Early Indian literature, speaks of the bhairnivasini, a skirt like garment, which originatedfrom the antariya, a simple tube-shaped garment. This was stitched on one side, gathered and held at the waist by a girdle. Women wore it as a lower garment. It later evolved into a skirt with a drawstring called the ghaghri. The ghaghri was a narrow skirt, made from five and a half metres of fabric - the same length as the original antariya. Representations of a similar garment can be seen in Buddhist sculptures and paintings dating from the Kushana or early Gupta period. This was probably the prototype of the modern ghaghra.
Ghagra in India is known by many different names, depending on the regional style, the most popular, by far, being the ghagra. Other names in literature for the woman's lower garment are amsuka, ambara, antariya and jaghanamsuka. Another term used was the lekanga, a compound of the Sanskrit words-lanka (waist) and anga (body or limb). The lehanga is generally related to a panelled skirt that is narrower than the Rajasthani ghagra. However, there are no stiff definitions and the terms have found a more generic usage. This and other styles of the skirt are very popular in North India.
Changing fashions and western influences probably transformed this straight, simple garment into a full panelled skirt. Regional differences developed, with variations in length and the number and shape of panels, which were either rectangular or triangular. The most voluminous skirts could be made up from about 20 metres of cloth. It was the Hare that made the ghaghra such a sumptuous garment-and one so captivating that it was celebrated both in poetry and art.
From the fifth to sixth century A.D., the ghaghra came into common use. It is now worn in all parts of the country, but the ghaghra's most prevalent and varied form is seen in Rajasthan and its neighbouring states. It is almost always worn with a kanchli and odhni. Sometimes a patka or phetiya is worn as a centrepiece over the ghaghra to control its volume and fabric. This prevents any random movement of the ghaghra that might expose the body. It is distinct and bright in colour and decoration than the ghaghra and indicates a high social status. It is seen in early Rajput paintings and sculpture and was essential wear for women entering the royal zenana. The ghaghra is actually a long skirt, which has the construction of a simple gathered skirt or a flared gored skirt. It wraps the legs fully or partially, depending on the norms of propriety among different ethnic groups, although a long ghaghra usually relates to a more puritanical modesty.
The flare of the ghaghra in Rajasthani custom has inspired much romance and passion in the works of folk singers, poets and painters alike. Gherdar, assikali ko ghaghro, ghumerdar ghaghra, kali kali ma gher are romantic expressions from folk songs, thus describing the beauty of the ghaghra worn by the female protagonists. The central figure in Rajasthani paintings is always shown wearing the most voluminous embroidered ghaghra. Expensive fabric, beautiful embroidery and other ornamentation reflected the wearer's high social status. Also, the greater the volume, the more fabric the woman had to contend with, so it was indicative of her physical strength and affluence. To accommodate the fullness of the figure and the flare of the skirt, a horizontal line was stitched along the hem. This was known as the seva, a tuck in the fabric, so that the skirt fell consistently to the ground. This also enabled its length to be changed as and when required, keeping the garment in use for long periods of time and probably even allowing it to be passed down through successive generations.
The kalidar ghaghra is the most popular of these attires. It is a long garment with numerous vertical pleats. It is like a gored skirt in construction, each gore being a triangular section, known as a kali. A large number of kali are sewn together to form a ghaghra, which flares at the hem. The size of each panel ranges between communities but is most commonly 5 cm. wide at the apex and 20 cm. at the base. When extra fullness is needed at the waist, the panel is cut 10 cm. wide at the top. The number of panels in a ghaghra may vary from 20 to 100. As much as two bales or 20 meters of fabric can be used in a single ghaghra. Amongst Rajputs, a poshak or a three-piece ensemble was presented to the bride by her mother-in-law during the wedding. This poshak had to include a 100-panel ghughravaat ghaghra, which would have little gold bells that were sewn along its hem.
Each flared section of the ghagra is attached to the others on either side along its length. This cumulative voluminous flared piece is then gathered or pleated at the waist and a belt is sewn on. A belt is made of the same fabric as the ghagra and usually has narrow yellow piping where it is attached to the main skirt. The belt is approximately 4 cm. wide and the finished waist of the ghaghra is half times the waist size of the wearer. A tape is drawn through the belt to tie it at the waist. A side opening on the left is finished with facing and is 7.5-10 cm. in length. The lower edge of the kalidar ghaghra is finished with several bindings.
A married woman's ghagra in Rajasthan has two bindings, namely the broad strip, varying in width from 2.5 to 10 cm. and finer strip of 0.5 cm piping. The broader piping is in different colours, red being the most popular. Sometimes, it matches the colour of the ghaghra. Saffron is used for the fine piping known as guna. Magazi was traditionally the choice of women in the upper class of society. As one went up the social status, the magazi grew broader while the less privileged used a narrow piping called got. A strip, cut 10 cm. wide on straight grain, is attached under the ghaghra all along the hem. This edging is called the pherwaj and is made with red un-coloured cotton. It serves to finish the two pipings and also adds weight and strength to the garment. The drape and fall of the ghaghra is thus enhanced. Traditionally, the kalidar ghaghra is handstitched with plain seams.
The pat ghaghra is made of several rectangular panels of fabric, which are sewn together. Gathers or knife pleats are sewn in at the waist to give the skirt fullness. The finishing of the skirt is the same as the kalidar ghaghra. Usually, silk or satin is used for the pat ghaghra, which is heavily ornamented with metal embroider. Satin and silks are fabrics that tend to skirmish easily but are still used to make pat ghaghra as the construction of this skirt requires larger pieces of fabric. Elderly women and widows wear the pat ghaghra. This may be due to the fact that less fabric is required to make them and they are less ornamental. Although among certain communities such as the Maheshvari, pat ghaghra is the norm and used for festive, ceremonial and everyday wear.
The kalipatti ghaghra is a lovely combination of the kalidar ghaghra and a straight length of fabric. The top half of the ghaghra is made of panels, whereas the lower portion is a straight piece of fabric. This facilitates movement and makes it very comfortable to wear. The kalipatti is less heavy than a kalidar ghaghra and also more affordable. It is commonly worn among the communities like Jat, Bishnoi and Rajput in Rajasthan. The dhabla is worn by the Rajasthani women of the Jat, Bishnoi, Gujar and Kumhar communities and is basically an unstitched length of narrow width fabric. It is also known as a saadi or ligra. This fabric is woven in a method that is very similar to that of pattu weaving. Two narrow strips, which are woven on the pit loom, are joined along the length such that the selvedge is visible on the lower and upper borders. The length in between forms the height of the garment. A single length of thread is used to create pleats at the waist by hand tacking. The thread is used to pull the skirt tight around the waist and then a cord is wrapped around to secure it. This goes around many times and is long enough to hang down one side, touching the end part of the ghaghra. This cord is commonly known as a dori and has a diameter of between 0.5-2.5 cm. and is made of plaited coarse dark brown wool. The ends are ornamented with beads, tassels, shells and bits of coloured wool.