Textiles of Assam
The indigenous handicrafts that in other parts of the country are confined to professional castes were practiced as household industries in the valley of the Brahmaputra. In Assam proper, there is no dearth of raw materials. Indigenous manufacturers consisted of thread and fabrics, cotton textiles, brass utensils, oil extracted from mustard or til seeds gur or molasses, jewelleries, articles of ivory and agricultural implements. Every family in Assam proper had looms to meet the requirement of the household. The looms were infact the center of domestic economy, the only hope of salvation in an hour of distress or despair. Cotton manufactures- churias, chaddars, barkapors, khania kapor and gamochas- were entirely in the hands of women of all classes, although women of respectability and position usually prepared only the finest fabrics- asu or asuli poreah, gunnah, kotah, gai bonkara- resembling the muslins of Dacca.
Weaving was done with handlooms. There were of the plainest kind and none of the latest improvements had been introduced. The different local varieties of spinning and weaving had been used in different parts of the province and posted loom used in the plains were different from the hill tribes in which the warp was tied up in split bamboo to the ends of which were fastened a leather strap which passed across the weavers. Comparatively the Assamese looms were in an advanced stage and suitable for the production of finer quality of fabrics of all kinds. All manufactures were of course meant for the domestic consumption. In the absence of competition, largely quality produced was poor and export of cotton textiles was negligible.
Varieties and artistic ornaments distinguished Cotton fabrics turned out by the Assamese and some of the tribesmen. Amongst the Assamese fabrics, ornamentation were either knitted on the fabrics after the weaving or worked along with the weaving. Embroidery was done chiefly in muga silk or gold and silver wire (guna) by artisans called Gunaakatas but these workmen gradually disappeared with the arrival of gold and silver wires from Europe. The Assamese women knew the use of needle for ornamentation of various design and patterns from early times. They were also adept in the art of mixed raw materials; cotton mixed with silk. Endi or eri was woven with cotton. Rarely cotton was combined with pat silk, but often with muga; churi and riha of such materials were usually manufactured.
Assam’s handloom industry is basically silk oriented. The salubrious climate of Assam is suitable for sericigenous flora and fauna. Four varieties of silk worms and their host-plants, mulberry, Eri, Muga and Oak Tassar are popular and important for economic and commercial purposes. Sericulture is an important cottage industry of Assam. Eri and Muga have been producing silk traditionally since long back. Muga is the pride of the Assamese ladies. Oak tassar was introduced in Assam only in 1972. Nearly 90% of the silk produced is from the mulberry sector only.
Sericulture is a state concern and is done in 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, provides 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. After the last moult, 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 exposing 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.
Although Assam is well known as a major area of silk production, complex weaving techniques and dense figural decoration are not features usually associated with the region. Tribal groups incorporate some simple extra weft geometric designs into silk cloths, but most of the silk textiles produced there have traditionally been plain, undeyed length. A complicated Lampa technique is carried out in Assam with the range of cloth discussed here.
The textiles of this group vary considerably in quality, but are all characterized by designs depicting scenes from the life of Krishna. Most of these relate to his exploits as a killer of demons in various animal forms (crane, the snake and others) or as a lover of the cowherds (gopi) with whom he passed his youth in the forests of Vrindavan.
Several of the pieces also show scenes from the Ramayana, which of course concerns another incarnation of Vishnu- Rama and some include depictions of other avatars, such as Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise and Narsimha the man-lion. In several of the more complex pieces Garuda Vishnu’s man-bird vehicle, is also shown. Almost all the pieces have woven inscriptions in Assamese which though not read yet in their entirety, seem to be mostly simple labels to the scenes or characters depicted: Rama avatar or Bali Sugriva. Other pieces especially those with black ground favour larger blocks of text, which may be quotations from the Bahagavat Purana, with which these cloths are closely linked.
This vastra was to perform unusual role in Vaishnavite worship. The drawing of the figures is fine and well conceived with an interesting variation of scale between rows. The only poorly woven section are the inscriptions which are barely decipherable as the names of the figures are in some cases reversed.
Handloom weaving forms a cultural constituent of the woman of Assam. In earlier days most of the cloth required for the family was produced in the family itself. Now the scenes have changed totally in urban areas. Mill products are gradually replacing the homemade products. Home made cloths are Mekhla and Patani (lower garment of the women), chaddar (upper garment of the women), gamocha (towel), dhuti, bed sheet, eri (endi), etc. some of them have fly shuttle or throw shuttle and Assamese type loom. Throw shuttle loom antedates the fly shuttle loom. Villagers do generally not do spinning. They get mill-products yarn from the market. A few of them keep eri (endi) cocoons to produce eri (endi) cloth. The designs of the textiles are tradition of the Assamese culture and they are initiated at the base level by the Sipini (weaver women) of Assam.
Traditionally men folk of plains wear mill- made dhuties and small or big sized sola/fatua (shirt) and vest or eri-chaddar. In villages, rich men use headgear. They use japi (hat) while working in paddy fields. The young boys use dhuti, genji only on some occasions but they prefer using western dresses. The Assamese wear bare foot. The Assamese ladies enter the kitchen bare foot. The Assamese young boys use on occasions headgears with their gomacha, which they tie to their hip, especially when they are dancing in Bihu to cover the waist with the dhuti. Some young men use Khaddar clothes.
Assamese women use riha-mekhela-Sadar. The long flowing skirt up to the ankles is known as mekhela and the upper garment riha. The red coloured pattern at the end of the riha is graceful and symbolic. Designs are also found in the pari (border) of mekhela and riha. It is said that the dress of mehkela and the riha chaddar has been adopted from the Tibetan and Burmese women. Some are of the opinion that the long back saree was the dress of the Assamese women. The bride of lower Assam use saree in the marriage ceremony. However, some Assamese ladies have started using saree at home and outside, as it is cheaper than mekhela chaddar. Ladies of Goalpara, Gouripur, and Dhubri area prefer sari for both outside and for home. The Bodo ladies of Kokrajhar, Darrang, Sonitpur etc. use Dakhna which is different from Mehkela-riha-Sador. Generally, dakhna has yellow colour body with some design in brown colour etc. ladies do not use headgear.
Married women cover their head with one end of the riha-sador and it is called orni or ghumta. The Hindu married ladies put vermilion on their forehead and on the parting of combed hair and wear bangles made of shell. Women wear mekhela covering waist and ankle. Riha cover the upper part. They wear sador to cover the upper part and use blouse and bodice. Assamese Muslims also use same dresses except vermilion
Assam possessed varieties of dyeing materials yet dyeing was not common. No record is in existence of an export trade, except munjit, either of crude dies or of manufactured dyed articles nor of indigenous dyeing caste in both the valleys.
The culture of Assam is incomplete without a 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 much 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 f the Dimasas too. A Dimasa man wears a Risha similar to Dhoti but deep green in colour. 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 her waist. For covering 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 too are simple. 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 much simpler than Asssamese counter parts. The ornaments they use are also simple. 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 loom which 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’s used mainly for the purpose of covering. There are two types of dress among the Phakes, namely general dress for every day use and special dress for particular occasions. Scanty ornaments are used. The dress of the elderly male is generally house woven chequered lungi (Fatong) of green and black colour 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. Girls, who have not attained puberty, 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 men’s 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 their breasts 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 their breasts. 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 an traditional white chaddar when they go to the Vihar or to a distant place. A similar chaddar is used as a veilby the bride during marriage ceremony. Elderly women wear a blouse called Chekhamchum, which extends up to the waist. Young girls and the unmarried women war blouses of different colours but use of sleeveless or short blouse is not encouraged.