standard for a gara - a one size fits all. Shirinmai Mistry states, "Robust (ahem!) females simply get less pleats, that's all."


A sari is worn by a woman draping the cloth around herself, first around her waist and legs and finally over either shoulder. The pallav (meaning leaf) or pallu is the portion or panel of the sari that drapes over the shoulder and chest. The part of the gara that goes over the head is called a saur.

There are many styles of wearing a sari and the style employed is specific to an Indian cultural or ethnic group. The style used by the Parsees and Iranis of India is described below.


Other Embroidered Silk Products

Tajik toki
Tajik toki
Image credit: Pamir.org

The gara sari, a woman's garment, is a part of a whole family of embroidered silk products with include adult and children's jhabla / jhubhla (tunics), ijar (or ijjar /eejar, pantaloons), kor (borders), topik (caps, later topee), table and bed linen.

The Zoroastrian topik caps of India (see image to the right) are surprising similar in shape and design to the toki caps worn to this day in Tajikistan (see Scull Caps / Toki / Kallapush on our Tajikistan page and image to the left. Further, for pantaloons, shalvar in Persian, see our page on the Termeh of Yazd and Kerman).

While we know of several old gara sarees that have survived to this day, we have heard of only a few surviving examples of other century-old silk embroidered products used by the Parsees and Iranis of India.


Definition. What Makes a Gara a Gara

Perhaps the greatest difficulty we have had is in trying to find a consensual definition of what makes a gara a gara. There are many varying opinions on this matter.

The strict definition restricts a gara to a sari made in China (or Japan). The sari's fabric (called gaaj or paaj cf. Deepika Sorabjee at CNN-GO) is hand-woven natural silk. In addition, the sari's base fabric is directly embellished with hand-embroidery at the very least along the border. The entire gara is therefore one integral piece. According to the strict definition, since there are no such garas presently being made anymore, there are very few 'authentic' garas left and the number of surviving garas is diminishing continually. These integral garas are most fragile and a single point of damage can render the entire gara unusable. Care and maintenance of such a sari must consume the waking hours of their owners.

Whether sarees made in India with handmade Indian silk hand embroidered by Chinese or Indian, perhaps Parsi/Irani, embroiderers (and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from Chinese garas) qualify as garas, is a question. Unless the word 'gara' is very specific to a sari made in China, we see no reason why not. The former type of gara is an Indian-made gara and the latter is a Chinese-made gara.

Perhaps an entirely handmade and integral Zoroastrian-made gara, if one exists, has greater claim for connection with Zoroastrian heritage. Hopefully, through the efforts of dedicated individuals and UNESCO's Parzor Project, such garas might still be produced. We should also not forget that there may be Zoroastrian embroiderers in Yazd and Kerman who might also be well qualified to make such a sari (see Termeh and Kermani Shawls).


The writer's sisters at a navjote ceremony in the 1990s. The sari on the right is made from ghaat silk. The gara on the left is made from self-patterned satin silk .
The writer's sisters at a navjote ceremony
in the 1990s. The sari on the right is made from
ghaat silk. The gara on the left is made from
self-patterned satin silk.

Another definition would allow for a Chinese hand-embroidered border called a kor to be made separately and sown on to a hand-woven Chinese silk body fabric.


Ghat Sari

There is a type of embroidered sari called the ghat (or ghaat, gaat) sari made in Surat, India.

According to the Parzor project, "Centred at Surat, three of India's traditional crafts the Surti (Surati?) ghat, the tanchoi and the garo were pioneered by Parsi weavers. The ghat was hand-woven silk but so strong that it was compared to the strength of the Surat Ghat or Mountains, this is how this silk was named."

What is unclear is if a sari of ghat silk hand-embroidered by a Chinese embroiderer, or in the Chinese style by Indian embroiderer, qualifies as a gara. The sari fabric and border would still need to be entirely handmade. One such example can be seen under Chinese Embroiderers in India below.


Fabric

In a section above, we introduced the reader to Chinese hand-woven silk called gaaj and paaj. In addition, we also understand that a type of silk used for the gara was called 'gajja'. Perhaps 'gaaj' and 'gajja' are synonymous and may have had some influence on the name gara.

The texture of these silks include crepe, satin and self-patterned or figured silk (see images directly below). A particular variety of figured handmade silk made in India is called tanchoi.

