- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

Does wearing a sari a Hindu woman make? On one level, no. Lots of Muslim and Christian women in India wear this traditional dress. On another level, however, adopting the sari conveys an ability to coexist with the prevailing Hindu culture.

During my first visit to India in 1994, I inquired about visiting a Hindu temple while in the southernmost state of Kerala. I could not go in, I was informed, unless I donned a sari and converted to Hinduism. I could understand the latter requirement, but the former intrigued me; what was there about wearing a sari that was quintessentially Hindu?

A special report on the sari in the fall 2008 issue of Hinduism Today revived my interest in the garment, which dates back at least 40 centuries. The magazine says the sari can be traced to Sanskrit literature in the Vedic period (2000 B.C.-1000 B.C.), which specified that women wear pleats tucked at the waist, the front and the back so as to placate Vayu, the god of the wind.

More recently, the way saris are draped conveyed religion and caste (a Hindu concept), especially in rural India. Hinduism has a preference for unstitched clothing, as piercing fabric with needles is considered unclean.

Also, a mode of dress was needed for rich and poor alike, so Indians developed several ways to drape a single piece of cloth around one’s body.

Whereas other traditional wear such as the Japanese kimono, the Chinese cheongsam, and Filipina barongs and kimonas are for special occasions, the sari is everyday garb.

I considered wearing saris during my two visits to India (the second was in 2006), but somehow I never looked right in the outfit. My coloring - which is best with pastels - never seemed to go with the bright silks in primary colors I tried on.

And then there was wrapping the darned thing. Starting out with six yards of fabric, you first knot two of the edges at your waist, then wrap the cloth counterclockwise around your body, making numerous pleats and tucking them in your waistband. Then you wrap the remainder in one of several ways above your upper body, letting the remainder fall gracefully down your back or wrapped about your right arm.

I always made a mess of it, looking more like Casper the Friendly Ghost than a Bollywood star. The material that was supposed to flow down my back - called the pallav - always flopped forward and ended up in whatever meal I was eating. Or the pleated folds that were supposed to stay tucked came undone, causing the sari to end up in a pile near my feet.

Buying one was not easy, as the tailors at the sari shops made me feel ignorant and uninformed. During a visit to one such shop in Mysore, I compromised by buying white-and-gold sari material and having a western-style dress made out of it. I get raves every time I wear it.

I always thought saris were the most sensible kind of clothing for hot climates, especially in contrast to the stifling black abayas Muslim women are forced to wear in some areas of the Middle East. Men have no such requirements.

In India, clothing is more egalitarian as the traditional dhoti for men covers more flesh than the sari. The sari is beautiful, modest and makes even the fattest woman look thinner. It won’t be disappearing into modernity any time soon.

  • Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected] times.com.
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