Like any Indian going overseas, I had packed a traditional Indian outfit which I knew I would fish out and gleefully wear the first chance I would get. So during a conference in Japan, I wore my traditional Muga silk ‘Mekhela Sador’ like a badge of honor. The Mekhela Sador (Chaadar) is like an Assamese three-piece sari that is five yards long. It is traditionally hand-woven in the finest Muga silk, which resembles molten gold with intricate indigenous motifs.
My team also had people from other parts of India to whom I had to explain what I was wearing. It was quite a pep talk on Assam silk and Sualkuchi village which is often referred to as the Manchester of Assam. Almost every house in Sualkuchi has a handloom and almost every person, especially women are trained in this craft. Gandhi once said, “Assamese women weave dreams on their looms.”
But to my surprise, our contemporaries in Japan did not need much explanation about Muga, the silk which was used to weave my outfit. Muga, it seems, is already quite popular in Japan as the ‘Ahimsa Silk‘ or non-violent silk. Today, the large Buddhist population in Japan favour the non-violent Muga silk to make furnishings, ties, scarves, kimonos, and other traditional outfits and accessories.
Usually, in the extraction of silk, the silkworm is often killed or has to go through tortuous procedures to remove it from the cocoon to obtain the silk. But while making the Muga yarn, the lucky little worm is left alone and the thread is extracted after it naturally disposes of its cocoon. Hence, the name Ahimsa silk.
To learn more, I took a trip to Sualkuchi, situated 40 kilometers away from Guwahati, to have a look at what goes on in the ‘Manchester of Assam’ and the world’s largest weaving village.
A walk through the town itself is enough for you to realise you have arrived here. The dhug-dhug-dhug cadence of wood planks clashing in rhythm is almost hypnotic. It felt wonderful and a bit eerie when I realised that so many Xipinis (weavers) exist in this village who have been weaving legendary silky delights, and Assam’s economy too, with their bare hands.
Xiphinis mostly work from home with a production unit installed within their premises. This unit consists of one or more handloom frames made of wood or bamboo. In-between household chores and the grind of daily life, they weave and weave and weave.
According to Hiralal Kalita, a weaver and founder of Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti, a non-profit organisation in the interests of the weavers of Sualkuchi, the entire village subsists on this one occupation.
My curiosity also took me to upper Assam where I noticed semi-automatic looms made of steel frames. But the Xipinis in Sibsagar district told me that there are no fully automatic power looms. The few which were introduced had to be dismantled because they threatened the livelihoods and identities of the Xipinis. It may even pose a challenge to the trademark finally given by the Central Silk Board to Assam in 2016 in recognition of its handmade silk products.
This goes a long way to protect the market of Assam silk which has been infiltrated by machine-made and cheaper variants of Assam silk. Local Xipinis were beginning to forsake their livelihood because they were not able to compete with the machine-made varieties of Benarasi, Ludhiana, Dupion silks which are much cheaper.
However, today despite trademark protection, the condition of Muga industry is still vulnerable against a host of problems. The global rise in temperature has been causing silkworms to die before they can form their cocoons. Between 1950 and 2010, Assam’s mean temperature has risen by 0.01 °C per year. Along with a rise in humidity and irregular patterns of monsoons, it has created havoc for Muga farmers.
In Upper Assam, the rampant use of pesticides in the nearby tea gardens, the effect of ‘gas flaring’ in oil wells that are in close proximity, and increasing deforestation are some issues that are ringing a death knell for sericulture here. If not protected the Muga producing silkworm can become extinct by the year 2040.
So, with capitalism on the one hand and environmental causes on the other, the ‘golden fiber’ faces a crisis today with Muga cultivators already struggling to meet the target export-yield and quality. Assam and its silk which once found fame even in the Ramayana as “the country of cocoon rearers to the east”, today need much help from the community at large so as to keep the cultural value, the heritage, and the craft of Muga silk alive for generations to come.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.