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Assam, known for its rich cultural diversity, boasts a vibrant tapestry of traditional textiles that play a pivotal role in preserving the essence of this diversity. These textiles are a living testament to Assam's rich heritage, encompassing indigenous techniques, materials, and designs that have been passed down through generations. For centuries, Assam has been a melting pot of various communities, forming a cultural mosaic where different tribal groups speak diverse languages, maintain their age-old customs, sustain self-sufficient economies, and create unique crafts and textiles. In this extensive article, we will embark on a journey to explore the intricate textile traditions of Assam and delve into the distinct cultures of its diverse tribes.
At the heart of Assamese tribal textiles lies the traditional handloom, a centuries-old craft that is central to the livelihoods of countless communities. These handlooms serve as essential tools for weaving, using elements like yarn spindles, spinning machines, warping drums, and looms, often crafted from bamboo and wood. Most tribal women use either the loin loom or the backstrap loom. The simple loin loom, or back strap loom, is a device crafted mostly from bamboo and wood and features parallel bamboo where warp yarns are stretched. Named for the strap worn around the weaver's lower back, tension is controlled by the weaver's forward and backward movements, maintaining a continuous warp separated into layers with the assistance of a "shed stick" and “yarn heddles.” The former is the most common, with a shuttle thrown across the shed by hand. In some villages, especially those where weaving is a non-commercial activity, throw shuttle looms are still used, known for their simplicity despite lower productivity. The intricate technique of manually designing textile patterns is referred to as "saneki."
Sericulture, the practice of cultivating silkworms to produce silk, has deep roots in Assam. The state is renowned for several types of silk, each unique in its production process, texture and colours. As we unravel the threads that connect communities, let us also explore the artistry of sericulture, focusing on the diverse silk varieties that make Assam a renowned hub of textile craftsmanship.
Eri silk, also known as "ahimsa silk," stands apart from traditional sericulture. Unlike the common practice of boiling silkworms alive to extract their silk threads, eri silk is produced by allowing the silkworms to complete their life cycle, aligning with principles of non-violence.
Muga silk, often referred to as "golden silk," is endemic to Assam and is considered one of the world's most expensive silks. It is celebrated for its remarkable golden sheen.
Tussar silk from Assam is a testament to the region's rich textile heritage. It is characterised by a unique production process, distinctive texture and earthy colours.
Known as the finest silk globally, mulberry silk is celebrated for its exceptional softness and unparalleled quality.
Assamese tribal textiles are adorned with a rich array of motifs, each with its own unique story and cultural significance. These motifs reflect the deep-rooted connection between nature and the lives of the indigenous people.
Kaziranga Style: One of the most common motifs takes inspiration from the wildlife of Kaziranga, with the dominant figures being the rhinoceros and deer.
King Khap Style: This design is inspired by the Ahom dynasty and consists of two lions facing each other.
Joon Biri Style: Inspired by the Assamese neck piece called "Joon Biri," meaning a crescent moon.
Gaamkharu Style: This motif is inspired by the Assamese wrist-band called "Gaamkharu," which is an integral part of traditional Assamese attire.
Elephant Design: A traditional motif aimed at representing the shape of an elephant in geometric patterns.
Loka Paro: "Paro" means pigeon in the local language, and the symbol of the pigeon is commonly woven into silk garments.
Gach: The tree motif, sometimes paired with a pair of birds, is one of the most prevalent patterns found in traditional Assamese garments. The design and shape can vary based on the weaver's expertise.
Phool Buta: As most traditional Assamese garments draw inspiration from nature, flowers, or bunches of flowers, are one of the most common motifs.
Bhagavat Sarai: This motif signifies the traditional Assamese "Sarai," a brass platter used to hold the sacred Bhagavad Gita in prayer rooms.
Kesh Baccha: This motif, commonly used in textiles and often found at the borders of horizontal lines, represents the hairline or a woman's braid.
Japi: The Japi is a traditional headgear, once reserved for noble and wealthy females but now serving as headgear for farmers to protect them from rain and sun. The motif of Japi is often woven into traditional Assamese garments.
Pokhila: Patterns inspired by nature are widespread in Assamese Mekhela Chador. The butterfly motif, known as "pokhila" in the local language, is often woven in various shapes depending on the weaver's expertise.
The textiles woven in Assam have a common and composite tradition, with some distinctive variations amongst the tribes. Most women across tribes wear a two-piece dress, the most common being the mekhela sador with a blouse. The mekhela, the lower garment, is 2.4 metres and is stitched and worn over a dress with three plates tucked in. The Sador upper garment is 2.8 metres, one end of which is made into a triangular fold and tucked into the mekhela, and the rest is wrapped around the body. It comes with a one-metre blouse piece. The third piece worn with the mekehla sador is an upper garment mostly worn by married women. The riha is less in width and is draped around the body and the shoulder.
The male attire comprises a sula, a kind of short shirt or kurta, a suriya, which is a dhoti, and a shawl or a scarf as a wrap. A similar drape called a seleng is used. A headdress called the Paguri is worn on ceremonial occasions. Another important textile that comprises the attire of both men and women is the gamusa. A white rectangular piece of cloth with a red border and red woven motifs of flowers and other traditional motifs is used as a headdress, a scarf, and a tongali, or waist cloth. The Gamusa is also a symbol of respect and is used to cover the holy scriptures too.
The history of the world can be read through textiles, and every tribe in Assam has its unique design language, with each textile and motif holding specific significance and purpose. These textiles often served as identity cards in times when no other means confirmed a person's familial allegiance and possessions.
