The word Assam is appropriately derived from the Sanskrit word asom, meaning peerless. This beautiful state is known for its natural beauty, cultural richness and diversity. An astonishing variety of flora and fauna, several meandering rivers and streams, and a luxuriant cover of foliage lend it a freshness and vibrancy. The majestic Brahmputra River that flows through the state is, quite naturally, its most striking feature.
The Golden Culture
The first Assamese king, Sukha-Pha, who defeated the Nagas and other local chieftains to enter Assam after crossing the PatKai range in the 13th century, is also credited with introducing silk in the state. Silk rearing began in upper Assam during his reign and was chiefly intended for the use of the royal family.
Assams great gift is muga silk. Not only is it sensuous and beautiful, it is also strong and durable. Assams golden silk is obtained from the caterpillar, Antheraea. The climatic conditions are favorable for rearing this semi-domesticated worm and its food plant. Widely distributed and cultured in the Brahmaputra valley, the silk worm is multivoltine and non-hibernating. As many as 26,797 families, are known to be associated with the culture of muga silk in the state.
Sericulture in the state concerns itself with four steps:
- The cultivation of the host plant, i.e. som and soalu, requires an ordinary method of cultivation.
- Strains of silk worms, developed at the Central Silkworm Feed Station at Sibsagar, provide large quantities of moth eggs. The eggs are kept in cold storage until they are hatched. To avoid any danger of epidemic diseases, only pedigreed strains of silkworms propagated from cultures determined to be disease-free are used.
- Rearing of silkworms is a laborious process. An important aspect of sericulture is that it requires great skill and patience. Muga reared in the open air, needs to be protected from birds and bats. The female moth lays eggs on the kharika, and when these are newly hatched, the kharika, along with the worms, are hung upon specially selected twigs of young plants. The tiny worms immediately crawl up the leaves to start feeding. The worms feed even more voraciously. At night, they climb down the trunk of the tree, which makes the task of collecting them relatively simple. To spin cocoons, they are put on bundles of dry leafy twigs called tali and taken indoors.
- The treatment and disposal of cocoons involves unwinding cocoons to make raw silk. The pupae are killed inside the cocoons before they emerge as adults. This is done either by expensing them to the sun or by heating them in a special drying chamber. The cocoons are sorted out for reeling. Before reeling, the muga cocoons are cooked in an alkaline solution of soda ash for an hour. This helps to soften the natural gum, serecin, which holds the filaments together. The true end of the filament is found and a number of cocoons are transferred to the reeling basin containing tepid water. Two methods of reeling are prevalent - the traditional, which involves two persons, and a recent one that employs a fast operating machine with the operator using both hands for reeling. Half of the silk in each cocoon is considered reliable and the remainder, used as silk waste, noil, is transformed into spun silk.
After the reeling, the muga threads are dried in the shade for three-four days, following which then they are wound into skeins on a sereki. The sizing of the skeins involves the application of a mixture of powdered rice and water.
Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being muga, the golden silk exclusive only to this state. Muga apart, there is paat, as also eri, the latter being used in manufacture of warm clothes for winter. Of a naturally rich golden color, muga is the finest of Indias wild silks. It is produced only in Assam.
Weaving in Assam is so replete with artistic sensibility and so intimately linked to folk life that Gandhiji, during his famous tour to promote khadi and swadeshi, was so moved that he remarked: "Assamese women weave fairy tales in their clothes!"
According to tradition, the skill to weave was the primary qualification of a young girl for her eligibility for marriage. This perhaps explains why Assam has the largest concentration of Handlooms and weavers in India. One of the worlds finest artistic traditions finds expression in their exquisitely woven Eri, Muga and Pat fabrics.
The traditional handloom silks still dominate the world markets. They score over factory-made silks in the richness of their textures and designs, in their individuality, character and classic beauty. No two hand-woven silks are exactly alike. Personality of the weaver, her hereditary skill, her innate senses of color and balance, all help to create a unique product.
The loom is a prized possession in every Assamese home. Weaving has been a way of life in the state since times immemorial. The oldest and largest industry in Assam is its handloom industry, known equally for its pristine simplicity and unequalled charm. For the people of Assam, weaving is not just a commercial venture but also a symbol of love and affection. The techniques of weaving are handed down over generations, allusions to that are available in Assamese literature and scriptures.
Though essentially female craft, in villages such as Sualkuchi, both men and women practice weaving. Sualkuchi is a large centre for the production of muga cloth. The silk products of this area have acquired an international reputation. Weaving has become such a way of life that should a girl choose not to learn the craft, it is considered no less than a scandal.
When a girl weaves a floral design on the bihuan, a gift given to her beloved on the occasion of the Bihu festival, she puts all her heart into it. No wonder the design on the bihuan is no less than a spiritual creation.
