Legend of the Kerala Sari

Personally, I consider sari as the most feminine garment that makes every woman, no matter her shape or size, look absolutely gorgeous. Throughout my childhood days, dressing up was never as Cinderella or Snow White; it was always wearing a sari like my mom did. Pleating the sari carefully and then draping the ‘pallu’ in front of a mirror, all the while pretending I’m a grown up, fit to wear a sari on my own. Those are the sweetest memories of dressing up for me. Most of Indian girls, I’m sure, have similar memories and it has taken us years of practice to perfect the art of draping the nine yards.

But did you know that the modern way of draping sari is not the traditional one. The most popular style that we see nowadays is the ‘Nivi’ drape but across rural India there are women from various communities who drape saris differently. The fisherwomen across coastal India have a unique way of draping saris, and the Bengali women drape their saris in differently with the bunch of keys jingling from one end of the ‘Pallu’. As opposed to the Assamese women who have a different sari format altogether, called the ‘Mekhala Chador’. It’s a set of two pieces of cloth. One, that drapes the lower body and the other, which covers the shoulders and upper body.

Mekhala Chador‘ on the runway

But little would you know that there are actually more than 100 ways of sari draping that are being catalogued by this unique initiative by Border & Fall, as part of Google’s Art & Culture initiative. I’ve been following this project and I think it’s a brilliant initiative. You can access it here https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/partner/border-and-fall

Aren’t you wondering by now as to how the ‘Kerala Sari’ pictures in this sari saga? Well, the humble cream and gold yards is not the traditional garment of Kerala as we often mistake it for. Traditionally, the women in Kerala wore a set sari, in local language, ‘Mundum Neriyathum’. It is actually a two piece set, similar to the Mekhala Chador of Assam, except that ‘Mundum Neriyathum’ was a simple white cotton set that used to be the daily wear for most Malayali women. A ‘Mundu’ similar to the male ‘mundu’ and the ‘Neriyathum’, which is more like the ‘Duppata’.

Two types of drapes ‘Mundum Neriyathum’ * (Images from Internet)

Intriguing isn’t it? So what is the cream golden sari then? Well, this golden border was specifically occasional (‘Onam’) wear. Women would wear gold border set mundus that are known as ‘Kasavu set’, where ‘Kasavu’ is the golden border. So the sari that is popularly known as the Kerala sari is actually the ‘Kasavu Sari’.

The ‘Kasavu set’ (Image from Internet)

Kasavu saris’ would have real zari borders but now owing to the steep prices of gold, you may get the silver zaris or the synthetic zaris. While buying the ‘Kasavu’ you have to ask if the zari is real or if the cotton is of the finest weave. So far, I’ve found the best kasavus in the famous chain store called ‘Kasavu Kada’. The name simply means ‘Kasavu’ shop. Shopping here is pretty simplified. They keep only kasavu saris, so no confusion, but wait, they have various patterns of borders, enough to make the shopping experience complete for any Indian woman. After all, we crave for variety, always.

So if any of you happen to take a trip down to Kerala, do visit one of these stores and buy the authentic Kasavus from there. It is an experience in itself. I’ve shopped mostly from the Kottayam store but they have one in Cochin too.


Interestingly, thanks to wiki, I googled Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings and found that he has painted women in various sari drapes too. While his daughter is wearing the Set sari in true Kerala style, he has painted ‘Shakuntala’ in a ‘Nivi’ drape. Many of his muses were south Indian women posing as goddesses from Hindu mythology. If one looks at his works, they can find the humble sari being draped in various ways across India. Even the women from his state have draped the set sari in different style.

Ravi Varma’s ‘Shakuntala’ in a Nivi drape


Ravi Varma’s daugther in Set Sari

The Kerala sari , be it the kasavu or the ‘Mundum Neriyathum’ has been quite a show stopper. It has become an identity for women hailing from this rich and beautiful state. So next time you see one, you shall remember the story behind it and next time you travel to Kerala, perhaps bring one home with you.

PS: Most images here are for reference purpose only and some have been taken from internet. 

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