India silk weavers hang on by thread, plead for rescue

India silk weavers hang on by thread, plead for rescue
In this photograph taken on April 22, 2014 Indian weavers sit inside a handloom factory in Rajapura Varanasi. Its saris have been a byword for sartorial elegance for centuries and even the Buddha was laid to rest veiled in a brocade of silk hand-woven in India's holiest city Varanasi, according to local legend.

VARANASI, India - Its saris have been a byword for sartorial elegance for centuries and even the Buddha was laid to rest veiled in a brocade of silk hand-woven in India's holiest city Varanasi, according to local legend.

But bosses and craftsmen say the Banarasi silk industry is hanging on by a thread and could be killed off within a generation by mass-produced garments and Chinese competition, unless India's next government steps in.

"I've been doing this job for more than 40 years now and my fathers and forefathers were doing it for around 250 years before me," said Sardar Hafizullah as he wove a green and gold sari on the ground floor of his home in Varanasi's Old City.

"But it seems that it is a dying art. It's only people like me keeping it alive," added the 65-year-old.

One of the oldest living cities in the world, Varanasi (also known as Benares) draws millions of visitors each year, whether Hindus who have come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges or tourists watching the world float by from the ghats on the side of the river.

But Varanasi is also famous for the quality of silk products crafted by mainly Muslim weavers in the city's backstreets, where saris and scarfs routinely take 15-20 days to make.

The finest creations fetch upwards of ten thousand dollars. Up until a decade ago, around 100,000 hand looms would crank away each day but the number has more than halved since then.

"We have around 40,000 now, the other 60,000 are 'sick'," said Amitabh, one of the city's leading garment exporters who uses only one name.

"When you talk about Banarasi silk we can trace the history back to the Lord Buddha whose body was draped in it.

"It's an art, it's a culture, it's a heritage product but it's a dying art."

The biggest problem for the weavers is simple: counterparts who work in factories can earn more than double the money as they are both paid, at least in part, on the basis of how much cloth they can stitch in a day.

"If you work on a handloom you get 200 rupees (S$4.16) a day but it's around 500 if you work with an electric loom," said Amitabh.

"With a handloom you get one metre (of cloth) in a day and with machine-loom it's 10 metres. It's all about quantity."

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