Generally the coverage of India's rich textile and weaving history is limited to its more famous silks like Benarasi , Patolas , Kanchivarams or so. Most of us are unaware of the textile heritage of North East India . Though times are changing and these days we hear a lot about Assam Silk. So , being from Assam myself , i thought this is a subject that i must cover .
The North Eastern states of India have their own rich and unique culture of weaving and have very distinctive patterns and designs. Among the North Eastern states of India, only Assam and Manipur have a history of weaving saris.
Handloom weaving is an ancient craft of Assam . The region has been cultivating silks for thousands of year as all three of the wild varieties of silk are found here .The wild silks being Tasar, Muga and Eri. The culture of silk cultivation is likely to have developed independently of China in this region. Even mulberry silk has probably been here earlier than other parts of India. Some suggests that the Tibeto -Burman speaking people of the region may have brought knowledge of sericulture from China where people knew of mulberry -silk cultivation some 2500 years ago.
Textiles and silks from Assam , when Assam was known as Kamrupa has been mentioned in many historical texts . Mahabharata , Arthasastra, Harsacharita etc mentions the textiles from the region. Hiuen Tsiang , the Chinese traveller of 6th century, have also left valuable records about the Textiles of Kamrupa.
Historically cotton was also produced substantially but the region's speciality has always been the silks.
Because of the geography of the region , it was difficult for conquering armies to invade, so the cultures here did not see the kind of Muslim influence that other regions of India experienced. But the Nepal region that had a large Budhhist and Hindu Community had a profound influence on the culture of these parts.
Also the Bengali settlers in the lower Brahmaputra valley influenced the culture of these parts. Tantric and Vaishnavaite Hinduism also had a huge influence on the traditions and culture of Assam.
We see a lot of that in the woven design patterns .
The state has one of the largest cluster of handloom weavers in the country . Almost the entire state of Assam is involved in handloom weaving .Though Sualkuchi , a weaving town located near Guwahati is the epicentre of weaving in assam.
Major Characteristics of Assam Silks / Mekhla Chadar
1).Traditionally the full body sari was not worn here at all. Even today, it is not worn on traditional occasions. The ruling class like the Ahoms of Assam used to wear a two-piece attire. The bottom part is like a stitched lungi and is called mekhla . The upper wrap or shawl is known as chadar.
2).The patterns or designs can vary in terms of some having more mainstream Indian influenced patterns and many having specific indigenous tribal patterns.
3).The tribal designs are more geometric and abstract with depictions of natural objects. The popularly used geometric patterns and the animal patterns, particularly the fish is credited to the Bodos. These patterns are very densely packed and are repetitive.
4).Zari was traditionally not used. The supplementary threads most commonly used are black, red, green, blue, yellow on natural or light backgrounds. Nowadays the bridal attire uses zari for richer look.
5).The mekhla has the motifs woven on the lower half of the piece. The chadar has identical patterns at both ends. Unlike the sari, the chadar has both the ends visible.
6).Traditionally only natural dyes were used or the natural colour of the silk was preferred. In fact, even today the traditional bridal Mekhla- Chadar is made of cream or off white background with supplementary zari on the borders, on the end pieces and on the body as bootis.
The Silks that goes into the making of Assam Silks are - Mulberry / Muga / Eri / Tasar
Assam is unique in its silk culture - as it is the only state in India that produces all the four commercial varieties of Silk - mulberry , muga , tassar and eri . We can categorise them as Mulberry and non -mulberry silks.
Pat Silk / Mulberry Silk
Mostly what rest of India refers to as Assam Silk is actually the Mulberry Silk Saree or Mekhla Chadar . Mulberry is also knowan as Pat locally .
As i mentioned above, mulberry silk industry in assam is also very ancient. The mulberry yarn reeled by the rural folk is almost entirely consumed in Assam . In fact , these days Assam gets most of its mulberry from either Karnataka or imports them from China as the demand is too high for the silk.
The most distinctive Assam silk is the Muga Silk.
The most valuable and rare commercial silk from India or for that matter ,the world is Muga Silk - known for its natural golden yellow or brown sheen .
Assam produces almost 93 % of all Muga Silk in the world. The silk worm that produces it is endemic to this region and attempts at cultivating it outside the state has failed. It has a natural golden sheen to it and is a very strong silk.
Historically , Muga cultivation has been done in this region for thousands of years . Scholars feel that the golden silk mentioned in the Mahabharata pertaining to the texts that probably refers to Assam is Muga.
It was during the Ahom kings that, it became an aristocratic item. In fact they imposed strict rules on it being worn by other classes.
Muga was sometimes used as a filler thread in chickankari embroideries or in Deccan muslins. But due its extreme rarity, that is hardly done now.
Major Characteristics of Muga Silk are :
.The Muga that is traditionally used for weaving is never dyed as it is desired for its natural golden colour.