According to this author's sister Purveen Meher-Homji, "the gara saris are hand embroidered, on a rich, thick silk - sometimes on chamois silk (a very soft satin than has the look and feel of chamois) - sometimes, self-patterned silk was used." [Orthodox satin was made from warp-dominated silk giving it a glossy surface. Regarding self-patterned silk used for the body of the sari, see tanchoi in the next page.]

Brenda Gill informs us that since the original Chinese fabric was originally woven on narrow looms, the gara sarees were made up of two separate pieces stitched together to make the required width. These saris were referred to as dor-pat or do-patti or two-strip gara sarees.

The use of modern artificial silk make the gara look-alikes more affordable and also easier to clean and maintain.


Corner detail of the gara sari above left.
Corner detail of the gara sari above left.
Image credit: Purveen Meher-Homji
Close-up of the self-patterned (figured) handmade silk fabric.
Close-up of the self-patterned (figured) handmade silk fabric.
Image credit: Purveen Meher-Homji

Fabric Colour

Shades of purple & violet. Gara image (without details at the Hindu newspaper)
Shades of purple & violet.
Gara image (without details at the Hindu newspaper).
Image credit: The Hindu
Blue-Violet-Purple-Indigo Colour Chart
Purple
Deep Purple
Violet
Indigo
Royal Blue
Magenta
Dark Magenta
Navy Blue
Dark Navy Blue
A royal purple? gara offered for sale for Rs 60,000 ($1,500) listed as 100 years old
A royal purple / indigo? gara offered for sale for Rs. 60,000 ($1,500) listed as 100 years old.
Image credit: OLX

As can be seen in the images throughout these pages, garas come in various solid colours. The original Chinese silks were dyed with vegetable colours which would run if the fabric were to be washed. Shirinmai Mistry states, "the colours used would bleed and so washing them was out of the question - garas were aired after use and in extreme cases dry cleaned only."

Purveen Meher-Homji states, "...and further more, purple is one of the most sought after colours." Add similar hues (see photos and colour chart).

Indigo has universally been the 'royal' colour and the shades around it are a good substitute.

Shirinmai Mistry remarks, "Red has always been acknowledged as the most fugitive of colours and my own four bordered one has already got some streaks along the waist from too close a contact with the skin."

One would think that a hundred years ago, the darker shades would be favoured for natural silk sarees especially because of the inability to wash or otherwise clean them before the advent of dry-cleaning.


Embroidery

Front & back of a Chinese made gara sari (late 19 early 20 cent.)<br>Note the little difference in the quality of the embroidery work on both sides.
Front & back of a Chinese made gara sari (late 19 early 20 cent.)
Note the little difference in the quality of the embroidery work on both sides.
Image credit: memssaab story
Detail of the hand embroidery in a Chinese made gara sari (late 19-early 20 cent.)
Detail of the hand embroidery in a Chinese made gara sari (late 19-early 20 cent.)
Image credit: memssaab story

For many it is the exquisite and intricate hand-embroidery work that makes a gara a gara. The embroidery work is often so fine that it is often difficult to distinguish which side is right side up. A gara can contain a woven design in addition to the embroidered design.

Brenda Gill quoting Jerru Kumana states that, "late 19th century and early 20th century (Chinese) garas bear single-thread embroidery that is so fine and intricate that it practically merges into the ground fabric and almost covers it. So flat is the embroidery, and so elaborate the patterning, that Kumana likens the effect to that of a carpet, rather than an embroidery, and of their beauty she (Kumana) says, 'The Chinese needle workers were artists!' The slant of the stitch was consciously worked to infuse fluidity and movement in the motif from the feathers of a parakeet in flight, a butterfly hovering over a flower, or flowers bobbing in the breeze - thus giving the entire composition a lyrical beauty."

Embroidery is the surface decoration placed on a fabric by stitching using needle and thread. Embroidered designs are therefore different from designs woven into the body of the fabric itself. One form of weaving in a design creates a self-patterned or figured fabric cf. (Also see tanchoi and Fabric above). Printing a design on to the fabric is not an option for a gara.

Silk, cotton and sometimes gold thread, sometimes in as many as 20 to 30 different colours or shades within a single pattern, are used in the embroidery.

