Silk Shops and Khadi in Varanasi

by Joji

Silk Shops

We first visited Baba Blacksheep, which is easy for rickshaw drivers to find since there are signs all over town pointing to its direction.  The service there was very professional and not pushy.  They seemed biased towards the silk made in India and seemed to not like stuff made in Nepal.  Regardless, they go through a routine of showing you what is real silk and what is not.  It’s a good demonstration of the silk burn test where they take threads from both the horizontal and vertical lines of the fabric.  If it is real silk it will burn and smell like burning hair.  Then when you touch it and squish it with your fingers it should turn into dust.  If it is polyester or some other type of synthetic material it will smell like plastic and melt when it  burns and turn into a hard ball.  It was our first time to see the burn test done from the vertical and horizontal strands of material.  They claim the reason for this test is that many resellers will cheat you by selling you a silk ‘blend’ where the horizontal threads are silk but the vertical threads (or vise versa) are synthetic.  A smart trick, indeed!

Mehrotra Silk Factory was another silk shop that we visited on our last day since it was within walking distance of the train station.  This shop is super tiny and just large enough for you to sit in with all the fabrics on the floor and their employees.  Again, the service here was very professional and not pushy and they also appeared to have a larger variety of higher quality silks for being such a tiny shop!

Shri Gandhi Ashram Khadi

We can’t recommend this shop even though it is in the Lonely Planet like the other 2 above.  First the location is very far from the old city and many rickshaw drivers will not know where it is even though they will say that they do.  We hired a cycle rickshaw who hardly spoke English, but of course he said he knew where it was.  About 30 minutes later and having to ask several people along the way we were finally on the right track.  Then suddenly some guy on the street stops the cycle driver because he notices that the driver appears lost.  This was no ordinary dude.  This was a seasoned professional scammer who was looking for vulnerable tourists!  After talking to the driver he handed me a card and said that he told the driver how to get to the Shri Gandhi Ashram Khadi.  He made it sound like we should be grateful, as we would have never found it without his help.  Then he handed me his card and said, “I told the driver that after you visit the Khadi shop, to take you to visit my shop!”  Yeah right, sure we are going to do that!  We took his card and left.  Sure enough a couple of minutes later we arrived at the Khadi shop. (Khadi is Indian hand spun and hand woven cloth.)  While this is a government shop, half of the lights in the shop were not on so it was hard to see the merchandise.  Then a bunch of guys approached us as we were the only customers in the store.  “Uh oh, here we go again,” I thought!  But the guys turned out to be very nice and showed us some of their khadi made products and we ended up purchasing a towel.  Then one of the employees told us that we are right next to the Muslim quarter where you can find all kinds of different types of khaki and better prices since it was straight from the factory.  “I’m going there myself right now because I have to buy some thread for the shop.  You can follow me if you want,” he said.  Ok, what harm could that be, we thought.  So off we went with this government employee who started to chat with us and tell us about his family vacations and what not.  He actually seemed very nice and sincere.

Soon we were in the Muslim quarter where he mentioned, “Did you know that there are over 15,000 employees in the Muslim quarter all working in making khaki and silk fabrics?”  I thought for a second, “where did I hear that before? … I know, that scammer, who gave us his card and told us to visit his shop after the khaki shop said the same thing!”   Nah, this was just coincidence, right?  I just thought that this must be common knowledge in this area. Then we entered an old building and down a couple of steps into what appeared to be a dark room.  But it was dimly lit and there was a guy sitting in a hole in the dirt with a huge fabric making contraption all around him.  The guy told us that he was making silk, as all of their silk fabrics are done the old way, by humans.  Next to the worker was a large metal machine and that was used for making polyester junk that is sold mostly to us tourists!

Weaving silk

We followed the government employee into another dark room and he said that the workers were out to lunch, and that is why the lights were out, but then he turned on the lights and another man was sitting in a different hole in the ground wearing nothing but khadi fabric shorts as it was extremely warm in that dungeon and he was working away!  The worker seemed to be quite happy to see us as we came through and watched him work, despite his working conditions.

Silk weaver

Finally, we were led into another room by the government employee, or what is he really?  Just a salesman who was hiding out in the government run shop waiting for a tourist to show up?  Whatever he was we will never know, but one thing we do know is that he was working for a commission.  You probably already guessed it, the shop he led us into was the shop of that scammer who gave us his card while we were looking for the government shop!  Coincidence or just bad luck?  Maybe both, but both Heidi and I couldn’t believe it!  Never in a million years did we think we were ever going to see this crook again!  Should we run for the door?  How do we make a getaway?  Oh no … it’s too late, we are entering the devil’s domain!!!

As we entered the doorway, the scammer looked so joyous and surprised!  “I cannot believe you remember me!?  You have such a good memory!”, he said.  “Yeah we have a good memory to remember that we never wanted to see your face again,” I said to myself.  But we sat there and listened to his sales pitch and he even did the burn test for us.  His products may have even been legitimate, but his approach was just terrible.  And that government employee who tried to be our friend … where was he now?  He left and I just wanted to punch that guy!

After listening to the sales pitch we told the scammer that we were not interested in spending so much money on his silk products.  In fact, we were not interested in silk at all and we told him so, that we came looking for khaki.  He insisted on showing us more silk and we kind of felt that we didn’t have a choice.  After all, we were in a small room away from the door and his large muscle bound employee was sitting nearby sorting fabrics for us to see.  So we just kept up our story that we didn’t have much money and therefore, didn’t want to spend much.  Finally, out of nowhere he stated on this tirade, “I know what type of tourists you are!  You’re the type that don’t know anything and get ripped off in the city and by fake stuff cause you don’t know any better.  You are poor Americans who can’t afford real silk, etc, etc, etc ….  and on and on.”  Heidi and I looked at each other and said this is ridiculous as we both laughed a little.  “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?”  I said to Heidi and that was it!  We both got up and headed out the door.  Even with the big guy sitting right there.

NOTE:  From his card, the name of the scamming company is: “Weavers Handloom Enterprises”  and the guy’s name might be Abdul-Majid.  He wears a hat, probably to hide some skin burns that he has on his body and he has a high pitched scratchy voice. I hope you never have to meet this guy!

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