Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, amongst lush tea plantations, archaeological marvels and ancient pilgrimage sites lies the state renowned for its wild silk production, Assam. Rearing and weaving silk is an integral part of Assam's culture and almost every village across the state is home to generations of silk-producing communities. Esteemed as the pride of Assam, the art and science behind rearing silkworms and weaving wonders from the silk dates back to centuries, and in this week blog we will be uncovering a few of these magical silk stories from this land. A page from history Handloom silk weaving is a way of life in this state and has close ties to the local culture and heritage. Over the centuries, it has not only become the Assam's oldest and largest industry but also has become the home to the largest cluster of weavers and handlooms in the country - a feat worth recognising. Assamese tradition traces the origin of its famed silk back to the 3rd century BC, to a political literary work called Arthashastra by Kautilya. It talks highly and is full of praises for the sophisticated silk cloths from Assam and goes on to describe its fibres as 'the colour of butter', 'as red as the sun', and 'of supreme quality'.
Historical records such as those by Huen Sang and Banabhatta spoke in detail about the silk route that passed through China, Tibet and Burma to reach Assam, and brought the knowledge of sericulture and silk trading along with it. The major centre for this silk trade continues to be the weaving town of Sualkuchi located in the Kamrup district of western Assam. Ruled by the Pala Dynasty's King Dharma Pala from 900 to 110 AD, legend has it he about 26 silk weaving families and created a weaving village here, close to current day Guwahati. Although this weaving village rose to fame during the Ahom rule.
A village exclusively dedicated to silks, Sualkuchi has been given the nickname "Manchester of Assam". According to intensive studies and data collection surveys by the Department of Industries and Commerce of Assam shows that the Sualkuchi weavers’ village is home to over 25,000 looms which produces nearly 6 million metres of Assamese silk annually.
The Timeless Trio
The timeless Assamese silk can be categorised into 3 types based on its production, being Muga Silk, Eri Silk and Pat Silk. Let us understand a little more about the secrets behind each of these varieties.
Woven from the silk obtained from “Antheraea Assamensis” or the Assamese native silkworm, Muga Silk is renowned for its golden lustre and shine, which fascinatingly increases after every wash. Preserved and promoted with a Geographical Indication tag (GI), Muga silk is one of the most expensive silks and is highly revered by the indigenous population, as the Muga Mekhala Chaddar (traditional dress of Assamese women) is considered equally important as the gold ornaments of a wedding trousseau.
Fondly referred to as the Ahimsa Silk, it is produced without causing any harm to the silkworms. This woolly textured silk is woven from the silk that is harvested only after the Ailanthus silk moth leaves its cocoon.
The major features of Eri Silk is that is extremely durable, moisture absorbent, strong and with thermal qualities, making it a great fit for both the winters and summers. It is also gaining popularity for being a sustainable and eco-friendly option.
Harvested from the cocoons of the pat silkworm, it is also called Mulberry Silk as the larvae of the silkworm feed exclusively on mulberry leaves. Known for its distinctive off-white hues, high-quality fabric, long-lasting sheen and durability, the production of Pat Silk is limited compared to the other two varieties because of the marginal number of mulberry worms reared in Assam.
Life beyond the tea estates
Sericulture and silk weaving is an ancient agro-based industry of this region, whose traditions have survived and surpassed multiple generations and are applauded for its sustainable practices. Right from locally grown and sourced raw materials like silk, cotton and kauna grass to frame looms and back strap looms made of bamboo and wood, the uniqueness of Assamese silk can be attributed to these low-cost and low carbon footprint techniques. Additionally, the dyes used are natural and are sourced from indigenous plants and minerals.
What sets it apart though is the customs and culture of harvesting and weaving. While both men and women take part in the cultivating and rearing of silkworms, it is only the women who are involved in the weaving process, like in most north-eastern states, unlike the rest of the country. There are many interesting myths amongst the local tribes that prevent a man from weaving, as it is believed that he would lose his virility if does so. Over and above the careful process of caring for the silkworm, feeding them and saving them from any harm, has established it as a social custom and community-driven activity. The intricacies of the craft are kept as a closely guarded secret amongst the Bodos and Rabhas weaving communities of Assam.
Indigenous art and crafts of our country are considered a treasure and deserve all our efforts to preserve, promote and propagate them, amidst the advent of technological inventions. At Sundari Silks, it is with great pride that we have an exclusive collection of Ahimsa Silks, that tell a myriad of beautiful tales from Assam.