In Sualkuchi village, different attachments are used for designs involving extra threads. For extra warp designs, dobby or jacquard machines are used. The use of dobby has limited scope due to its short range of control over threads in a repeat. In the case of jacquard, there is a wider scope since a large number of threads can be controlled in a repeat, depending upon the size of the machine. The use of extra warp provides the opportunity to weave elaborate designs conveniently. Yarns of different types and colors can be incorporated lengthwise in the extra warp. However, the extra warp makes beaming difficult since it requires two or more warp beams, and the drafting of extra ends is usually complicated.
For extra weft designing, a drawboy attachment is used since this is best suited to handlooms. Extra weft is used for designing cross borders and spot figures, and for spacing designs. In extra weft designs, different types of colored yarns can be managed for different portions using just one additional pick. Since the extra weft designing still uses the traditional process, a large number of long floats are obtained at the back, which makes muga difficult to handle. More recently, the Weavers Service Centre in Assam has been able to make innovations that have resulted in designs that do not require the use of long floats at the back.
Weaving among the tribal societies of Assam is a home craft using the back-strap loom or loin loom. Simple and portable, an unlimited range of designs can be produced on these looms.
The designs and motifs of Assamese fabrics are inspired from nature, and from familiar objects that surround them. Though the traditional motifs from the past are strictly geometrical, over time some lyrical and flowing designs have also developed.
Diamonds in different characters form an interesting part of Assamese design. The influence of architecture is also evident. The figurative and non-figurative stone carvings from the Madan Kamdev temple are incorporated in the woven patterns.
Animals, birds, plants and flowers etc. form important textile motifs. Juhi is a prominent floral motif depicted with six or seven small petals. An interesting tree motif is widely used as a side motif. Animal and bird motifs include figures of peacocks, parrots, pigeons, lions, horses and elephants.
Assamese ornaments such as the thoria, karanasingu, or jonberi inspire some unique motifs. External influences on woven patterns brought about a remarkable change in the weaving industry of Assam. For example, the use of zari as an extra weft was introduced during the reign of Rudra Singh.
Most designs on muga are derived from common flowers. Plants and creepers such as die Fern and banana are stylized into geometrical or lyrical patterns.
Some other typical motifs include a horseman with a fan, dragon, a diya stand, and a fan. The flying lion is considered an auspicious symbol, while the Kimkhab is a traditional motif woven in zari on muga. The Kimkhab motif has a great historical and cultural importance.
The Contemporary Motifs
Among ancient motifs, a strong tribal influence is evident. With the advent of Muslim influence, the purely geometrical style acquired movement. Today, designers and artists pick up motifs from traditional designs and incorporate them in their weaves and colour ways based on market demand. However, there is no doubt that stylized versions of ancient designs are enjoying a new impetus.
The Handloom Research and Designing Centre at Guwahati is playing a vital role in developing new designs and patterns based on consumer preferences. The centre has already developed 765 new designs that have been supplied to handloom cooperative and weavers societies.
The need for costumes originated with mankinds need for coverage and protection from the elements of nature.
Later, it became a means of adornment to help enhance beauty and reflect social factors such as religious symbols, personal identity and status.
At that time, Costumes, differed between regions. Some typical costumes in Assam include the mekhla chadar, riha and gamochas.
The mekhla is a womens skirt, usually plain but sometimes strewn with small motifs called buta. Chadar and riha are apparel for covering the upper part of a womans body, and is usually decorated with sprays of flowers and elephant motifs interspersed with leaves and sprigs, and numerous combinations of geometrical patterns. The chadar is draped over the shoulder, providing the pallu, and the riha is wrapped below the chadar, around the waist. The masali is a kind of handkerchief used by women.
The men wear dhotis, usually of silk. The chalang is a scarf that had wide usage among officers and other respected professionals in ancient Assam. Sula, a kind of shirt similar to the angarakha, is a traditional upper garment worn by Assamese men.
Gamocha is a traditional piece of woven cloth that has multiple uses. Made of cotton or silk, it is used as a towel, and every house possesses these. Typically in red and white, the gamochahas a plain field with a narrow or wide border on both or either of the sides. Gamochas are adorned with a wide range of motifs, both floral and geometrical.
A New Beginning
Assams handloom industry is paving the way towards progress and development, though its attempt to commercialize has moved at a slow pace. There is the need to ameliorate the working conditions of the weavers, and the following efforts could go a long way in developing the Assamese textile industry.
· A regular supply of muga and other raw materials should be ensured.
· The throw shuttle loom needs to be improved and upgraded. Production of extensive designs and technical support should be provided to sustain loin looms.
· There is a need for linkages among the organizations to enable them to develop role-charity, to help regulate the activities of various handloom organizations, each competing with the other.
