The word sari is derived from Sanskrit शाटी śāṭī which means 'strip of cloth' and शाडी śāḍī or साडी sāḍī in Prakrit, and which was corrupted to sāṛī in Hindi. The word 'Sattika' is mentioned as describing women's attire in ancient India in Buddhist Jain literature called Jatakas. This could be equivalent to modern day 'Sari'.
In the history of Indian clothing the sari is traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished during 2800–1800 BC around the western part of theIndian subcontinent. The earliest known depiction of the sari in the Indian subcontinent is the statue of an Indus Valley priest wearing a drape.
Ancient Tamil poetry, such as the Silappadhikaram and the Sanskrit work, Kadambari by Banabhatta, describes women in exquisite drapery or sari.The ancient stone inscription from Gangaikonda Cholapuram in old Tamil scripts has a reference to hand weaving. In ancient Indian tradition and theNatya Shastra (an ancient Indian treatise describing ancient dance and costumes), the navel of the Supreme Being is considered to be the source of life and creativity, hence the midriff is to be left bare by the sari.
Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st–6th century AD) show goddesses and dancers wearing what appears to be a dhoti wrap, in the "fishtail" version which covers the legs loosely and then flows into a long, decorative drape in front of the legs. No bodices are shown.
Other sources say that everyday costume consisted of a dhoti or lungi (sarong), combined with a breast band called 'Kurpasika' or 'Stanapatta' and occasionally a wrap called 'Uttariya' that could at times be used to cover the upper body or head. The two-piece Kerala mundum neryathum (mundu, a dhoti or sarong, neryath, a shawl, in Malayalam) is a survival of ancient Indian clothing styles. The one-piece sari is a modern innovation, created by combining the two pieces of the mundum neryathum.
It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments for lower body and sometimes shawls or scarf like garment called 'uttariya' for upper body, have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years. In ancient couture the lower garment was called 'nivi' or 'nivi bandha', while the upper body was mostly left bare. The works of Kalidasa mentions 'Kurpasika' a form of tight fitting breast band that simply covered the breasts. It was also sometimes referred to as 'Uttarasanga' or 'Stanapatta'.
The tightly fitted, short blouse worn under a sari is a choli. Choli evolved as a form of clothing in the 10th century AD, and the first cholis were only front covering; the back was always bare but covered with end of saris pallu. Bodices of this type are still common in the state of Rajasthan.
In South India and especially in Kerala, women from most communities wore only the sari and exposed the upper part of the body till the middle of the 20th century. Poetic references from works like Silappadikaram indicate that during the Sangam period in ancient Tamil Nadu, a single piece of clothing served as both lower garment and head covering, leaving the midriff completely uncovered. Similar styles of the sari are recorded paintings by Raja Ravi Varma in Kerala. By the mid 19th century, though, bare breasted styles of the sari faced social revaluation and led to the Upper cloth controversy in the princely state of Travancore (now part of the state of Kerala) and the styles declined rapidly within the next half a century.
In ancient India, although women wore saris that bared the midriff, the Dharmasastra writers stated that women should be dressed such that the navel would never become visible. By which for some time the navel exposure became a taboo and the navel was concealed.