Parsi New Year has arrived and while the community celebrates this day, we’re taking time to celebrate this fashion tribe and their contribution to the melting-pot that is our culture. From arts and literature to commerce and science, Parsis have been vital cogs in the mechanism of development. And we don’t even have to start waxing eloquence about their contribution to the cuisine—try saying no to dhansak after you’ve had the first spoon, I dare you.
Parsis as a community are somewhat cloistered—partially due to their diminishing number. Culturally speaking, however, they have a strong sense of identity owing to their relentless effort to preserve their customs and traditions. It’s interesting to note how these little traditions can trace out their entire history. Take for example the gara. An original, authentic gara (traditional Parsi sari) can be estimated at anything worth ₹ 45,000 and above. But more than its value, the gara speaks tomes about the people, their culture and their history—whether personal or communal.
History of the Migration
From what is known based on historical records, the first Persian migration occurred between 8th century AD to 10th century AD following the Arab invasion in their land. Their plea for asylum in Sanjan, Gujrat was granted by Jadi Rana with the only caveats that their language (Gujarati) be adopted by the migrants and the women embrace the local costume. Thus began the ultimate symbiotic relationship and the rise of the community.
This backstory is crucial to set the backdrop for the emergence of the gara. After the first Parsi settlement established itself in Sanjan and migrated to other port towns, they became increasingly involved in trade as their role in the liaison between the east and the west was pivotal. Notice how the timeline coincides with that of the Silk Route and the location of their settlements with those of the ports on the route. The silk trade between China – India and the rest of the western world also saw an exchange in indigenous arts, crafts and textiles of the respective regions—as is evident in the motifs and embroideries. A traditional gara can bear anything from European influences like French knots and motifs like the pomegranate (representing fertility) and birds with ribbons trailing from their beaks (symbol of a harmonious marital life in western cultures), to Chinese designs and motifs like pagodas and cranes. This diverse canvas the gara presents is a testimony to the centuries of trade relations between the eastern and western worlds and the subsequent confluence of cultures.
The Whole Six Yards
The gara is a significant piece of material evidence if you want to understand cultural exchange and evolution better. To call a sari an authentic gara would be to pay heed to certain parameters. Firstly, the base fabric chosen is traditionally Chinese handwoven silk called gajja (this might also indicate the etymology of the word gara). The original fabric bears the distinct golden hue of handwoven silk which is then dyed in indigo or vegetable dyes to give it colour—however, this process has since been replaced with chemical non-fast dyes of superior quality. Next, the border, or kor, of the entire length of the sari is painstakingly embroidered with motifs and themes mentioned above. While not a mandate, in some cases the entire pallav end (the part of the sari draped around the front) is covered in embroidery in motifs of tendrils or the “divine fungus” motif – an organic Chinese motif believed to symbolise immortality and longevity.
The method of draping the gara is also unique to the Parsi or Irani women of India. The pallav or saur falls in the front (pretty much like the Gujarati way of draping) from above the right shoulder and is tucked to the side. If the saur covers the head, the edge is tucked so as to only expose the left ear. Traditionally, both men and women wore a head covering (a skull cap or a scarf), which made it easy for the women to fix the saur. Interestingly enough, this draping technique also resulted in the popularity of the single earring (nope, it wasn’t Cara Delevingne).
Preservation and Legacy
Although it might seem that it’s is still around, an authentic gara is still pretty hard to come by. When traced back to their source of origins, the few garas seen floating around today prove how the numbers within the community are slowly diminishing. In an attempt to save the loss of such priceless cultural heritage, programs like the Jiyo Parsi are urging the community to join hands together and work towards saving their ancestral history. The UNESCO has also initiated something called the Parzor – The UNESCO Parsi Zoroastrian Project – with a special focus on preserving the textiles and crafts. Headed by a team of scholarly researchers, their aim is to trace the legacy from Yazd in Iran to Canton in China with an aim of conserving the known vestiges of not just the gara but also other costumes and crafts like jhablas, kors and traditional jewellery.
Images courtesy oldindianphotos.in, heritageinstitute.com and Parzor