.It always has the natural crispiness that is typical of the silk.
.The motifs are almost always woven in supplementary thread work (in silk, cotton, sometimes zari) . Also the designs of the motifs can be very elaborate and intricate.
Again like the Patan Patolas and Balucharis , there is no cheap 100% Muga sari or Mekhla chadar. And you will hardly find it online . You will have to buy it in Assam. Most commercial online portals selling Muga Saris are just straightaway fake. Some well known commercial sites are listing their items as Muga Silk when maybe only the motif is in muga silk .
Just as you should know from the price for Patolas , Kanchivarams or Balucharis - if it is ridiculously cheap then they are not authentic. So it is with Muga . If it is ridiculously cheap then it is not the real thing . Muga listed rate on silk board of India per kg hovers at an average of 25000 /- per Kg .
The finished items like Mekhla Chadar or Sari will usually start at around INR 30000/- .
They come with GI Tag ( Geographical Indicator tag).
Eri Silk - The Original Assam Silk
Eri Silk or Erandi has been cultivated in these parts for thousands of years now . Like Muga, Eri is a type of wild silk . The cocoons are always collected only after the moth emerges. That is the reason it is also known as Peace Silk or Ahimsa silk. Since it is always reeled from spun cocoons and due to its own inherent characteristics, it does not have the sheen or delicacy of mulberry. So it was not widely used for Mekhla Chadars or Saris by the locals . Though it was used extensively for Winter wear products like shawls or Mens Wear Jackets.
With new technologies ,the process of extracting eri silks has been refined and now Eri is widely used for many other applications. Because of its Ahimsa tag , it is fast gaining reputation as the go to sustainable and eco friendly alternative to the Mulberry Silk .
So , the Mekhla Chadars and Saris can be made of one kind of silk like Muga , Mulberry or Eri Silks .
They are also made with combination of silks as well .
Some of the silk combinations are Pat Silk / Mulberry silk , Muga Silk , Tasar Silk , Mulberry/ Muga , Tasar/ Muga , Tasar/ Mulberry.
Where to buy authentic Assam Silk Saris , Mekhla Chadars and Prices .
Since Assam has such a rich history of silks , people here are aware of silks and their varieties. You will get authentic silks in most of the local retail shops in Assam. So if you are in assam , you can buy your silks from multiple showrooms or boutiques. They are everywhere , in every town.
I highly recommend the following boutiques based out of Guwahati . Do check them out if you are in town .
- Earth Craft - Goswami Service , 54 , Pension Para Road , Krishna Nagar , Chandmari , Guwahati , 781003.
- Fabric Plus Pvt Ltd - RG Baruah Road , Junali , Nabin Nagar , Guwahati -781024
- Pallavi Hnadloom - Near Zakia Palace , Chandmari , Guwahati .
If you are outside Assam , check out some of the exhibitions and forums that the government organises like North East Festival.
I will not recommend online from the major platforms because you will not get the authentic silks. This is true for all silks by the way .
The other way of knowing if you are buying the genuine articles is to do some research and analyse the prices .
What is the price of Assam Silks ?
Firstly- The Saris or Mekhla Chadar prices depend on the silk itself. Secondly on the zari yarns being used ( if there is zari ) . Thirdly the weaving process . And lastly ,it also depends if the silk yarn is mill reeled or hand reeled.
100% Mulberry Mekhla Chadar or Sari price range can start at around INR 9000/-
Tasar/ Mulberry - blend can also be similarly priced.
Muga/ Mulberry will be start at around INR 18000/- .
Eri Silk Saris will start at around INR 14000 /- upwards.
Muga Silks will start around 35000 /- upwards.
These days many synthetic yarns are mixed, so one needs to heed caution. Please look for the Silk Mark tag for authenticity of the yarns.
For information on silk statistics of India .
Please visit the Govt of India's site - Central Silk Board for all silk related information.
You can also visit the government of Assam site - sericulture.assam.gov.in
You will get all sericulture related information in these portals and the respective prices. Please remember , the prices here are for raw silks and yarns or cocoons. By the time it becomes product like a sari, the price will be substantially higher. Once you are aware , you will not be cheated by spurious sites or retailers selling mill made polyester as silks .
You can check out my other blog posts on silk saris of India .
If you want to know more in depth about the Assam Silks, Sericulture in Assam - you can refer the following books .
For Eri , Muga and Mulberry Culture - you can refer " Indian Ways of Silk " by Ole Zethner , Rie Koustrup and Dilip Boruah and for Info on traditional textiles of Assam - You can refer "Textile Tradition of Assam "by Labanya MAzumdar.
Both books are available with Fabric Plus Pvt Ltd . You can contact them directly for the books.
You can also check out my other articles on our heritage textiles.