Assam's golden treasure weaves

As Silky As Muga

Assam's golden treasure weaves

Ever heard of a clothing material that outlives its owner? There is no other silk material as eternal as the Muga Silk, for it is ever-gold, through centuries, describes Dhanvanti Keshavrao 

 It is interesting to consider the history of this famous silk, which is the only variety in the world to have a natural golden shine. For 600 years, Muga Silk was worn only by Ahom king and noble families of Assam. According to Assamese history, the Kirata people of Assam were the first to bring the art of silk weaving from China to India. Today, the Muga Silk is Assam’s golden treasure, and quite literally, given its natural golden hue.

The Muga history

Like Kanchipuram, in South India, famous for its silks, the oldest tradition of weaving Muga Silk is in the town of Sualkuchi in Central Assam. It can be traced to the 11th century when Dharmapal of the Pal dynasty sponsored the craft and brought 26 weaving families from Bengal to Suallkuchi. The village took shape as a weavers’ village when the Ahoms occupied Sualkuchi in the mid 17th century. Seeing the handiwork and the magnificent designs, even the Mughals bought the cloth from the village. Today, a Muga Silk saree costs Rs.12,000 – Rs.20,000 at the minimum.

There is no silk as much in demand as the famous Muga Silk - the natural golden coloured fabric of Assam. Interestingly, the demand for this silk is more in Japan than in India! So popular is this silk, that despite the efforts of the Central Silk Board of India, we are barely able to meet half the world demand of 390 million metres of this silk. Out of the Indian production of 18000 tonnes in 2010, the Muga silk totalled barely 400 tonnes or about two percent. Today this flourishing silk industry in Assam includes 17.2 lakh weavers producing 167 million metres of silk every year against a world demand of every year against a demand of 390 million metres.

Lucky India

“The demand for muga silk is greater than supply, as muga silkworm is only found in Assam’s atmosphere and one cannot rear these silkworms anywhere other than a special garden. The farmers have to take special care of this worm because birds eat them up. Muga Silk and how the silk with all its richness is fast becoming a fad not only in the Indian market but in the overseas also,” explains Raju Pinto of a silk emporium in Mumbai. 

This silk is not grown anywhere else in the world and we are fortunate that India has been able to get the coveted Geographical Identity (GI) labels for these silks, so that nobody in the world can call their similar golden coloured silks as Muga.

Muga and its making

Unlike the silk reeled from the cocoons of dead by mulberry cocoons (90 percent of India’s production), the Muga Silk is produced in a different manner. Muga is obtained from semi-domesticated silk worm called Aantheraea asamenisis, not to be found any where in the world, except in the North Eastern region of India. Antheraea assamensis are raised outdoors primarily on two trees - som (Machilus bombycina) and soalu (Litsaea polyantha). The caterpillars are placed on a tree and when they have stripped the tree of foliage, they will make a mass exit down the trunk. They are collected by the keepers and placed on another tree.

When ready to spin their cocoons, these caterpillars once again exit the tree where they were feeding. This behaviour allows the keepers to collect and control the caterpillars. Each caterpillar is placed into a closed container made of dried twigs. The peduncle (silk that anchors the cocoon) is very weak; the caterpillars prefer a low place with numerous twigs to protect them while in their cocoons. The silk is called “Muga”, the Assamese word for the rich amber colour of the cocoon. The cocoons are boiled in soap and soda solution and are reeled in reeling machine. 

Muga and its master attributes

* Natural golden colour of the Muga is unique. There are hardly any fabric with this golden colour in natural shade. Unlike Mulberry Silk which is bleached and dried, Muga Silk has the natural quality of appearing almost like spun gold. 

* The muga fabric is highly glossy. It makes the golden colour more attractive for a two-way - both outside and inside - use. 

* The shine of muga increases with every wash. Frequent washing is not a problem, in fact the more you wash the more shiny it gets! 

* It is very difficult to find diverse qualities blended into one yarn. The lustrous texture of Muga fabric is one-of-a-kind quality.

* Muga Silk is very durable. Articles of muga clothing have been known to last for centuries. Often, this silk outlives its owner!

* With the introduction of improved technology for processing Muga fabric, Muga dresses are now comfortable both in summer and winter.

* The most amazing thing about this Muga Silk is that it is completely eco-friendly. Absolutely no chemicals are used at any stage of production, not even to retain it's golden colour. This one is simply an evergreen (or should we say evergold?) beauty.

But despite its uniqueness, sufficient attention has not been paid for the promotion of Muga Silk. Lack of innovation, non-availability of good looms coupled with the crippling presence of middlemen, have left the industry in shambles, despite its high stature.

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