A Tale of Threads

The walls of Pili Kothi echo with the march of a 100 handlooms. Busy at work, are the Kasim family and their weavers; torchbearers of the craft that bring to life, the dazzling Tibetan Brocades.

Sacred prayer sounds fill the air as saints and pilgrims, peddlers and tourists amass to 'wash away their sins' at the riverbank steps of Ganga. Varanasi is at once, frenzied and chaotic, and within moments, is spiritual and at peace. In this devout city filled with priests, pilgrims and peddlers, a tight-knit community weaves a dazzling fabric that ties them to a faraway country, Tibet, tucked away in the Himalayas. This is their 250-year-old story.

‘‘I'm sitting where the Queen of Bhutan sits.’’ Hasin Ahmed Ansari tells us.


Reflections of pure gold and silk threads are subtly grazing the walls of Pili Kothi, at a weaver’s colony in Varanasi. Inside the little workshops in the narrow alleys of Pili Kothi, grandiose fabric for the King and Queen of Bhutan and the Dalai Lama is being woven with hand. As it has been for almost two centuries now.


The little nooks and alleys of the weaving colony lead up to Kasim Silk Emporium, a 250-year-old enterprise. They are believed to be the only makers of Tibetan Brocades in India, and perhaps across the entire Himalayan subcontinent. Hasin Ahmed Ansari is the third generation descendant of the Kasim family. 


‘‘Till today, we are weaving hand-made brocades of real gold,’’ Hasin Ahmed Ansari tells us.


Inside the Kasim showroom, fabrics in hues of rich maroon colours, dazzling gold and radiant silvers are laid out. The distinctive freshly dyed silk makes the brocade stand out against every other piece of fabric around. 


The making of Tibetan brocades

A lot of intricate works goes into the making of Tibetan brocades. Designs are drawn by hand. Based on the initial graph, a 'jakaad' is determined. Jakaad is made of cardboard; they are essentially punching cards that imprint the design onto the fabric. Depending on the design, the colour combination and the jakaad, they set up the handloom.

‘‘And then we instill real gold onto the fabric.’’



The Tibetan brocade is made by twisting three or four gold coated silk threads into a single twine. This golden thread is then etched onto the fabric. The process is painstaking and slow, with glistening lines of thread stringing in and out of a complex pattern dictated by the jakaad. Little by little, vibrant floral silk patterns with striking and intricate textural details begin to emerge. Watching this beautiful fabric come to life demands one to be the most patient observer. 


‘‘We started making Tibetan Brocades from our house before Tibet was free.’’

Hasin Ansari says.

After the occupation of Tibet in 1957, the work on brocade was abruptly stopped. Yet their family held on and continued making the brocades, making them the only sought-after weavers across the Himalayas today.

"The Potala Palace in Lhasa in Tibet, the home of the Dalai Lama till today houses our brocades, although we cannot see them."

Nevertheless, they remain popular across the mountains. The King of Bhutan adorned these designs during his coronation and his wedding. Their wares reach Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Buddhist communities across India. What’s more, revered movie stars have worn customised Buddhist brocades designed by the Kasim family in their films.


‘‘We still have strings that are as old as 250 years old.’’

With a history that spans across a century and more, the simple act of propagating the craft of Tibetan Brocades has forged a deep bond between the Kasim family and 500 other families of weavers that are employed by them.

Take for example, Hasin Ahmed and his handloom, a stone’s throw away from Kasim family home. Fifteen men are working in rhythm here. Their hands effortlessly orchestrating a grand performance of silk threads.


"The men who work here are my brothers," says Hasin Ahmed, the oldest weaver in the family.

Light streaks in from the windows falling upon rolls of gold, red, and silver. The handlooms generate a pulsating sound that seems to set the family's work in motion. Work may continue well into the night.


"We have been working for the Kasim family for generations now.

I learnt the art from my father, who learnt from his father, who picked it up from his father this has gone on for how long?

We don't know! All I can say is that we are weavers and weaving is in our blood and has always been."


Then there is Feroze Khan, on the other side of the river. Unlike Hasin Ahmed, he does not boast a relationship spanning generations with the Kasim family.

"I am taking the finished gyasar back to the Kasim family. It's taken me and my family a month to weave it, by hand," he says, standing on the edge of the river Ganga, on a little canoe.

He is holding a yellow and silver clustered Gyasar, the headgear of the Dalai Lama.


While he makes this journey, his family is immersed in the making of newly ordered brocades at his humble home. It is an interesting sight to watch his mother, wife and brothers work in absolute synchronization. His mother winds the thread onto a large wooden spindle. His wife sits spinning the threads nearby, working on an improvisation that appears to be a cycle wheel and a pedal turned upside down. Meanwhile his brothers work together on the handlooms spinning rolls of rainbow-coloured threads with speed and precision. One of them pulls out a tiny, circular mirror and holds it under a wooden pole which has the finished portion of the brocade wrapped around it. 


It's only been a year since we started weaving the brocades," Feroze Khan says.

They were traditional handloom weavers making saaris until their business was hit a few years ago. Then they turned to the Kasim family who offered them the option of weaving Tibetan Brocades by hand. Since then, there been no looking back. Business has been good.

"Whether it is small or big work, this is our work. Hamara kaam yehi hai," says Feroze.


‘‘You ask me what's my favourite colour? I don't really have a favourite colour, even though we work with colours all the time.

Bas yeh keh sakta hoon ki rang bina zindagi phiki hai,’’ he smiles. 

Whether it is a familly like Hasin Ahmed’s, which has a 100-year-old relationship or one like Feroze Khan’s – basking in the glow of a new beginning, the Kasim family has been the grand design that has nurtured and drawn closer the community of handloom weavers in and around Varanasi. And by doing so, the age-old craft of the Tibetan Brocade has flourished gloriously.

It is a thing of marvel, to observe how the Tibetan Brocade has been the thread that has strung together, the art, the maker and the tradition in a deep bond, more precious than gold.



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