· Efforts need to be made to extract the unique selling proposition of muga. The tapping of the export potential of muga silk along with improvements in productivity remains a prime concern.
· The weavers earn low incomes. Their fiscal condition could be improved by tying their efforts with those of the garment industry.
· Marketing is one of the weakest links in the handloom industry of the state. Production in the handloom sector should be linked with adequate understanding of the markets, to avoid the accumulation of stock. The marketing organization of the state needs to be made aware of developing consumer tastes and preferences. Special exhibition cum sales could be organized for quick disposal of accumulated handloom products.
· Research projects should be initiated for analyzing specific problems related to spinning, dyeing, and weaving.
· The introduction of advanced techniques such as computer aided designing would help the designer in developing new motifs.
Special emphasis has to be provided for the development of handlooms in view of its employment potential, low capital investment, availability of skilled workers, and eco-friendly operations.
One of the finest examples of craft skills in Assam is its cane work. The raw material, profusely available in its lush forests, provides the industry with its strength and sustenance. Every district in Assam is rich in cane products. Independent entrepreneurs have explored new markets for the development and boosting of exports using cane for creating more contemporaneous craft products.
A large variety of canes found in the forests of Assam ridang, suli, lezai and long cane-keeps the industry supplied, even as it offers a great flexibility in usage.
There are various stages that go in the production of cane products, beginning with the collection of raw material from the forests. To obtain a smooth surface, the upper layer of raw cane is scraped off. The long cane sticks are cut into smaller pieces that are followed by splitting the cane to obtain thin strips. Cane can be further split, making it as thin as required. The split cane is now bent using a blowlamp that may cause some burns on the surface; these are removed by rubbing with sandpaper. Following this, the cane can be woven based on the design of the articles being fashioned from it. After the finishing touches have been provided, the products may be dabbed with a coat of varnish before being dispatched to the market.
The Cane and Bamboo Development Institute is experimenting with the processes for coloring cane using natural vegetable dyes. This has resulted in the development of such colors as pale brown, black and khaki.
A wide range of cane furniture and accompanying articles such as flower vases, fans, boxes and trays are produced from cane. The finest of the products is the sitalpati, a smooth, soft mat that has the additional advantage of remaining cool to the touch, made in the Katakhal area of Cachar district. In Assam, people use such palls as mattresses during the summer months.
The Unusual Japi Head Dress
Nothing typifies Assam more than the commonplace japi, used both as a hat and an umbrella. An entire group of artisans, the Japisajias, residents of Japisajia Gaon, are devoted to the making of japis. Made of takoupat leaves obtained from a wild plant called tekou, the quality of a japi depends on its workmanship.
The peasants wear inferior japis as they go about their daily chores in the paddy fields, while those of superior quality are reserved for festive or ceremonial occasions.
These circular japis are ornamented with red and black cloth in a variety of geometrical shapes accentuating the delicate trelliswork. A variety of floral motifs as well as bits of mica add color to these japis, so much so that visitors carry them away as souvenirs of their trip to Assam. The size of a japi can vary greatly from that of a bowler hat at its smallest, to one that may have a diameter of six feet, at its largest. Till recent times, the bigger japis, called bar japis, were worn by ladies as a screen.
Dhubri district in Assam is particularly renowned for its textiles and crafts created by women of the Koch Rabha tribe who inhabit this region. Thought the society is agrarian by nature, and devotes great attention to the task of fishing, weaving is an essential activity among the women of the tribe. By the age of eight or nine, a Rabha girl has to learn the art of weaving from her elders, marking a continuation of tradition.
Incidentally, even for purposes of fishing, women dexterously fashion the implements themselves, using bamboo.
The Rabha costume is distinctive, woven by women on the back-strap loom, locally called koum kontong. To be considered suitable as a bride, every Rabha girl must learn how to make her own dress. The colorful costume consists of the lufung, a wrap around skirt, which developed from a length of cloth that women would simply drape around their waists.
A kambang covers the upper part of the body in the nature of a stole. With the advent of mill-made cloth, Rabha women have also taken to wear colorful blouses that are tailored by them.
As a woven article, the kambang is interesting indeed, and comes in two distinctive styles: that with an elaborate design woven in the centre is called kambang phakchek, whereas that with a plain central portion is called kambang sukal. Motifs on the kambang phakchck include maisunukumphanni (nose of deer), maikardawin (paddy husk), lepmukh (hand fan with a floral design), mararnukar (tigers eye) and pusumkar (jackfruit).
The women also wear a delicate belt made of several, small conch shells or pearl balls around their abdomen, called labok.
In more recent times, they have taken to weaving bags, bedcovers, mufflers and the traditional gamocha for the urban market.
