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The Indian sari, or saree, is as ancient and wondrous as the Indus Valley Civilization from which it originated. Sari is derived from the Sanskrit word, sati, meaning cloth. This strip of unstitched cloth is the longest standing fashion statement in history, worn by Indian women since at least 2800 BCE. The sari is unparalleled in its originality and timelessness, making it a true archaeological garment. It is uniquely feminine and graceful, and holds the bountiful secrets and mysteries of Ancient India in its folds and exquisite drapery. The sari's history is as much legend as it is fact. Due to the lack of written records, the precise history of the Indian sari is inconclusive by scholars, but that has not devalued the garment as integral to the rich culture and tradition of India lending itself as the national dress of the sub-continent extending to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

According to the ancient Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, the sari was essentially a promise by Krishna to protect the virtue of a woman. Legend has it that Draupadi, wife of Pandavas, was won by the enemy in a dual. The victors, in an attempt to spoil Draupadi, began to undrape her. They began unraveling and unraveling the cloth but found no end. Draupadi was said to be protected by the sari and her virtue left uncompromised.

Culturally, the sari may have been developed for the ancient temple dancers to allow for fluid movement of the body, allowing the limbs to float freely in expression, while simultaneously maintaining modesty. Another school of thought describes the sari as a celebration of femininity and fertility. The six to nine yard piece of cloth wraps taught around a woman's body, showcasing a small waist and ample breasts and hips. The deliberate draping of the sari, which varies according to region, flaunts the natural curvature and proportions of a woman, while promoting grace and virtue in its unstitched, unpenetrated cloth.

In the great Tamil epic poem, Shilappadikaram, the sari is described as a garment that covered the lower portion of the female body and formed a veil, leaving the breasts and navel exposed, the navel being the source of creativity. This concept of celebrating the beauty of femininity freely though the wearing of the sari can be seen in the sculptures of the ancient Graeco-Indian Gandharan civilization of the 2nd and 3rd century. Most sculptures and drawings of women in these earlier periods show a bare bodice exposing the bosom and navel draped in cloth of various styles. This free exposure would eventually be suppressed with the invasion and colonization of India.

With the invasion and subsequent integration of the Muslim population in 1000AD, the Indians were introduced to tailored clothing. The tailored fashion, however, did not affect permanent change and many Indians kept true to tradition, choosing the sari above the more restrictive tailored approach to dress. Western colonization was more effective in influencing the sari with the introduction of the choli, or matching blouse, that is worn underneath the traditional sari. It is believed that the integration of the choli came directly from the British as the prudent and strict moral code of Queen Victoria spread from West to East. The petticoat, or ghagra, is also thought to have come directly from the British whose Victorian women adamantly practiced modesty by keeping their ankles covered as well as the legs of their dining tables. However, the British influence was not inescapable and the women in Southern India, even in present day, do not wear a choli.

The sari can be made from various fabrics. The choice of fabric may designate region as well as degree of wealth. The most common material used in the weaving of the sari is cotton, grown plentifully in India during the Harappan period, 2500BC. Rural women wore cotton because it is a better tying material and therefore more secure for the demands of daily work. Silk fabric is also used, as well as georgette and chiffon, though these fabrics are more delicate and expensive and used primarily for special occasions such as a wedding or funeral. The silk or chiffon material is often decorated with embroidery, colored silk thread, pearls, and precious stones. The cotton sari might boast a geometric or floral pattern, but it is the draping of the material that retains the tradition.

In Hinduism, the unstitched piece of cloth has a more sacred appeal. The textile, in its wholeness, is a symbol of purity and virtue, and serves as a rite of passage in the life of a young Hindu girl. The sari is made mention in the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, making it integral to the Hindu way of life.

Unsurpassed by rivals such as the Japanese Kimono, the sari has withstood the test of time as a true cultural and archaeological fashion statement that is as celebrated today as it was some 5000 years ago. Some say the saris staying power in vogue fashion stems from its practicality in the hot climate of India. But perhaps its longevity is most attributed to its ageless celebration of that which is uniquely feminine, beautiful, and flawless that makes it utterly appealing, reaching far beyond the mere confines of time.

by Meghan Meredith

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