A suitcase of sarees—that’s the heaviest piece of luggage I had to check in at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It weighed 23kg—not an ounce less than my allowance. There was a tight knot in my stomach as the Swiss Air agent put the baggage tags on my black, banged-up Samsonite. I watched it sluggishly move along the conveyor belt—as if it also did not want to be apart from me, until it finally disappeared behind a curtain of PVC strips.
In my suitcase were 12 sarees that I collected from our three-week vacation in India. And they were no ordinary sarees—each one is in fact a cherished souvenir with a unique story to tell—of where I got it, or how I found it, and what incredible part of India we saw together. Like the yellow saree that I wore while picking cotton flowers along a provincial road in Nagpur. And the peach saree that suprpisingly matched the skies of Agra at dawn. And there’s the pink one which I got for a bargain price of ₹280 (approx. €4) in a small store somewhere in the heart of Maharashtra. I came to India with an empty suitcase and a plan to do “a bit of” shopping, and I came home with a bag bursting at the seems with the most beautiful fabrics of Indian craftsmanship, and countless precious memories.
REASONS TO SHOP FOR SAREES
1. You can embrace colour. Sarees are one of the reasons that India is such a colourful country. Indian women clad themselves in the brightest colours and most beautiful fabrics in their daily lives. From the bank teller, the flight attendants, the women in the farm fields, the housekeepers, the affluent ladies at the backseat of chauffeured cars—everyone wears colour. And I don’t think there’s another country in the world that will make you embrace your colour-wearing side than India.
2. You can do as the locals do. Apart from helping you blend in, wearing sarees will help you get a taste of what it’s like to be a woman in India going about daily life with nine yards of fabric wrapped around your body. Putting it on is an adventure in itself but it gets especially interesting when you ride the auto, or find yourself in a really small toilet cubicle. It took a couple of days but I easily found sarees to be quite comfortable. Soon, I was taking afternoon naps in a saree and waking up with the entire ensemble still intact.
3. You can repurpose the fabric when you get home. After you trip to India and you decide that you won’t be using your saree as a ‘saree’ again, you can choose to turn the fabric into a maxi skirt, a dress, pillow cases, drapes, wall accents, etc. The list of what you can do with nine yards of beautiful fabric is practically endless.
KINDS OF SAREES
There are many kinds of traditional sarees and this classification is in no way meant to be an educational exercise of naming them. Instead, it’s a short list of my favourite kinds of sarees that I recommend you keep an eye out for when shopping:
BEADED SAREES are my favourite kind because of the level of intricate detail that go into each one. The more beads, the heavier they get. In India, they’re not commonly used for day-to-day wear. As fabric, they’re absolutely perfect as maxi skirts to be paired with a basic top and can be dressed up or down to your liking. Costs can range—the more beading, the pricier they get.
SILK SAREES are the most popular kind among Indian women. They’re the go-to choice on special occasions. Two-tone silk sarees and those with intricate borders and designs can cost a lot. Personally, I think they’re high maintenance because they wrinkle fast. But if worn properly, silk sarees are undoubtedly the most elegant kind of saree and Indian women—from Bollywood actresses to my 60-year-old mother-in-law—wholeheartedly agree.
EMBROIDERED SAREES are rarer than the beaded and silk kinds based on my shopping experience. I fell in love with a bright pink saree with turquoise embroidery (image above at the store and embroidery details below) and treasure it dearly. Embroidered sarees are more precious because once a thread is ‘caught’ and starts to run, it can ruin the design completely.
PLAIN PRINT SAREES are the easiest to wear. There are no heavy beads, no wrinkles to watch out for, and no embroidery to worry about. They are best for easy, daily wear and come in the a wide range of prints. Beware that there are a lot of tacky ones out there so activate your rummage sale skills and take a patience pill or two when hunting for good ones—and believe me, they’re out there. I found very pretty floral prints for no more than $5 that I can easily turn to a wrap dress or a gathered skirt in the future.
Some tips when shopping for sarees:
1. Shop with a local. If you can shop with a local you trust, do so. They will take you to the bazaars where prices are lower compared to retailers that cater to tourists. You will also surely learn a thing or two about bargaining Indian-style.
2. Have retail as backup. If you don’t have a local with you, only go to shops where the prices are out in the open so that you are not in danger of being over-charged.
3. Soak and dry. You may need to buy a lining for your saree and if so, make sure to soak it in water first and hang to dry before any sewing is done.
In my next trip to India, I will be hunting for a lavender and a mint green saree. What colour will you pick if you were to go saree souvenir shopping?