One of the top items on Quan’s India bucket list was to buy a sari and wear it on our Taj Mahal visit.
What is a Sari?
The sari is the traditional national dress for Indian women. It is simply a long length of fabric, typically six to nine yards, that’s beautifully draped around the body. As a foreigner one of the most intimidating aspects of a sari is how to wear it.
Here is a break down of the prices of a sari from the eyes of a foreigner:
- Petticoat: This is the long skirt that is worn under the sari. The folds of the sari is often tucked into the waist band. It is to the woman’s taste in terms of whether the petticoat matches the sari. Some advocate for a nude color petticoat while others suggest a petticoat in a contrasting color to act as a further accentuation. For example, a beautiful blue turquoise with an orange petticoat peeking out.
- Pallu: This is the end of the sari that is beautifully decorated. It is often pleated and draped / pinned across the shoulder. There are also many variations available with the pallu. It can be worn draped open over the shoulder, it can be wrapped around the arm on the other side, or used as a head covering.
- Cholis: This is a blouse that covers the chest and leaves the midriff open. While some saris have it sown into the fabric, it can also be purchased as a separate piece to wear under the sari.
- Safety pins: This is perhaps not an official part of the sari but it seems to be the universal secret weapon for pulling together your sari!
Styles of Sari
There is a wide range of materials and prices for saris. On the streets we saw simply cotton saris and in the shops we saw fine silk saris some with prints and some with fine embroidery. Each state in India have their own traditional form with material, prints, and weaves that are unique to their own history and traditions. Many of the prints are inspired by the designs of temples and palaces.
Shopping for a Sari
In our travels, Quan tends to favor female shop owners when making purchases. For the sari, she was especially intent to look for a female shop owner as she also wanted to get advice on how to wear the dress. We went to Subhash Bazaar an open market with multiple stands selling silks.
Our biggest tip for navigating this market is to keep a close eye on your wallet, be prepared for sharing the narrow streets with rickshaws and throngs of people shopping, and bring your patience!
After visiting multiple stores we were surprised that we couldn’t find a single one where we could work with a woman. Every shop was staffed by men in narrow shops lined with rows and rows of beautiful bolts of cloth. On one side are stools or benches where you sit and select the color or style cloth. Once you select the one you like, you are invited onto the padded platform where they draped the cloth on for you to see.
The process can be quite daunting due to the sheer amount of options. It helped that we narrowed down with price – we told them we wanted to cheapest sari and Quan wanted something in a bright color. We finally settled on a bright turquoise sari. It was actually the first one that Quan had tried on in the first shop we entered! We then left and searched in a few other shops only to return an hour later to buy the first one. The sari was 600 rupees which is $9 and the cholis (top) was 150 which is $2.25.
We didn’t realize until later that Quan would also need a petticoat, she ended up wearing yoga pants under her sari which also worked out. The cholis we bought was quite cheap and the seems came apart later in the night and had to be hand sewn back together. We would suggest checking your cholis carefully and don’t forget to buy the petticoat!
How to Put On A Sari
In terms of how to wear a sari, it it best to let an expert explain that process. I had a lesson from the shop owner but also spent time watching and copying the techniques of these ladies.
As a foreigner, I found the hardest part is how to best gather and tuck the skirt material after you pin the pallu over the shoulder.
Wearing a Sari at the Taj Mahal
When Quan lived in China and friends with blond hair would visit, they would often get treated like movie stars at certain tourists attraction because of their light color hair. As a Chinese woman wearing a brightly colored sari at the Taj Mahal, this is the closest Quan has ever come to feeling like a movie star.
It started in the line to enter. We arrived very early at 6am to be one of the first to enter. Quan did her best to put on the sari in the morning after spending the evening watching multiple you tube tutorials.
She befriended a group of Indian women in line next to her. They seemed to admire her sari and kept touching it, giving her the thumbs up, and then laughing as they spoke to each other about Quan. They were also trying to communicate something to her but since she didn’t understand Hindi so wasn’t sure how to respond. She asked them to take a picture with her. After taking the photo the ladies seemed to feel comfortable enough with Quan to address the issue at hand. The next thing she knew 6 hands were unraveling her sari and then carefully repleating and pinning it to her. Safety pins started coming out of purses and in no time she felt more secure and fitted in her sari than ever before.
Thanks to these ladies, Quan was able to fullfill her dream of wearing a sari at the Taj Mahal!
Several other Indian ladies ended coming up to ask for photos and it was a great way for us to meet some new friends:
We were also able to capture some pretty epic photos of us in front of the Taj Mahal:
We will have a post coming very soon on how we were able to capture these photos!