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Assam Silk

Rukmini Barua Deka

“ The Centre is committed to promote and expand silk industry in Assam and the northeastern region and a 24 sericulture projects have been sanctioned for this region. The projects are under various stages of implementation, of which, six are exclusively for Assam. Silk Board is providing subsidies and other incentives to promote the sector.All the four commercially exploited varieties of silk-mulberry,muga,eri and tussar are produced in the northeastern region which contributes about 21 per cent of the total silk production of the country”,said, K.M.Hanumantharayappa, Chairman, Central Silk Board, Government of India, addressing the media on October 24 at Guwahati.

The Centre has sanctioned six integrated sericulture projects under the North Eastern Region Textile PromotionScheme (NERTPS) for muga, eri and mulberry sericulture. The Centre has allotted Rs. 185.11 crore. Under the 24 NERTPS projects across the entire northeastern region the government is targetting to provide assistance to almost 44,000 stakeholders including 7,100 in Assam. He said that production of muga, eri and mulberry in Assam have gone up in recent times.Eri production reached 3,600 tonne in 2016-17 while muga production was 141 tonne and mulberry output stood at 45 tonne, he added.

Silk rearing first began in the Brahmaputra valley as far as the 13th century. In fact,muga, Assam’s most famous variety of silk enjoys a royal lineage, having been introduced by the first Ahom King Sukapha for exclusive use of the royals. Today, this soft, durable textile continues to charm us with its sensuous, understated beauty.

Since centuries, for every young girl living in the varied communities, inhabiting the villages in the fertile Brahmaputra valley, it was essential to know how to weave. The family loom was as important for household needs as it was for commercial enterprise. Since ancient days, Assam’s Dimasa Kachari community has been associated with the rearing of silk cocoons, reeling, spinning the yarn into beautiful fabrics. The women of the Bodo community are acknowledged to be the first weavers in the northeast. Traditional motifs in their craft include the ‘khasao bikha'(chest of a turtle),’doare mekhrip’ (wing of a peacock),’dhinkya bibar’ (fern) and ‘asi’ (finger stripes).

The Mech Kachari community rears silkworms (yielding eri silk) and weaves them on the Kanti loom. The Mishing tribal women of Majuli Island reinvent their traditional diamond patterns in countless weaves. Assam’s climatic conditions and soil are the perfect combination for silk –worm rearing since ancient times and the state’s handloom industry is dominated by the manufacture of silk. It supports the rearing of silk worms-to have the much prized golden muga silk, the eri, that is used for shawls and quilts and paat which is warm and soft, all that constitutes the backbone of the silk cottage industry in Assam.

“This is a milestone for Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC)  as Vanya Silk Emporium, New Delhi will exclusively showcase diversified silk products from the Bodo belt. We are going to go for aggressive marketing . Concerted efforts of the sericulture department with financial support from the Union Ministry of Textiles has led to the bodo belt now producing 26 per cent of raw silk in Assam”,said Jogesh Deori, Director of Sericulture, BTC, Assam, soonafter the inauguration of the emporium by Kampa Borgoyary, Deputy Chief, BTC, recently.

The total production of silk in BTC area is 1012 metric tonnes of which production of eri is 972 metric tonnes followed by muga with 28 metric tonnes and mulberry with 14 metric tonnes. BTC now gives top priority to producing eri  which has become popular in the international markets. The total revenue generated from sericulture in BTC in 2016-17 is Rs. 481 crore. Products like stoles, shawls, dress materials, socks, towels, T-shirts as well as inner garments are available in eri and will be displayed in the emporium in New Delhi, said Deori.

Assam may be a major silk producing region but its weaving techniques are simple as are the decorative features of the end product. A short distance from the state capital Guwahati lies the town of Sualkuchi, in Kamrup (rural) district of Assam. It is a major centre for the production of international quality muga, paat and eri silk. Sualkuchi produces huge quantities of mekhelas, chadars, gamochas, shawls, stoles coats and more of the finest variations in design and weave. The growing demand for fabrics and their increasing prices encouraged a few Tanti families to introduce weaving commercially and they started weaving factories engaging hired wage weavers. Some village households still continue to work on the traditional loin loom common in the northeast. Today, the factory system with semi-automatic fly-shuttle handloom has already been extended to entire Sualkuchi and 73.78 per cent of the households of the town are being engaged with commercial weaving of handloom.

Mahatma Gandhi the father of our nation once remarked that the weavers of Sualkuchi could weave dreams in their cloth. In Assam, the vibrant Bihu dancers wear muga mekhelas and chadars having red floral motifs while Assamese brides wear the paat kind sometimes with riha, a wrap over the chadar. Other communities have their own variations of mekhelas and chadars, distinguished by their colour, design and motifs. For Assamese men, the dhoti-gamosa combine is the traditional dress.

Plain un-dyed length is traditionally the main trend in silk textile production but design elements incorporate imagery from nature as well as objects seen in daily life. A more complex technique of weaving of Lampas silk is involved in the now lost art of Brindavani vastra, closely associated with the ancient hindu scriptures depicting the lives of Vishnu, Rana and Krishna. This group of textiles features designs depicting vignettes from the life of Krishna as wellas scenes from the Ramayana and Bhagavad Purana with simple inscriptions and even quotes woven into the silk. These textiles were crafted in Assam around 1567-69 under the supervision of the noted Vaishnavite reformer sage Sankardev.

The epic Mahabharata mentions the ‘swarnakidai vastra’ or golden attire of Bhagadatta, a King of ancient Assam. The attire was made from muga which another Assam King Bhaskarvarman gifted to Chinese chronicler Hieun Tsang during his visit to India. Muga and paat are no longer exclusive to Assam’s royalty. With time, these silks have gone beyond the traditional three-piece riha-mekhela-chadar (women’s wear) and kurta to become designer wear, utility items and kimonos popular in Japan.

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