We need to talk about Assam. Why? Because it is holds the origin story for one of the most essential attire of the subcontinent, the silk sari.
Known as the country of the cocoon-readers, Assam has been renowned for its wild silks since the ancient times. Both the sacred Ramayana and the earliest political books, Arthashastra, celebrate the glorious elegance of the region's textiles .
The wild silks of Assam are renowned for their buttery quality, primarily due to the sophisticated weaving process.
It is widely noted modern silk production and even the word ‘sari’ originated from Assam.
Sericulture, the practice of cultivating silkworms, has a deep-rooted history in South Asian textiles. It is believed the practice immigrated to India with the Tibeto-Burman groups from China around 3000-2000 BC.
The Southwestern Silk road, which started from China, and passed through Burma and Assam, also played an important role in the formation of South Asia's silk industry. Many traders from Tibet, Mongolia and China would trade silk and give silk items or “Seres” as gifts to the India kings. In the book The Background of Assamese Culture states that: "The Kiratas, (an early group with Mongolian roots in Assam), were traders in silk, a word derived from the Mongolian original word ‘sirkek’. The Indian word ‘sari’ is probably derived from the same word.
From 900 to 1100 AD, 26 weaver families were brought from Tantikuchi in Barpeta to Sualkuchi, to create a weavers' village close to modern-day Guwahati.
Silk was given royal patronage during that period and Sualkuchi was designated an important center of silk weaving.
The Garo community obtains silk for Muga silk from the endemic Assamese silkworm, Antheraea Assamensis. These silkworms feed on the leaves of Som and Soalu plants.
The smooth Muga Silk, as soft as butter and as fierce as the sun in color. It has a shimmery glossy texture, with a yellowish glow and is resilient to wear and tear. It was coveted by Ahom, kings of Assam, who kept many costly muga sets in the royal storehouse for presentation to distinguished visitors in their court. Queens were personally involved in training weavers. Economically, the fabric served as one of the chief exports f the Ahom dynasty.
It is highly labor intensive - a silk farmer requires access to at least an acre of land if he must cultivate about 400 grams of Muga silk at a go. Furthermore, 1000 cocoons can generate only about 125 grams of silk, but a single sari requires at least 1000 grams of silk. The silk worm is sensitive to temperature and pollution levels, making the silk one of the strongest and most organic in the world.
The time taken to weave a single Muga silk sari is roughly two months, from rearing the silkworm to obtaining the finished product. The actual weaving process takes about one week to 10 days to complete.
A single sari requires at least 1000 grams of silk.
The Muga silk has a gorgeous golden color and its uniqueness lies in how its shine increases after each hand-wash, outliving the owner with its durability. Other colors are added through embroidery and zari work. Geometric Assamese motifs like the jappi (the typical Assami topi), miri gos butta (a pattern of miniature tree motifs) and kabutar (pigeons). The Assamese Mekhela Chador , a two piece outfit worn by Assamese brides, is almost entirely constructed of Muga silk.
Due to rising temperatures and global warming , silkworms in Assam cannot sustain themselves and produce the lustrous Muga silk. Therefore, silk farmers lose their livelihood and the tradition of Muga silk weaving is starting to fade.
The Assam silk industry is the forefather to all South Asia’s silk and sari industry. Without them, we lose our cultural foundations. It is up to us to be conscious consumers of our natural resources so that we can create an environment and collectively reduce global warming to preserve an essential part of all our cultural heritage.