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Nestled among the blue hills and green valley lies the state of Assam-the gateway to North East India. Situated in the foothills of the Himalayas and on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra, Assam is also renowned for its wild silk production along with the quintessential tea gardens. Silk rearing and weaving dates back to centuries in Assam making it an integral part of its culture. Almost every village in Assam is host to generations of silk producing communities.
Muga Silk and Assam has been in existence since time immemorial. Though there are no definitive records or journals mentioning the origin of Muga Silk in Assam, it is generally believed that it was during the time of Ahom Dynasty (1228 to 1828) that Muga Silk was woven in the socio-economic fabric of the state. Due to unhindered patronage of the Ahom kings, the Muga Silk rearers and weavers came into prominence, became skilled and prospered.
Muga is one of the rarest silks in the world. Due to its golden nature, it has now come to be known as the Golden Silk of Assam as it is found only in the state. These silkworms have been in existence since prehistoric times. The silkworms are very delicate and cannot withstand the minimum pollution levels, thus making it very rare. The silk fibre is a very strong organic natural fibre and is derived from semi cultivated silkworms named Antheraea assamensis. One of the most significant properties of the fabric is its longevity as it has been seen time and again to outlive the wearer thus making it an heirloom piece for every owner.
The Ahom Dynasty was established in Assam with the invasion of Tai-Ahoms in 1228 A.D. During the supremacy of the Ahom rulers, the silk industry of Assam and especially the Muga Silk received encouragement from the Royal Dynasty as it was perceived as the royal fabric. During the rule of Ahoms elaborate arrangements were made for keeping in the royal store’s sufficient quantities of muga silk clothes of different varieties for presentation to foreign courts and dignitaries. Master weavers, mostly women, were brought in from various parts of the state to weave the fabric and garments. Scarcity of looms gave way to development of indigenous weavers in the state who used to weave exclusively for the royal family. A definitive development in the socio-economic structure through such initiatives further increased the rearing of silkworms and weavers in the state. The Ahom ruler’s encouragement and patronage to the Muga Silk industry paved the way for muga silk spinning and weaving to become a household indispensable profession in Assam.
Cultivated mostly in the Garo hills of Assam, the muga silk is extracted from the cocoons of Antheraea assamensis. It is wild in variety and fed on som, sualu, mejankari, pan-chapa tree leaves. Depending on the season, it acquires a rich golden yellow or light brown colour. Typically, it takes about 1000 cocoons to produce 125 grams of silk and about 1000 grams of silk for one saree. The average production per acre of land is 400 grams of silk. Once the yarn is derived, it is then sold to various places or clusters where in the golden silk is woven into the traditional garment of Assam – The Mekhala Chador. Notable cluster in weaving in Assam is the Sualkuchi Textile Park.
The Golden Silk or Muga silk is known world over for its unique properties like natural golden brilliance, a super fine texture which is resilient, has humidity absorption quality thus having a long shelf life.
According to a report Muga fabric has the highest tensile strength than other natural silk. Recently there has been a lot of product innovation in muga silk and it is currently seen as a potential raw material for aircraft tires, bulletproof jackets and parachute ropes. This has led to an increased enquiry for supply of Muga silk. Global demand for muga silk has paved its way into the global markets especially in japan where designers are using it to make kimonos and other traditional Japanese dresses.
Today Muga silk is preserved and promoted with a Geographical Indication tag (GI) obtained in 2006. Muga silk or the Golden Silk is one of the most expensive silks in the world and is highly revered by the Assamese population.
Despite much advancement in the loom’s technology, the most widely used looms for muga weaving are the throw shuttle looms and the lion looms which constitute the traditional looms of Assam. Usage of improved mechanisms like dobby and jacquard can be found mostly in commercial centres and government aided production centres and are not within the reach of the common weavers.
The adoration of the muga silk garments with motifs and designs is the most crucial part of the garment making which immensely adds value. Traditional Assamese motifs include abstract figures of animals, birds, human figures, creepers, flowers, celestial phenomena, religious structures etc. Additionally, symbolisms of ritual nature are depicted in their motifs and designs. Distinction of motifs can be easily seen in the garments for tribal and non-tribal designs. While tribal motifs are generally geometric in nature, plains have designs depicting nature and its elements. Kinkhap- symbolised by lions facing each other, gos buta -the tree motif, the kolka- paisley motif, japi-pepa – symbolising musical instruments, the mishing motif – a mix of colours are the main prevalent motifs used widely in weaving of traditional garments in muga silk.
