Assam is popular in the world, not only for the Kaziranga National Park and the mighty Brahmaputra river, but also for its thriving sericulture industry
India is the second largest global producer of silk after China. The country enjoys the unique position and distinction of producing all the four known varieties of silk, namely, domesticated Mulberry silk (Bombyx mori), semi-domesticated Eri silk (Philosamia cynthia ricini), wild Tussar silk (Antheraea mylitta) and the golden Muga silk (Antheraea assamensis). China produces about 80 per cent of the world’s silk and India over 10 per cent.
Assam is the only place in the world which produces three types of silk – golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri silk. The State’s silk industry is weaved around the hamlet of Sualkuchi (in the Kamrup district of Assam and about 40km from Guwahati), one of the largest weaving villages in the world and rightly known as the ‘Manchester of the East’. The history of Assam silk dates back to as early as the 11th century when the Pala King, Dharmapala, sponsored the craft of 26 silkweaving families from nearby Tantikuchi and brought them to Sualkuchi. When the Shan invaders defeated the Mughals in the 17th century and occupied Assam, they encouraged traditional weaving that was popular among the locals. During the British rule, Sualkuchi exported its fabric to many cities around the world. Today, the industry in Assam has more than 13 lakh handlooms and is one of the largest employment generators, providing livelihood to more than 2.5 million people.
WEAVING A COMMUNITY
Sericulture occupies an important part in the social and cultural fabric of the local Assamese tribes. All of them have their respective looms and weavers are experts in their artistic sensibilities, that is evident in their geometric motifs and exquisite formal designs. It is said that during the olden days, prospective grooms would not ask their brides-to-be of her culinary or housekeeping skills. The principal question they would ask was ‘Can you weave?’.
When one considers factory-made silk to the hand-woven variety, it will be a given that the latter is much richer in design and texture. Surprisingly, no two hand-woven silks are ever exactly alike! The woven silk of Assam is judged on the basis of the hereditary traits and the overall personality of their weaver, as also their sense of colour and balance!
VARIETIES AND CHOICES
Muga is among the finest silks in the world and the best produced in India. It is also known as the ‘pride of Assam’ and is produced by the Antheraea assamensis caterpillar. This lustrous variety is a golden yellow or light brown. The golden hues of this delicate silk variety are popular throughout the world. As many as nine districts of Assam produce the Muga yarn. The tradition of spinning this variety is nearly three centuries old with the skills made known to the world by the famed French traveller, Jean Joseph Tavernier, in 1662. Silk was extensively used by the Ahom kings as their royal fabric.
The Pat variety of silk (also known as Mulberry silk) comprises as much as 90 per cent of all the silk produced in Assam. It is produced by the Bombyx mori species of caterpillar, feeding solely on Mulberry leaves. The silk is light and is especially worn during the summers.
Ericulture is also produced mainly in Assam. Eri silk is obtained from the caterpillar of the Samia cynthia moth. It is creamy white in colour and the sari made of the silk is generally worn during the winter because its strong thermal properties and ability to blend with wool has made it popular in colder climes.
The craftsmen in Assam weave delicate designs of flowers in Muga and Pat silk, while geometric shapes and bold designs are made on Eri silk. With the sheer variety of apparel that can be made out of silk including saris, towels, winter-wear and the famed Mekhela chador (traditional Assamese dress), one can be spoilt for choice with silk!
Text: Adnan Hamid