To anyone harbouring a borderline fascination with traditional Indian textiles (and, really, why shouldn’t you?), the Kerala sari is always an object of much fascination. It’s simplistic style and understated elegance has a deep-rooted cultural significance. Besides, just how pretty do the girls look in it? So, just in time for Onam, we decided to hit the history books and trace back its origins. These are some cool facts we unearthed.
Turns out we’ve been wrong all along. Kerala Sari is a misnomer for the two-piece mundu set called Mundum Neriyathum in Malayalam. Mundu is the piece of garment worn on the lower half of the body and is common to both men and woman. As for Neriyathum, the word roughly translates to upper garment.
Contrary to popular belief, the origins of mundu neriyathum date way back to pre-Hindu times—around the time of Buddhist traditions, to be exact—and references to this can be found in ancient literature of the time.
Influenced by the costumes of Buddhists and Jains, the mundu neriyathum follows the same tradition of using a scarf/shawl for to cover the upper half of the body. This garb was not just functional, it also stood as an indicator of the person’s social standing.
Again, turns out the evolution of the mundu neriyathum also borrows from Graeco-Roman culture. This is evident from the border (ergo the name kasavu, referring ) which is typically found in their costume. This was adapted to its current version with the golden border—which was made of real gold filaments or copper plated fibres.
Perhaps it is this rich evolutionary history that made Raja Ravi Verma, one of the most important Indian painters of all time, depict the Kasavu in elaborate detail—particularly in his depiction of Shakuntala. The style of drape he featured, and one that’s popular presently is called the ‘nivi drape’, which features a pleated lower half and the pallu draped over the left shoulder. The colour of the blouse usually matches the colour on the border of the sari. If the kara (border) is golden then the shade of the blouse is either green or red (denoting the marital status of the wearer).