The Silk Factory of Benares

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Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bruns was an accomplished New Orleans-born travel writer who resided for many years in San Francisco. She died on May 13, 1994. “What it means to Miss New Orleans” was first published in Travel & Leisure in January of 1994. To discover more about the author visit

by Rebecca Bruns

The overland route to India  swarmed with little boys recruiting travelers for hotels or shop tours or visits to carpet factories. You get fed up a bit, and I was positively glutted by the time I reached the Holy City on the Ganges, Varanasi, or Benares. When a young Indian with betel-nut-reddened teeth called from his rickshaw, “Psst! Missy, you want come to my father’s silk factory?”


I cried  “No, no! Leave me in peace! I just want to see where they burn the corpses.”  But the guy was clever.  In the end, for a small fee he took me  to the Burning Spot on the Ganges  then gave me the inside story on  the goddess of smallpox.

How could I refuse to go to the silk factory?

A short  ride away, he led me up some worn stairs, through dim alleys where Hindu images stared from little alcoves, through pygmy doorways, across a courtyard, down narrow halls, up more stairs, and finally into his house: a couple of tiny rooms where four looms were strung  with thread and set up with punchcard patterns. His brother, in spotless white, ushered me into a cool room lined entirely in white. Tea was served, a curtain drawn.

The ritual began.

Out of a small closet the brother drew his wares.  Bolt after bolt of  brilliant fabric emblazoned with  gold flew across my lap like flags of a magical kingdom. There was no time to inspect before another leaped out, sparkling with peacocks and golden fringe, and my heart was won – but here came another, a red blaze – the brother timed it just so.

A traditional Banarasi saree with gold brocade

At the end, dazed and bedazzled, I sat with this fabulous heap in my lap and thought “I want them all, I want them all!”  The selection process is excruciating. You cannot choose! Several of the finest the brother drapes on a pole running the length of the room. Gradually the heap thins out. Every disappearance is a torment.

Throughout this entire procedure I was plagued by the realization that I had very little money. But the rush was so fast and so thrilling, I could not leave empty handed. I settled on a wall hanging of rich green emblazoned with gold threads, and starved for weeks because of it.  The  reverse of the hanging was red, shot through with golden threads. Thirty years later, it’s still brilliant and beautiful.

It remains one of our family’s most treasured treasures.


Top photo by Dan Ruth, center shot by Ekabhishek. Both are courtesy of Wikipedia.

 Rebecca Bruns, was a freelancer living in San Francisco, who specialized in the tropics and exotic culture. To find out more about her, visit




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