Only the intoxicating fragrance of the jasmine that flower girls sell along the teeming sidewalks hints at the hidden opulence of the shopping district. Otherwise, Panagal Park, with its modest bazaar vendors and dusty traffic, is a far cry from New York's Fifth Avenue.
But enter one of the multistoried silk stores, and you'll hear elevator gossip reminiscent of Tiffany's or Bergdorf Goodman: Is it true that celebrity came to the first floor today? No, she came yesterday; another one came today.
What they shopped for were Kanchipuram silk saris, considered the Versaces of southern India, because one piece can cost $1,000. Many will last a lifetime with good care, and all represent status.
Kanchipuram silk, named after the city in which it's produced, is a tradition that some say goes back hundreds of years, perhaps to the origins of the city in the 8th or 9th century. The colors are brilliant, and the designs of tropical flora and fauna, in gold thread, are exquisitely geometric.
The Kanchipuram silk sari was seriously threatened a decade ago because of changing trends, says K. Viswanathan, owner of a silk store in Panagal Park."The Kanchipuram silk sari was going to expire, because younger women were discarding saris for other kinds of clothes. Only older women were wearing them, and so the sari became unfashionably associated with grandmothers."
In an effort to save his family silk business and to "give the sari a fair chance of survival," Mr. Viswanathan set up a design studio that would cater to new tastes. Other silk houses also began to innovate.
Sinuous Persian motifs and millefleurs supplanted the traditional simplicity and geometry of Kanchipuram motifs. Pastels replaced the brilliant colors younger people frowned on as loud and gaudy. And the labor-intensive process of connecting the border and the main part of the garment was largely given up. Instead, the yarn was dyed in different colors to give the contrasting border-body effect.
The tech boom in India has sustained the Kanchipuram silk sari comeback. Increased household incomes mean more money to spare on luxuries. Nonresident Indians have also played a part in the renaissance. "They're the ones who really want to hold on to traditional clothes and habits," says Viswanathan.
This silk was once woven for Hindu royals. Historically, Kanchipuram was the seat of an important south Indian kingdom known for its Hindu temples. The stone carvings and bas-relief on these centuries-old temples inspired the traditional motifs - such as stylized swans, lions, serpents, roosters, elephants, peacocks, and flowers - on the brocade, experts say.
"The Kailasanathar temple has so many beautiful carvings that became designs on silk saris," says V. Rajendran, zonal director of the Weavers' Service Center in Madras.
More than the designs, it's the weaving technique itself that makes this brocade special. "This technique is very exclusive, very time-consuming," says Shakuntala Ramani, chair of the weaving center at the Kalakshetra Foundation, an institution instrumental in reviving ethnic designs.
It takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to make a single sari, depending on the colors and designs involved.
Each sari is individually woven on a hand loom, so no two saris are exactly the same. "The Kanchipuram sari is a limited edition," says S. Ramesh, managing partner of a silk store in Panagal Park. "Being hand-woven, some little imperfections will be there, but that adds charm to the sari."
Other defining features of the brocade are that the silk yarn is dyed before weaving, threads used are 3- to 5-ply, and the contrasting colored border and body are interlinked by an intricate process called korvai. The motifs are woven in special "gold" threads made by taking one or two fine silk threads, winding extra-fine silver wire/thread around it, and then dipping the resulting filament in 24-karat gold.
"I like Kanchipuram for the richness of the fiber and design. It has a good appearance and feeling," says Namagiri Sankaranarayanan, a shopper who buys Kanchipuram silk saris for special occasions such as festivals, birthdays, and weddings.
Kanchipuram silk is the bridal sari de rigueur of southern India. Tradition is the reason brides dream of wrapping themselves in rich brocades, according to Mrs. Ramani.
Love of gold is ingrained in the culture. "[Here] women love gold jewelry and silk," says Mr. Ramesh.
The new generation of women want dressy Kanchipuram silk saris with trendy motifs. But Ramani frowns on some of the new designs: "Even the [World Trade Center] twin towers were put on a Kanchipuram silk sari. They copy paintings. They stud saris with glittering stones. All that is not Kanchipuram."
Buyers looking for the real thing also need to beware that not all cloth sold as Kanchipuram is hand-woven silk. Many of the saris being passed off for Kanchipuram silk are actually synthetic blends, says weaver K. Ravikumar. Some of them are machine-made. And less reputable merchants may encourage weavers to use single-ply thread to cut costs.
Weaving is not a well-paid trade. The cheapest component of a handcrafted Kanchipuram silk sari is the labor. Weavers make about $14 for a sari that retails for $70 and takes nearly a week to make.
Complex designs take more time and labor, but Jacquard boxes, hanging above Kanchipuram weavers' rudimentary hand looms, help to some extent. In the late 18th century, Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a programmable loom using holes punched in cards to control the weaving pattern. But it wasn't until about 10 years ago that Kanchipuram weavers started adopting his method and Jacquard boxes to cope with the rising demand for more complex designs and the stricter enforcement of child-labor laws.
Despite the modernization the brocade has undergone to ensure its market survival, a new threat lurks on the horizon: the dwindling number of skilled traditional Kanchipuram silk weavers. "Now the market is there, but the skill is lacking," says Ramani.