The Land of Silk: Sualkuchi
What do you call silk that is made without boiling live silkworm pupae? Responsible silk? Non-violent (Ahimsa) silk? Whatever you want to name it – it is gorgeous and it is weaved in one small district of Assam called Sualkuchi.
A state with 22 million population of which a large number of households have a loom where they weave their own cloth.
Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent being Muga, the gold-hued silk found exclusively in this state. Other silks include Pat and Eri or Endi, of which all silks except Pat is non-mulberry silk. The worms mainly feed on castor leaves and only the open ended cocoons are used for turning into silk.
To a large number of the weavers, not just in Sualkuchi but all over Assam, this cottage industry had been a way of life rather than mere source of living. Which perhaps explains the fact that weaving in Assam isn’t restricted to certain communities or tribes alone but spread across caste and class lines. It is still customary among the Assamese, that on the occasion of Bihu, a grown-up girl makes presents of self-woven Bihuan (Phulam Gamosa) to her near and dear ones as a token of love and respect. It was fascinating to learn that women not just dominated in weaving the silks but in districts of Goalpara, where a lot of silkworm rearing is done, it’s the Rabha women who take the lead.
Today, the zari has been replaced by multicoloured cotton threads. The designs woven into these fabrics are drawn from the flora of Assam and, as in other parts of India, are symbolic of the different tribes and ethnic groups of the area. One speciality of this region is the bamboo weft designs, eight in number, which are used as variations in weaving patterns.
As demand and popularity rises, many looms using cheaper silk yarn sourced from states like Karnataka that are coloured to weave the designs into the muga and pat silks. This brings down the cost of production and therefore results in an increase in sales of relatively cheaper priced silk sarees and mekhalas. And there were many such lanes in Sualkuchi, where the saree stores competed for space with the zillion Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh temples.
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