Blame the Parsi for the fashionable sari

“The most distinctive item of Parsi women’s clothing from the third quarter of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly the gara,” write Shilpa Shah and Tulsi Vatsal in the introductory chapter of the book Peonies & Pagodas: Embroidered Parsi Textiles from the Tapi Collection (2010). The book traces the origins of the gara — imported from China into India by Parsis between 1830 and 1865 — and its reinvention in modern times. The history comes to life with oral accounts of how different Parsi families came to acquire garas. So for example, novelist Bapsi Sidhwa inherited three garas from her mother which she passed on to two of her daughters. “One of them is most unusual — it has coloured birds and flowers all over the purple sari and looks stunning,” she told the authors.

The gara’s history is shrouded in mystery but it is generally believed to date to the Zoroastrian migration from Iran to India during the British rule in the Subcontinent. In the mid-1800s, Parsi merchants began trading in China. In his book, Indians in China (2005), Madhavi Thampi mentions how they were called baitouren or ‘whiteheads’ in the Chinese port of Canton because of their distinctive headgear. As the numbers of Parsi settlers in Canton grew, many of them were hired as middlemen by the East India Company.

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