A silkworm which is endemic to Assam- muga silkworms are mainly reared outdoors. Sustainability of the silkworms hugely depends on the climatic conditions which requires temperatures to be within the range of 25°C to 27°C and humidity in the range of 75- 85 %. Any negative impact on the climatic conditions affects the life cycle of the silkworms. It would be appropriate to say that such changes adversely affect the livelihood of the people depending on silkworm rearing. To survive, locals have changed their generations of livelihood sources to alternative sources while others are trying to come up with new indigenous changes in their rearing location or methods.
In Assam, it is a matter of pride for a woman to own a muga mekhela chador. It is generally passed on as an heirloom piece or gifted to the bride in her wedding. It has been said that the Muga Mekhala Chadar (traditional dress of Assamese women) is equally important as the gold ornaments of a wedding trousseau.
Additionally, during the festival of Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu which celebrates the end of harvesting season and onset of spring, it is a tradition to wear garments made of muga silk for both men and women.
Every year muga silk has seen a gradual and steep incline in the demand of the fabric both domestically and internationally. In the current scenario the cost of muga yarn has risen to as much as Rs.21,000/- per kilo as compared to Rs. 800/- during the nineties. Various new innovations in the weaving techniques, especially at Sualkuchi which is also known as the “Manchester of the East” increased the value of the garment thus made exponentially. A muga mekhela chador ranges from Rs. 35000/- to Rs. 1,50,000/-.
While the demand for muga is ever growing, Assam is faced with the paradox of not being able to ramp up the supply of raw materials to the desired effect. Various ecological issues such as establishment of tea plantations using pesticides near rearing lands have adversely affected the muga silkworms. Release of venerable gases from industrial activities of oil refineries have also adversely contributed towards the depletion of silkworms.
To adapt and survive the high rate for muga raw material, weavers today blend muga silk with tussar silk also known as toss in Assam to reduce price.
The socio-economic conditions of the weavers have deteriorated with the passage of time as the rearers and weavers have changed occupation which led to change in their income generation. The domino effect of this can also be seen in the health and education of these communities. Emphasis on the introduction of new advanced machines for weaving and implementation of scientific technology for laying and producing disease free laying (DFL) muga silkworm egg along with the upgradation of machineries for extraction of silk yarn will eventually lead to increased muga yarn production. Such measures can attract the youths towards this dwindling community thereby creating a suitable life for the communities who are related to muga culture.
Government must play a pivotal role in such initiatives. In the recent years, Assam has witnessed a slew of measures taken by the government for uplifting the sector with value chain addition. Rearing methods have been modernised in a few clusters and success has been seen by the way of enhanced production in silkworms and yarns, but it must be borne in mind that lack of proper awareness might create negative cartels or dissuade native rearers from adopting these new technologies.
Muga Silk business is currently valued at Rs 200 Crore, but it has the potential to become an industry which is 10 times the current size. The elegant lustrous golden fabric is gaining international repute and attention very quickly. There is a lot of scope to develop the agri-sector based craft industry by modernizing the age-old traditional processes through transfer of technology at the grass root level and also ensuring value chain connectivity to the last mile. It is imperative that muga fabric is also showcased on various relevant platforms to increase the popularity and textile and fashion designers may be invited to explore the fabric further. A positive approach along with the introduction of new age technology will cement the position of The Golden Silk in the world textile map and help race socio-economic progress of the muga rearing and weaving communities.
Anushka Das is a Textile Design graduate from NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), New Delhi with an experience of 14 years with the industry. She was associated with reputed designers Neeru Kumar and Ritu Kumar. Anushka started her la ... bel- Anushka-Annasuya in the year 2010, a label for apparel and home, that is sensitive towards maintaining a balance between Indian aesthetics and contemporary demands. She has been associated with prestigious brands like Fabindia, Jaypore and Ajio designing and producing the women’s apparel line for them. She has been associated with the Ministry of Textiles for the project “Revival of Kani Shawls” and Ministry of Minority Affairs for USTTAD Projects in Jodhpur And Lucknow for Natural Dyes and Kamdani respectively. She has been a regular Jury Member in NIFT Textile Department. Anushka-Annasuya works with the philosophy of zero waste and sustainability and has been associated with Ecofemme for development of cloth bags for cloth menstrual cloth pads She likes to appreciate things handmade and constantly explore ways to make space for crafts in modern live
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