The Sonowal Kacharis, the fifth-largest tribal community in Assam, are primarily Hindus who worship Lord Krishna. Their women wear the Mekhela Sador and Riha, along with a distinctive yellow headdress called tokoya and a waist garment called ekhetiya. Men wear a white dhoti called suriya, a traditional waistcoat called Gatung, and a headgear called gamusa or paguri.
The Tiwa tribe is the sixth-largest tribe in Assam, with a combination of Hinduism and animism in their practices. Tiwa women start weaving at a young age and wear the Mekhela Sador, Riha, and a headwrap known as gamusa. In the hills, they wear the Kasong, a lower garment with a single piece reaching down to the ears. The Tiwa attire includes a belt called Nara and Paskai—a cloth wrapped around the chest.
The Dimasa community lives in the North Cachar Hills and practises Hinduism with elements of animism and ancestor worship. Their refined aesthetics are visible in their textiles, and handloom weaving is primarily a woman-centred activity. Dimasa women wear the Reejanphain, Reegu, and Reekhausa Reema. Men wear a shawl called Reesa for ceremonial occasions.
The Garo tribe is one of the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world. They are mostly Christians and celebrate the Wangala harvest festival. Garo women are expert weavers and create sarong-like wraps known as Dakmanda. Men wear a rapper called Gantap, and a headgear with fowl feathers, known as Kotip, is worn during festivals.
The Deori tribe inhabits the plains of Assam and has a rich history, including being the priests of the Kamakhya temple. Textile production is primarily a woman-centred activity, and their traditional women's cloth comprises the Igu, Jakachiba, and Khania/Cheleng. Men wear the Iku, Dhoti, and Icha.
The Hajong tribe, predominantly Hindus, practises animism. Their women wear a lower garment called Patin and sometimes an unstitched garment known as Parsa or Agon. Men's attire includes the Bukchuli, Kompes, and a head cloth or turban.
The Singpho tribe traces its origins to Upper Myanmar in the early 18th century. Singpho households typically have backstrap looms, and the textiles are rich in motifs. Women wear the Fukang, Nowat, and Num Phobam. Men's attire comprises the Lalbupa, Lungi, and Thepha-fek-nai.
The Tai Khamyang belong to the Daic branch of the Trans-Himalayan group of languages. They primarily speak Assamese today. Women wear the Mekhela Sador and a waist cloth called Nungwat/Riha. Men wear a lungi and upper garments with woven motifs for significant ceremonies.
The Tai Phakes are a branch of the Tai groups that entered Assam in the latter half of the 18th century. They are predominantly Buddhists and have Buddha Viharas in their villages. Textiles in Tai Phake culture are less elaborate, mainly restricted to checks and stripes, closely resembling the textiles of Upper Myanmar.
The Bodos are considered one of the earliest settlers of the Brahmaputra valley, with a possible migration from the Bod province in central Tibet. The tribe practises Bathouism, a form of ancestor worship. Looms are a common sight in Bodo households, and Eri silk is extensively used in their textiles. Women wear the Dokhona, Jomgrah, and Madamni gamcha, while men don the Aronai or Golaban and the dhoti.
The Mishing community migrated to the Brahmaputra valley from the hills in Arunachal Pradesh between the 13th and 14th centuries. They practise animism (Urom-possum), with textiles primarily produced by women for self-consumption. Mishings are known for their ability to weave in seven colours simultaneously, with indigenous designs referred to as ghai-yamik.
The Karbi tribe belongs to the Mongoloid group and migrated from the Kuki-Chin area in western Myanmar. They practise animism (Henghari) and uphold rituals centred around ancestor worship, the immortality of souls, and rebirth. The Karbis use eri and cotton in their traditional clothing. Women wear the Pini, Pekok, and Wamkok waist belts. Men wear the Pe-Cheleng, Choi, and Poho turbans.
The Rabhas are the fourth-largest ethnic community in Assam and practice animism. Their traditional clothing consists of the Riphan, Riphanchakay, Kambung, Pajal, and Alan/Pachra shawls, which are used by both men and women. The Rabha attire features vibrant combinations of red, black, yellow, and white with motifs such as stars, flowers, and spiders.
The textiles of Assam are not only an embodiment of rich cultural diversity but also a testament to the region's enduring weaving techniques and traditional practices. Despite the impact of modernization on some aspects of the textile industry, traditional techniques and designs continue to thrive, preserving Assam's rich textile heritage for generations to come. These textiles are not just a source of livelihood but also a source of pride for the entire region. They stand as powerful symbols of cultural preservation, economic empowerment, and the interplay between tradition and innovation. In a land where diversity thrives, the handloom textiles of Assam beautifully reflect the multifaceted cultural identity of the people, weaving the threads of tradition and heritage that are still very much alive in the 21st century.
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Anushka Das, a distinguished Textile Design graduate from NIFT, New Delhi, boasts over 15 years of expertise in the textile and fashion domain. Having worked alongside esteemed designers Neeru Kumar and Ritu Kumar as Head Designer, she led numerou ...
s design collections for both domestic and international clients. In 2010, she launched her label, Anushka-Annasuya, emphasizing Indian aesthetics fused with contemporary trends. Anushka collaborates with renowned brands like Fabindia, Jaypore, and Ajio for apparel and home design. During the pandemic, she co-designed the Anzen and Fiori range of fabric masks to support handloom weavers. Her remarkable contributions extend to projects with the Ministry of Textiles and various NGOs, uplifting artisans and promoting traditional crafts. Anushka’s passion for sustainability reflects in her brand’s philosophy of zero waste, and she continually strives to integrate crafts into modern lifestyles. As a respected jury member and consultant, shleaves an indelible mark on the fashion landscape.
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