While some garas only have the borders embroidered, other 'over-the-top' (this authors words) garas called akho-garo have hand-embroidered work on the entire body of the sari - or at the least on all the visible portions including the pallav (meaning leaf) or pallu - the portion or panel that drapes over the shoulder and chest - and the exposed bottom half of the gara. We describe the embroidery work further in these pages. Such garas may have a matching embroidered blouse.

For a further discussion on the embroidery techniques used in the making of a gara, see Making a Gara, Embroidery on the next page.


Kor Border & Bordered Sarees

Kor border
Kor border.
Image credit: Craft Revival

We are told that originally, the entire gara was 'framed', that is, the base fabric had a directly embroidered border on all four sides. However, since a good portion of one long edge of the gara is tucked in to a petticoat undergarment at the waist, a richly embroidered border creates a bulge - unwanted for most women. The embroidering the border along the portion of one long edge that gets tucked in to the petticoat at the waist was therefore discontinued.

For women who wore the gara Gujarati style (see image of 'Women against a tree', top right), the end of the gara portion that is draped over the shoulder, the pallav or pallu, is also left unembroidered to enable the end corner to be comfortably tucked in at the waist.

A separate border strip that can be sown on to a base fabric is called a kor. The kor being more durable, can be removed and placed on another base sari if the original wears out. The Parzor project notes, "Recently a revival of Parsi kor embroidery is sweeping across India."


Parsi ladies (at left & right) wearing what appear to be hand-embroidered petit-point bordered sarees
Parsi ladies (at left & right) wearing what appear to be hand-embroidered petit-point bordered sarees.
Image credit: Noah Seelam / AFP / Getty Images at various sites & article by Deepika Sorabjee at CNN-GO

Since the principal embroidery work on many garas was the border, and since the borders often survived the deterioration of the sari's body fabric, a concept developed of making separate removable borders. This border could be sown on to the base fabric rather than directly embroidered on to the base fabric. While the fundamental principles of the gara sari were still maintained: handmade Chinese silk fabric and hand-embroidery by the Chinese, purists will nevertheless tell you that the resulting sari did not and does not qualify as an 'authentic' gara. That is arguable and there are differences in opinion. Regardless of the definitions, the move did create two distinct types of sarees, one with an integral border and the other with a independent border strip called a kor.

The border strips themselves began to be made using several types of embroidery. In addition to traditional free Chinese style embroidery, borders were also embroidered using petit-point embroidery.


Petit-Point Borders

According to Purveen Meher-Homji, the gara or kor "borders are not to be mistaken with the petit-point* borders which were also very popular with the Parsi ladies and also hand embroidered."

*Petit-point: According to Shirinmai Mistry, "petit-point is basically cross stitch but most sari kors are not made with the cross stitch" (also called a tent stitch, the cross stitch is one of the simplest of the different types of embroidery stitches. It crosses over two intersecting threads of the base fabric, the horizontal weft and vertical warp). Kor petit-point stitches "are either in satin stitch or French knots - and on rare occasions other stitches are also used. One of the most beautiful bits I have got (on eejaar material) are in fine chain stitch! Sometimes kusub and teeli or even beads are used on borders but not on garas."


Fashion & Style

In the photographs throughout these pages, the reader will notice a difference in styles both in the design and method of wearing of the gara. Most telling is the difference in styles in the old photographs and the modern gara shown on the next page. There are also appears to be a difference in styles favoured by the young and the old. Another element of style is also the choice of colour.

While there is revival of wearing garas Parsi-Irani style nowadays, garas, it seems, were not always in fashion. Shirinmai Mistry hints at this in her letter to this author where she writes, "My great grandmother's tili red coloured gara is definitely over the top as you call it - it has a full border on all four sides - so one could wear it from either end. Later on when garas became fashionable again granny would get her kaarigars (craftspeople) to fill in the one corner that some garas did not have any embroidery on - as when worn Parsi-style (slightly different from Gujarati style) it would become too thick to tuck under/pin down at the back of one's blouse. As later on it became fashionable to wear garas Bengali style (over the left shoulder) the missing embroidery was quite noticeable - so people got the empty corner filled."

Regarding the garas falling out of fashion, we have found another reference. Brenda Gill writes, "It was probably the effort needed to maintain garas, coupled with the appeal of French chiffons, georgettes and lacy fabrics, that led to a decline in their (the garas') demand during the early and mid-20th century. Many old garas were cut up and used for the most routine attire such as housecoats. Of this regrettable loss, Naira Ahmadullah recollects her Parsi grandmother's remark in Gujarati that translates as, 'They are breaking up a ship to make a stool'!"


