The textile tradition of Assam is replete with hand-woven silks known for their rich textures and unique designs. ranjita biswas delves into the world of silks from this north-eastern state where weaving is a way of life.
Paat, muga, eri — one can speak the words almost in one breath, but they are anything but a brief profile on the textile tradition of Assam. Famed for their longevity, texture and designs, the hand-woven textiles of this north-eastern state have enthralled connoisseurs for ages.
Paat silk relates to the familiar silk as in other parts of the country but its uniqueness lies in the designs on the mekhela chador, the two-piece ensemble Assamese women wear, with intricately woven butas (embellishment). The designs reflect the influence of ethnic tribal communities who live in the diverse north-east. Their women turn out beautiful hand-woven clothes.
Traditionally, Assamese women wore paat mekhela chador in white with golden butas in geometric designs or basic colours like red and green. According to anthropologists, for the predominantly agrarian society, red symbolised the colour of fertility of women, as well as Mother Earth, and green depicted nature.
Today, however, with fashion taking over, one can see other colour combinations. Coloured mekhela chador too, dyed according to preferred hues, are very popular. However, designs stick to age-old motifs. Even today, Assamese brides wear white mekhela chador, richly worked with golden thread, on the day of Joran (when womenfolk of the groom’s side come to bless the bride a day ahead of the wedding) or at the time of the wedding ritual itself. The white, which is shunned by most regions in the country for wedding rituals, is said to symbolise purity. Elderly women still prefer to wear paat dresses in white.
Eri silkworm feeds on castor plants (era in Assamese). The off-white material, somewhat looking like tussar, has a coarse texture as compared to the other silks. The material has been traditionally used to weave eri shawls which can keep the harshest winter at bay.
Eri cocoons are collected only after the moth emerges leaving a hole in the cocoon, and so they cannot be reeled with the silk filament getting broken. They are spun either by hand in a spinning wheel or by machine (mill-spun). Traditionally, eri silk yarns were always hand-spun, and as such a fine finish was difficult to achieve.
Today, however, with technology improving, eri fabric can achieve a fine finish. As a result, one can find eri mekhela chador, saree, and even fashion accessories. It is also highly suitable for mixing with other fibres, making it a versatile fabric. Almost 98 per cent of eri produced in the country comes from Assam.
Queen of Assamese textile
Among these textiles, however, the queen is the muga. Its golden sheen and uniqueness has set it apart from any other textile in the world. The north-east, most importantly Assam, is the only place in the world where the muga thread can be produced. Now it has obtained the right to GI (Geographical Indication) tag for its uniqueness.
Even from the hoary past, muga’s fame spread far and wide across the country, and beyond. Kautilya, the famous economist-politician (317 -293 BC) in King Chandragupta Maurya’s court, described the textile thus: “Red as the sun, as soft as the surface of the gem, woven while the threads are very wet, and of uniform or mixed texture.”
The Ahoms, who came from upper Burma (Myanmar) and ruled Assam for 600 years with great success, prized the muga ensemble so much that they did not allow common people to use it. Only members of the royal family and the noblemen were allowed to use muga, though its reeling was compulsory for women from villages, which was strictly monitored by officials.
The popularity of muga is such that today it often results in demand outstripping supply. They are a connoisseur’s delight and hence even more in demand, never mind the quite steep price of the fabric. But then, as the saying goes, once you buy a muga dress, it lasts forever. In fact, with aging, the fabric gets softer and it is not unusual for a grandmother to pass on her muga mekhela chador to her grand daughter in her first bloom of youth. In the vibrant Bihu dance of Assam, women dancers wear only muga mekhela chador.
The muga silkworm thrives in the open and cannot be reared in artificial conditions; any disruption in the environ, like air pollution, can upset this silkworm. Hence the cocoon-gatherers, concentrated in upper Assam, are always on the tenterhooks, not sure whether “this season will be a blessing or a curse,” as one such cocoon-gatherer said.
Rearing muga cocoons is a highly skilled job and the preserve of local ethnic tribes. The worm eats the leaves of only indigenous mulberry trees, Som (Machilus bombychina) and Soalu (Litsaea polyanthea). They have to be protected from birds, ants, etc. In order to prevent them from crawling down, farmers wrap slippery plantain leaves smeared with oil. To lure away ants, natives use molasses, dead fish, etc.
The fattened caterpillars are then collected and placed on hanging baskets to let them reel their cocoons; people know exactly when to collect the cocoons — before they reach the butterfly stage, when they cut through the cocoon making it useless for the thread. They are then boiled in huge cauldrons in water mixed with an alkaline solution and dried. As to how people preserve the ‘seed’ of the worms for the next season is a secret they would rather not share. The government, with support from the Central Silk Board, however, has started muga seed farms to increase the supply.
Roughly, only about 125 gram muga silk thread can be reeled from 1,000 cocoons, though the yield varies according to the quality. A sari needs a minimum 700 grams. The centre of weaving business in Assam is in Sualkuchi, an hour’s drive from Guwahati, the capital, which has grown from a village to a small township now. If you visit the place to buy clothes and items of trousseau for the Assamese bride, as many do since the price is cheaper here, you will be greeted by the staccato sound of the looms even from a distance. A majority of weavers are women, though men are also at work. Weavers are usually paid according to the delivery of the finished product; so it makes sense to work at a breakneck speed.
Many women from tribal communities come from distant villages and stay on for months. Tribal women, like from the Bodo community, say that the art of weaving is taught to them from a young age. According to social anthropologists, as these people migrated from the great plains of China at remote times, they carried along the skill of weaving and introduced it in the Brahmaputra Valley.
There was a time when every Assamese household would have a loom in the backyard to turn out daily use clothes, gamocha, the traditional cotton towel with a red border of designs, etc. It was de rigueur to weave at least a set of mekhela chador by a woman for her own trousseau. When Mahatma Gandhi visited Assam in pre-Independence times, he was charmed by this practice and highly praised it for its idea of self-sufficiency.
With modern flats and urbanisation, it is not possible to have a loom at home, but the continued patronage by Assamese women, of these beautifully woven clothes, has kept alive a tradition that dates back to centuries.