(Views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author.)

Between 321 BC and 850 AD India was one of the worlds great civilizations. Parallel to the Roman Empire in the west and the Chinese Empire in the East, Chandragupta Maurya founded the first large empire in India (including the present day Pakistan and Afghanistan). Trade links to the east and west were already established. Textile and spices were among the most prominent trade items from India.

Probably owing to the climatic conditions, the Indians did not feel the need of cut and stitched garments. Cotton was first grown and used in India. Indians had mastered the art of embellishing the cloth. They used gold and silver in their clothes. The Ancient Indian costumes belonging to the Vedic and post-Vedic period (1500 BCE to 350BCE) generally consisted of three articles of clothing for men and women alike. These were not cut and sewn garments, but rectangular pieces of beautiful textiles. There was the Antariya, which was like a loin cloth. The ways and variety of draping it were many. It could be worn simply wrapped around with pleats in front. It could be taken in between the legs in kaccha style, or could have the loose end pleated like a fan. The fabric ranged from sheer to thick depending on the person wearing it. Sculptures of the periods show varying lengths of the antariya, ending as high as modern day hot pants, or as low as the ankles.

The other rectangular piece of cloth was the uttariya which was like a mantle. It covered the upper part of the body. The Uttariya could be worn across the back, resting on shoulders and left to fall freely on the forearms. Sometimes women took two uttariyas, one draped beautifully on the head, and the other across the arms. All this while there was no covering on the breasts.

Yet another piece of clothing was kayabandh, which was like a belt to hold the Antariya in place. The kayabandh could also be tied in various styles; it could be taken around the body two or three times, and tied with different kinds of knots. The sculptures reveal that Atariya was always tied below the navel, emphasizing the curves of the female form. Both men and women wore ample jewellery, and adorned themselves with flowers.

During the Mauryan period, the basic articles of clothing remained the same. Chandragupta Maurya, who founded the Maurya dynasty in 320 BC, himself married a princess from the Greek Selucid court and was in close touch with his Greek neighbors, so that court life had about it a strong exotic flavor with its foreign inmates wearing their own costume, Alkazi, 2006. The Indians had trade links with Romans, Instead of linen and wool, women preferred lighter, softer materials, cotton stuffs from India and, most of all, silks, which reached Rome by the land routes of the Empire or through Indian and, later, Egyptian traders., Boucher 1998.


Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador at the Mauryan court, writes in Indika about the riches of the Mauryan court and the prevailing styles of dress. It is around this period that we begin to see the changes in the indigenous costume of the people of Indian subcontinent. We see a strong Greeco-Roman flavor in the costumes.

Though most of the women are shown bare-chested in the sculptures, and so are men, the literature of the period reveals that married women wore a breast band, to cover their breasts. It was known as stanmasuka or Pratidhi, which is similar to the mammillare worn by the Roman women. We come across another term for Antariya known as nivi or nivi-bandha. There is no reference to wearing of the lower garment in the style of a modern saree. Brij Bhushan 1958. Although we come across some sculptures wearing a saree like garment, but mostly there were two separate garments. In many parts of India we still have a two piece sari. 

The sari with its endless variety in texture and in colour, in layout and in decoration, is the prominent female costume of India Bhattacharyya 1995. Sari is regarded as the traditional costume for Indian women. When did saree come to be as it is today is debated by many scholars. Some believe that existed from the Aryan times, female households wore a kanchuka (tunic) and a sari. The dhotis were worn in different styles and individual creativity was reflected in various forms of sari draping around the body. Vinay Bahl

If you look at the clothes of a Roman woman during the time of Roman Empire - you see something more of a sari as worn later in India. The saree as we see today has a main body and a rectangular area towards the end which hangs lose from the shoulder, incidentally this is known as the palla.

We come across the term palla while studying Roman costume, whereas this term finds no mention in ancient Indian costume. A few historians believe that the modern saree was a result of the Roman influence. The indigenous antarya and uttariya were combined together along with the palla to give rise to the saree as we see today, which we regard as the traditional costume of India.

A rectangular piece of fabric varying from 5 to 9 meters in length and almost 1.5 meters in width, with a plain or decorated body and a decorated end piece known as the palla or anchal, is the quintessential garment of the Indian woman, known as the saree. From Kashmir to Kanya Kumari, it is the saree which binds the Indian woman, the style of drapery varies from one state to another, and so do the motifs and styles of weaving.

The Choli which is like a fitted blouse came as an addition during the Gupta period (early 4th Century). The Choli probably came to be because of primarily two reasons, one of them was modesty, the other was the influence of cultures from the west. The evolution from unstitched to stitched garment has an inescapable logic when it evolves for purely functional purposes. In case of Germanic races, it was protection from the cold, and in India, it served the purpose of modesty, Alkazi 2006.


  • Watson Francis, A Concise history of India, Thames and Hudson,1979
  • Alkazi Roshen, Ancient Indian Costume Art Heritage, New Delhi 2006
  • Vinay Bahl, Shifting Boundaries of Nativity and Modernity in South Asian Womens Clothes, Dialectical Anthropology   Volume 1 / 1975 - Volume 35 / 2011
  • Tarlo Emma, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, Chicago University Press, 1996.
  • Boucher Francois, A History of Costume in the West Thames and Hudson 1998
  • Bhattacharyya A.K., A Pageant of Indian Culture, (Art and Archaeology) Vol. I, Abhinav Publications, 1995
  • Brij Bhushan Jamila, Costume and Textiles of India, Taraporevalas Treasure House of Books Bombay, 1958

This article was originally published in the Costume Textile and Fashion Blog written by Toolika Gupta.