Parsi-Irani Wearing Style

High fashion a century or more ago. Girls / young women wearing sarees with kors. Note the white laced/embrodered blouse that falls over the hips and which may or may not merge with an exposed sudra.
High fashion a century or more ago. Girls/young women wearing
sarees with kors Parsi-Irani style. Note how low the corner of
the pallav falls and the white laced/embroidered blouse
that drapes over the hips and which
may or may not merge with an exposed sudra.
Image credit: Columbia

Regardless of whether the Parsi and Irani women base the wearing style on the Gujarati or Bengali method, the manner in which a gara is worn by Parsees and Iranis is a custom very specific to the Zoroastrian women of India. The Parsi-Irani custom is to bring the end, the pallav, from behind over the right shoulder, and when wrapped over the head, to leave the left ear exposed. According to Shirinmai Mistry, in the orthodox style, the front corner of the pallav falls very close to the hem (see old image of the two young women on the right) and the pleats go in the opposite direction.

The 'old' style was to drape the pallav over the head as well. With this style, a stylistic flourish is to leave the left ear uncovered. Leaving the left ear exposed soon became a fashion statement that caused a related development in Parsi-Irani jewellery - the development of the single earring, (also called the single chandelier earring) earrings sold individually and not as a pair, a development unique to the Parsees and Iranis of India.

Until about a hundred years ago, orthodox Zoroastrian women and men covered their head at all times, except when bathing, but while sleeping as well. If the reader looks closely at the banner image at the top of the page, it is possible to see a white strip under the pallav or saur of the sari. In all likelihood, that is a tight scarf or skull cap that was routinely worn under the head coverings of both women and men. The head coverings helped keep the saur in place with the help of bobby pins. Nowadays, the older generation women cover their heads with the saur but most Zoroastrian women and men relegate the custom of covering their heads to times of prayer or when entering a sacred space such as a temple.

The reader will notice in the older photographs on this page, that some of the women also wear laced sudras, the fine white muslin vest with which Zoroastrians are invested at their navjote or initiation ceremony. The sudra emerges from under the blouse and covers the sari at the waist and upper hips. The exposed portion of the sudra was often laced or finely embroidered with white thread making it a fashion accessory in its own right.

For instructions on how to wear a sari (including the Gujarati style) see DMI India.


Companion Garments & Accessories

The blouse or bodice worn over the chest is called a badan. For the main part it appears of the images that the blouses are plain and in a material or colour closely matching the sari's body fabric. Further, to this author's untrained eye it appears that in the images in these pages the blouses are at times complementary and at other times matching - at least in the base fabric colour.

There are samples of a blouse embroidered in the style of the gara (see the image under Designs on the next page). The image we have appears to be of a blouse embroidered throughout, and we presume a blouse can also be embroidered only along the bottom border as well. The existence of an embroidered blouse in the gara tradition raises the question of whether the blouse example we have matched a gara, though Shirinmai Mistry states that she "never seen or heard" of such a matching blouse-gara set (with antique garas). We certainly have examples of matching modern-day blouse-sari sets (see the Modern Gara on page 2).

Shirinmai Mistry says, "I also found two embroidered leg borders which I have matched with a similar coloured cloth and had made into a long eejaar (ijar, pantaloon) - which I wear when I really want to be thoroughly authentic, under a sari. You see, once upon a time Parsi women wore eejaars (knee length or ankle deep) under their sarees instead of petticoats in which we tuck our sarees." Shirinmai adds, "I can still recall older Parsi women at home with their laal knee length eejaars and safed budiyan with gold buttons down the centre as in some men's dress shirts today."

An accessories sometimes worn with a gara is the (adult) light tunic-coat. (As with the blouse, a jhabla / jhubhla can be made to match the gara. Shirinmai Mistry possesses one such matching gara-child's jhabla set.)

To prevent the pallav falling off the shoulder, a broach as jewellery is sometimes used to pin the top of the pallav to the blouse at the front of the right shoulder.


Jewellery Worn with the Gara

One view is that since the garas are themselves a work of art, a minimal amount of jewellery is worn with the gara. Jewellery that will detract from the beauty of the gara is avoided. Jewellery that is worn with a gara includes the single (or double) earring, necklace, bangles and rarely a broach.

