The Sari: A Timeless Symbol of Indian Culture and Tradition Under Threat of Misappropriation

Skincare Anarchy
4 min readApr 2, 2023

Explore the rich history, cultural significance, and philosophical relevance of the sari — an ancient Indian garment. Discover its origins, evolution, and the challenges it faces due to cultural appropriation, as exemplified by Zendaya’s recent outfit at an Indian event hosted by one of India’s wealthiest families : the opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai.

Keywords: sari, Indian culture, Indus Valley Civilization, cultural appropriation, ancient garment, Indian heritage, human civilization, symbolism, textile history, Zendaya

The sari, an emblematic and ageless garment originating in the Indian subcontinent, boasts a rich and intricate history spanning thousands of years. This ancient article of clothing, currently a symbol of Indian culture and tradition, has withstood the test of time and experienced countless transformations. Along with its historical importance, the sari bears philosophical significance that can be traced back to the earliest human civilizations.

The beginnings of the sari lie in the Indus Valley Civilization (circa 2600–1900 BCE), one of humanity’s earliest known civilizations. Archaeological findings, such as figurines and frescoes, portray women donning a garment resembling today’s sari. The initial version, referred to as ‘Nivi,’ consisted of an unstitched cloth draped over the body in various styles.

Terracotta figurine in Sari-like drape, 200 — 100 BCE from Bengal. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sari)

As the Indian subcontinent underwent different historical epochs and cultural shifts, the sari evolved and adapted. The Aryans’ arrival and the establishment of the Vedic period (circa 1500–500 BCE) ushered in new draping techniques. Sanskrit literature, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, mentioned the sari, solidifying its position in Indian history and tradition.

The sari further transformed during the Maurya and Gupta empires (circa 320 BCE-550 CE). Trade and cultural exchange with the Greeks, Romans, and Persians led to the introduction of novel fabrics, colors, and designs. During the Mughal period (circa 1526–1858), the sari incorporated lavish embroidery and intricate patterns synonymous with the garment today.

This ancient garment’s philosophical relevance lies in its connection to human civilization development, self-expression, and cultural identity. As one of the oldest known body garments, the sari represents early humans’ resourcefulness and creativity in adjusting to their environment and expressing their identities. The sari’s continuous presence in Indian history showcases its enduring cultural importance, making it more than merely a piece of clothing but an embodiment of Indian heritage and an expression of identity for millions of women.

Despite the sari’s abundant history and cultural significance, it has recently been subject to cultural appropriation, leading to misunderstandings of its symbolism and importance. The sari has been worn by individuals from various cultures without comprehending its true meaning or respecting the heritage it carries. In some instances, the sari has been reduced to a costume or fashion statement rather than being acknowledged for its historical and cultural importance. This dilution of the sari’s symbolism has led to a disconnection from its roots and the erasure of its cultural significance.

A recent example of cultural appropriation and the resulting controversy is Zendaya’s outfit at an Indian event. Her attire was perceived by many as a disgrace to the sari, as it did not adhere to traditional draping styles and lacked the cultural sensitivity necessary when wearing such a symbolic garment. This instance further demonstrates the challenges faced by the sari and the need for greater understanding and appreciation of its cultural significance.

Image: 8Kaushal / Ajay / SplashNews.com — https://www.eonline.com/photos/35922/zendaya-tom-holland-and-others-at-cultural-center-opening-in-india

In an increasingly globalized world, it is crucial to promote cultural exchange and learning, while also maintaining respect for the traditions and heritage of different communities. By acknowledging the sari’s rich history and philosophical relevance, we can strive to prevent instances like Zendaya’s outfit from misrepresenting and diluting the essence of this timeless symbol of Indian culture and tradition.

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