Kerala sarees, better known as Kasavu sarees, are symbolic of Kerala’s tradition and culture. The white and gold sarees are unique due to their natural hues, texture and the gold border which adds to their elegance. No occasion in Kerala feels complete without the Kasavu costume.

What is a kasavu saree?

The term kasavu refers to the zari (gold thread) used in the border of the Kerala saree. The name comes from a material used in the weaving and production of these sarees. When the kasavu gets added to a mundu (dhoti), it’s called a kasavu mundu.

The origin of the kasavu saree can be traced back to various centuries where women would wear a two-piece cloth called ‘settu mundu’, more popularly known as ‘mundum neriyathum’.

The Mundum Neriyathum rose in popularity during the Buddhist era, and its design has been inspired by the Greco-Roman attire, Palmyrene, a long piece of unstitched cloth with a coloured border.

Traditional attires like sarees, mundus, and settu mundus are generally called kaithari which means handloom. The identity of the saree comes from the geographical cluster they are associated with. The Indian government has identified three clusters in Kerala – Balaramapuram, Chendamangalam and Kuthampully – that have been given a Geographical Indication (GI) tag. All three clusters produce kasavu sarees.

The Mundum Neriyathum is likely to have been introduced in Kerala under the reign of His Highness Maharaja Balaramavarma and his chief minister Ummini Thampi in the early 19th century. A research paper called ‘Study & Documentation of Balaramapuram Sarees & Fine Cotton fabrics: The Pride of God’s Own Country’ notes that “Balaramapuram, in Thiruvananthapuram district, is one of the most historically important places for fine cotton handloom fabrics in Kerala. The weavers belong to the Saliya community were migrated from Nagarcoil and Thirunelveli of the present Tamil Nadu. They produced superfine ‘Mundum Neriyathum’ for the need of the Travancore royal family.”

“The technique of producing the superfine fabric spread from them to the local weavers in Balaramapuram and the surrounding places of the Thiruvananthapuram district.”

Shruti Abhilash, a Mumbai-based communication executive says that the kasavu sarees are the one thing that “instantly brings you back to your roots. You feel like a quintessential Malayali from the moment you drape the saree.”

“I love the fact that Kasavu has evolved from being just traditional wear to an outfit that reflects your personality with innovations like including lovely handprinted borders (in addition to the gold) and gorgeous painted pallus depicting everything from traditional mythological scenes to modern art. It is a part of me that I would proudly hand down to my daughter.”

Kerala, India – August 24, 2020: A customer browses fabrics at a handloom store in Thiruvananthapuram District, Kerala.
Vivek R. Nair / Hindustan Times

How long does it take for a kasavu saree to be made?

A plain saree with a simple border takes roughly around three to five days. Ones with motifs and heavier work take longer than that. The sarees are priced depending on the time taken on its production, along with the gold used in the zari or kasavu.


Kasavu in art:

The celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma created has depicted both the traditional and modern styles of the mundum neryathum in his paintings.

The traditional wear has been modified in several paintings depicting Shakuntala from The Mahabharatha into a style of draping the saree, more popularly known as the nivi saree or national drape.

In the modern age, the traditional saree is not just worn for religious reasons but also because it’s a fashion statement, embraced by people across age groups.

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