The other point of view is put forward by Shirinmai Mistry who states , "I beg to differ regarding the minimal jewellery being worn with a gara! What really looks elegant with a gara are strings of pearls to match the white embroidery! Even if the embroidery is colourful the basic colour on them is white though some do match theirs with diamonds studded with emeralds to match the vivid emerald greens used in tiny amounts mostly!"


Garas as Art & Heirloom

Woman against a chair. An albumen print 1880s.
Woman in a full embroidered gara. Albumen print 1880s.
Image credit: W. F. Fee at National Geographic. Columbia

Each genuine gara is unique, can never be replicated, and may be looked upon as a collector's item. The gara is often part of a family's heirloom passed down from one generation to the next.

Garas cost between US$3,000 and $15,000 each and more depending on their antiquity. This author suspects that the value of the oldest garas in good condition will soon exceed this value if that development has not already taken place. Purveen Meher-Homji states, "people who own the really rich ones, have them insured, as thieves target them now." She adds that it is the type (and quality) of motifs that give the gara its value and rarity.

There are very few integral garas made from Chinese handmade silk with the highest hand-embroidery quality left and the supply diminishes continually with the deterioration of every surviving 'authentic' gara. Some Chinese garas even have the name of the lead embroiderer embroidered in Chinese characters at some place on the gara making them signed works of art. We have noted previously that integral garas are most fragile and a single point of damage can render the entire gara unusable.

We have no knowledge if such a set was ever created, but if one is in existence, an original, undamaged, more than hundred and fifty year old, entirely Chinese, one-piece, embroidered throughout, signed gara with a matching fully embroidered blouse and complementary tunic would be priceless. Any gara that can lay claim to be the oldest known surviving gara deserves to be placed in a museum - as would an entirely Zoroastrian made gara, if one even exists.


Preserving the Embroidery Work of Damaged Garas

It is the base silk fabric of the gara that is the most fragile. The embroidered borders and body motifs usually survive when the base fabric deteriorates or becomes damaged. Since the embroidery is where the work of the gara resides, people have taken to transferring the embroidery from damaged garas to new base fabrics. This author's sister Purveen Meher-Homji states, "what they do is (to expertly) cut the embroidery off the old sari and transfer it, motif by motif, onto a new silk base. I have seen one such (restored gara) and it is incredible, you could never tell that it is not the original!"


History of the Gara Sari

When Zoroastrians immigrated to India after the Arab invasion of Iran, they adopted the language and outward customs of their hosts. These customs included the wearing of the sari by Zoroastrian women. In doing so, the Zoroastrians gave to each of these customs a special flare (the Gujerati language spoken by Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians has a special quality as well).


Aubergine-violet gara-style Banarasi Sari c 1900 using the boteh (paisley) motif.
Aubergine-violet gara-style Banarasi Sari c 1900 using the boteh (paisley) motif.
Note the embroidery quality difference between this (Indian) work from Banaras and the gara.
Image credit: Woven Souls

At some point the Zoroastrian women of India started to seek incorporation of ancient Iranian traditions into the Indian sari. It is likely that the initial fusion of traditions would have been the intricate Yazdi and Kermani silk-work designs [see our pages of Termeh & Silk Work and Boteh (Paisley)]. Then the Parsi-Zoroastrian traders would have combined that knowledge and their age-old Silk Road trade links with China to produce silk saris with borders that incorporated Persian and even Chinese motifs (also see Aryan Trade).

The addition of design elements such as peacocks into the Chinese sari patterns could have been at the instigation of the Parsi traders - at least those that did not have any superstitious misgivings towards peacocks.


Trade with China

Once the Zoroastrians refugees to India in the 8th century CE had set down their roots, they resumed their trading ties with China. The Zoroastrian traders of India for the main part abandoned their historic overland trade routes through their Central Asian homeland to China and maintained instead the sea links between Hormuz and China. These they replaced with routes between the western India Gujarat port of Khambat (Cambay) and China, and then between the Gujarati port of Surat and China.

One report states that Chinese manufacture of the gara stopped during the Mao regime and the Chinese workshops, many owned by Zoroastrians, closed down. Shirinmai Mistry feels, "I would have thought the gara trade with the Chinese stopped around the early 1930's."