Today, India exports a wide variety of silks to Western Europe and the United States, especially as exclusive furnishing fabrics. Boutiques and fashion houses, designers and interior decorators have the advantage of getting custom-woven fabrics in the designs, weaves and colors of their choice, a service that ensures an exclusive product not easily repeatable by competitors.
Textiles and Dresses of the Different Tribes of Assam
The culture of Assam is incomplete without the description of the weaving culture among the Bodos. The dress of the Bodo is similar to those worn by the rural Assamese folks. The women wear Mekhela, Chaddar and Riha while the men use dhoti and Chaddars. In winter, they wear thickly woven endi Chaddars. However, the design of their Mekhela is simpler than those of Assamese non-tribals.
The tradition of rearing silk cocoon, reeling and spinning into yarn and finally weaving into fabrics was a flourishing industry among the people of this tribe. The fabric produced by them was superior to any other Endi, produced fabric woven elsewhere in the country.
The dress reflects the culture of the people. This is true in case of the Dimasas too. A Dimasa man wears a Risha similar to Dhoti but deep green in color. He uses a chaddar called Rimsao beautifully designed to cover upper half of his body. Cotton or endi turban is the common headdress. A dimasa woman puts on a skirt known as Rigu similar to Assamese Mekhela or Meithei fanek. Either it is made of cotton or silk, may be white or coloured to cover her body below the waist. For covering the upper part of her body, she uses a chaddar very artistically designed known as Rijamphai. Another chaddar also very beautifully designed know as Rikhaosa used during dances or ceremonial occasions.
Mech people are simple. Their dresses are simple as well. They use hand spun and hand woven simple dress. Men wear dhoti, turban and endi shawl or chaddar. Women use a dress similar to Assamese Mekhela Chaddar but simpler than their Assamese counter parts. They also use simple ornaments. Their dresses even during dances are also simple.
Mech Kacharias are famous for rearing silk worm particularly endi or eri and the feed plant that is wild castor or Ratanjyot or era are grown as their hedge plant. While they earn by selling cocoons or converting into cloth for their own need, the worm are used as their food. They spin cocoons to get yarns and then weave yarn to get cloth. Method of spinning is however, primitive so also weaving. The loom they use is known as Kanti loo that is made of bamboo. This loom is no doubt more productive than lion loom used by the Nagas or Kukies but certainly not as productive as fly shuttle loom. However, the spinning tradition is less among the Mech people.
They weave cloth with the help of either traditional kanti loom or throw shuttle loom. They get cotton mill yarn from the market while they get endi silk yarn from neighboring karbi people. It is believed weaving was absent in original Aitunia tradition but they learnt the art from the tradition of Assam. They weave traditional dresses for special or festive occasions. However, the male members have given up the practice of wearing the traditional dresses.
The dress of the people of this tribe includes articles of personal clothing used mainly for the purpose of covering. The Phakes wear two kinds of dress namely general dress for every day use and special dress for particular occasions. Very few ornaments are used. The dress of the elderly male is generally house woven checkered lungi (Fatong) of green and black color lined with red, yellow or white yarn, one genji, one shirt (Sho) of mill made cloth purchased from the market and a white turban (Fa Ho Ho). A white chaddar (about 2 meters long and 1 meter wide) with a plain border (Fa Fek Mai) and white long sleeved shirt are worn by the elderly people when they go to the Vihar or to any distant places. In the congregational prayer, every one, except the boys and girls below the age of 10 years, wears the chaddar. The young men and boys wear trousers and shirts when they go to Naharkatia or to their schools, while in the village they use their traditional lungi. Young girls use bazaar made frocks.
The Phake women wear their traditional dresses. The elderly female persons wear one girdle (Chin) around the waist extending up to their ankles. It is just like mens lungi with the differences that the stripes in a Chin are breadth wise and the waist portion of the Chin is much thicker. To cover the upper half of the body, the women use a long stripped cloth called Fa Nangwait, about 2.3 meters long and 1 meter wide). A cloth belt, Chairchin, about 6 centimeters wide and 1.5 meter long) is worn around their waist. Before the attainment of puberty, girls do not wear Fa Nangwait. Instead, they wear a white cloth, Fafek, about 2 meters long and 1 meter wide, with or without border, to cover the upper half of the body. If a girl has an unmarried elder sister, she does not wear a Fa Nangwait even though she has attained puberty. Wearing a Fafek is a sigh of unpreparedness for marriage. All the women wear a traditional white chaddar when they go to the Vihar or to a distant place. The bride during marriage ceremony uses a similar chaddar as a veil. Elderly women wear a blouse called Chekhamchum, which extends up to the waist. Young girls and the unmarried women were blouses of different colors but use of sleeveless or short blouse is not encouraged.