Manufacture in Surat, Gujarat, India

When the Parsees of India left Khambat to make Surat, a western port city of India, their principal home, port and manufacturing centre, they helped make Surat a world-renowned textile manufacturing centre. Hand-woven silk made in Surat is called ghat. Surat was also home to the Tanchoi self-patterned of figured silk (described on the next page). The craftsman of Surat also began to emulate the gara's Chinese embroidery and styles. In doing so, the artisans of Surat integrated their native skills and concepts with the imported Chinese designs to produce a locally made Surati gara sari. Surat-made garas included lace or net work and French knots.


Chinese Embroiderers in India

Embroidered Chinese design on a red ghat (Surat) silk gara specially ordered for a wedding.
Embroidered Chinese design on a red ghat (Surat) silk gara specially ordered for a wedding.
Image credit: Parzor Project

The assumption is that garas with Chinese designs and embroidered by Chinese craftsman were made in China. However, there are anecdotal reports of Chinese embroiderers in India. Parzor reports that not only were there Chinese craftspeople resident in India, but that Indian Zoroastrian women learnt embroidery techniques from them. We paraphrase the Parzor report as follows:

There are anecdotal Parsi-Irani community accounts that have passed down through the generations and retold by the older Zoroastrians across India from Bharuch to Kolkata about Chinese embroiderers working for Parsees in India. These reports recount the role the Chinese pherias / feriyas? (Gujarati word for door-to-door salespeople who do the rounds?) or expert embroiderers played in acquainting Parsi women with Chinese embroidery.


Pheria Vendors - Vanishing Breed?

These stories recall Chinese craftsman doing the rounds carrying bundles of embroidered silk on their bicycles to Parsi homes. At times they would drop off their wares on the verandahs of their prospective clients, while at other times they would announce their presence and ceremonially which much éclat present their wares to the memsahib, the grand dame of the house.

Brenda Gill tells us of a humorous incident during one such visit by a Chinese embroiderer. Then an embroiderer who called John (throughout India, all Chinese vendors were called Johns for some reason), faced with a barking house dog hesitated at the garden gate. The memsahib exhorted John to ignore the dog and enter. For reassurance she said, "John, don't you know the proverb that barking dogs don't bite?" To which the hapless John answered, "Memsahib, you know ploverb, I know ploverb, but does doggy know ploverb?"


A modern pheria/feriya vendor selling live chicken and his bicycle in India.
A modern pheria/feriya vendor selling live chicken and his bicycle in India.
Image credit: Markand Juliah at Flickr

This writer's father confirms that in the 1920s and 30s, even in the Indian town of Lucknow where he grew up, there were Chinese door-to-door vendors (pheria/feriya) and the men folk were called johns (as were British soldiers called tommies). The Chinese vendors were men or couples each of whom sold a different set of products. Some of these vendors balanced two bags full of their wares at either end of a bamboo pole that they would place on their shoulders. The pole had an attached stand at either end. While resting or selling, the vendor would lower the pole until it rested on its stand. Others such as cloth and embroidery work sellers carried their wares on the back of a bicycle. The products were Chinese.

Father particularly remembers a husband and wife team (John and wife) who sold all manner of household linen and silk embroidery that included bed sheets and napkins. The bicycle they owned was a Raleigh that had a special heavy-duty tire on the back wheel in order to support an enormous bale of the products. The bale would be balanced on the large carrier at the back of the bicycle which John, (at the front of the bicycle) and wife (behind the bicycle) pushed from house to house. When the couple arrived at a home, they rang a bell and parked their bicycle on its stand. Then, the man carried the bale to the verandah where they would untie its muslin wrapping. The wrapping served as a sheet on which to spread and display their products. The husband did all the talking in pidgin English which often went something like, "Memsahib, all new from China. Velly good. Velly cheap." No sale proceeded without a fair amount of good natured bargaining.

[Shirinmai Mistry adds that at the time of the Second World War, the rumour was that the Japanese had infiltrated the ranks of the Chinese vendors with spies who cased the neighbourhood under pretence of doing the rounds shouting, "See- link, see-link" (silk, silk?). She goes on to say, "I also recall the fine workmanship of these Chinese men on bicycles plying their artistic trade by making the most fabulous flour-dough puppets on sticks for the kids. The dough-puppets didn't cost much and they lasted till they hardened and fell apart or got fungus! Everyone's favourites were the cotton wool bearded chaps, mostly fishermen, with a fish dangling at the end of a cotton thread, off a 'boo tara ni sali' (bamboo sliver) pole."]

Until only a few decades ago, it was quite common for all kinds of vendors and service people - not just Chinese - to similarly do the rounds: from milkmen, to cobblers, vegetable sellers and the like. This author's father's favourite story was that of two brothers who intercepted a new replacement dhobi (clothes washer-man) at the door to their home. After an introduction, the two brothers informed the new dhobi that he would have to talk very loudly to the memsahib as she was quite deaf. Then they ran into the house to tell their mother that the new dhobi had arrived and that he was quite deaf. We will leave the reader to complete the story.

In the Parzor story where the embroidery work bundles had been dropped off by their Chinese makers, in the afternoon the Parsi memsahib (having finished with her supervision of the servants in their household duties) would sit in the cool shade of her home's verandah and examine the embroidered silk items presumably choosing those she deigned to purchase. We can only presume that the itinerant vendor would pass by the house a second time to see what the memsahib had decided and - if this author's experience with similar vendor visits is any guide - engage in some lengthy and vocal horse-trading minus the horse.

We don't know if there are any Chinese 'johns' (not the modern variety) selling embroidery left. We suspect not.


Chinese Embroiderer Colonies

It appears that with the increase in Parsi and Irani demand for Chinese style embroidered products, the number of Chinese embroiderers in Gujarati increased to a sizeable community and that the quality of work produced by the Chinese artisans living in India was comparable to the quality of work from China. This development would appear to be a reasonable explanation for the appearance of embroidered Chinese designs on Ghat silk - silk hand-woven in Surat. For it would seem pointless for craftsmen in China to use Surati silk when they could use locally made silk of good quality.

Indian embroiderers employed by Parsees were called karigar (workman, wright, operator) perhaps from the Persian kargar meaning worker.


The Door-to-Door Chinese Embroiderer

Parsees Learn Chinese Embroidery Techniques

Chinese embroiderers at an embroidery frame.
Chinese embroiderers at an embroidery frame.
Image credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Gara raffled by Zarathushti Cultural Center of Delaware Valley, USA, as a fundraiser and exquisitely crafted by master designer Naju Davar in India.
Gara raffled by Zarathushti Cultural Center of Delaware Valley, USA, as a fundraiser and
"exquisitely crafted by master designer Naju Davar in India". The base fabric is not specified.
Image credit: ZCCDV / ZACUCE

On other occasions, the craftsman would sit of the verandahs of Parsi homes and ply their craft, creating custom embroidered pieces on their small embroidery frames. The Parsi women would observe the Chinese craftsmen as they went about their work "including their use of curved needles" and in doing so, learnt the art of making jhablas (children's tunic-like tent dress) and kors (borders used for gara sarees and other garments).

After having learnt the embroidery techniques of the Chinese craftsmen, the Parsi or Irani women became artisans in their own right and we can envision the women creating silk and other items for their own use. Or perhaps making embroidery for sale to others creating a small cottage industry in the process.

Parzor tells us that in the embroidery they produced, these Zoroastrian women appear to have replaced the dragons and snakes of Chinese design with roosters (symbolic of Sarosh Yazad) and fish that were more familiar symbols in the Zoroastrian tradition.

The resulting embroidery style and technique is frequently called Parsi embroidery, a recognized discipline.

At the start of this page we stated, "The gara sari is defined by its fine embroidery and elegance. The concept has come to be known as Parsi embroidery and we were surprised to find the number of fashion-houses that use the terms 'Parsi embroidery' or 'Parsi embroidered'. It would seem everyone but Zoroastrians recognize this contribution to fashion elegance - a contribution that has come about by a unique fusion of fashion and culture from along the Silk Roads."

We continue our discussion on the gara on page 2.


» Page 2


Sources & Acknowledgements

Purveen Meher-Homji
Shirinmai Mistry
» Parzor Project Home page. Dr. Shernaz Cama, director (excellent work)
» Parzor Project Textile and Embroidery page
» Memssaab Story
» Deepika Sorabjee at CNN-GO
» In Search of the Zoroastrians by Jenny Desai
» Craft Revival
» Embroidery by Brinda Gill


» Top


Also See:

» Parsees & Iranis of India - Old Photos

» Termeh. Heritage Hand-Woven Silk Fabric of Yazd & Kerman

» Boteh / Paisley Motif