Handwoven textiles and sericulture have remained embedded in Assam’s cultural and economic ecosystem for many centuries. In fact, sericulture and weaving are ingrained in the traditional practices of people all over the North-east India. Muga silk, which derives its name from the Assamese word “Muga” alluding to its golden-yellow colour, has been at the heart of this saga of local weaving and textile making since olden times. Most of Assam’s biggest cultural exports in clothing, such as mekhela chador and gamosa have some of their most luxurious variants made out of Muga silk.
Some historical records claim that Muga silk has been in use since 321 BCE. A reference to the ‘country of cocoon rearers’ in the Kiskindhyakanda of the Ramayana is said to be alluding to the region of Assam. A similar reference to a silk producing province is assumed from the term ‘Suvarnakanakanan’ mentioned in the Mahabharata. Even Kautilya is said to have written about dukula, a kind of fabric made from cocoons growing in Assam. But the first official statement about the Muga silkworm, from which Muga silk is made, dates back to 1662 CE as is known from the accounts of European traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier who mentioned a “special” silkworm in Assam that was found on trees all year round.
The Muga industry was pushed into a dynamic period of growth due to Ahom patronage and that was the time when silk culture truly became entrenched in society with Muga silk purportedly being the chief export item, while kings and queens engaged deeply in the production of Muga sets and indulged in exhibitionism. Its popularity was also rising due to the likes of eminent personalities such as Momai Tamuli Barbarua, an important minister during the reign of Ahom King Pratap Sinha (1603-1641 CE), who made spinning and weaving obligatory, thereby transforming an erstwhile “lowly” profession of weaving into an indispensable vocation. The Ahom royal houses supervised Rajagharia looms which involved state-appointed experts weaving luxurious silks, derived from worms raised on mejenkari leaves, only to be exclusively worn by the royal family.
This thriving culture entered a period of decline with British expansion and colonisation of Assam. There was a marked reduction of lands that were patently suitable for the growth of Muga host plants which housed those particular silkworms. Furthermore, there was also the British silk and cotton—cheap and factory-made—to compete with.
Muga silk is secreted by Antheraea assamensis, the semi-domesticated silkworm that is endemic to Assam. This worm grows on trees like the som tree, the soalu, or even the dighalati and the aforementioned mejenkari. These worms generate cocoons four times a year but it is the Jethua season, between April–May that yields the produce needed for a commercial crop season.
These worms are narrowly distributed across the Brahmaputra, Lohit and Dibang valleys. They are also found in the Garo hills of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Myanmar and the western Himalayan hills. But the vast majority of the worms are concentrated in Assam where a high percentage of men as well as women are involved in Muga silk production.
The Muga silkworm spends its life cycle both indoors and outdoors as it is semi-domesticated. The process of culturing Muga is highly labour-intensive and involves pre-rearing, rearing and post rearing phases. Grainage or the production of high quality and a sufficient quantity of eggs from seed cocoons is an important step of the rearing process.
A “host plant” is another important element of the rearing process where in the early stages of the larvae, a plant with tender leaves is selected; once the late stages begin, trees with mature leaves are preferred. When the leaves of a tree are exhausted, farmers transfer the worms to a new tree using a bamboo sieve called a chaloni. Once the worms are ready for cocooning, a mounting device called jali is used for that purpose and it is usually built out of dry leaves of azar or singari, the latter supposedly good for producing compact and shiny cocoons.
The cocoons which are meant to continue the generation or seed cocoons, as they are called, are collected by the rearers from the bharpok stock on the peak day of harvest and then placed in bamboo cages. These then go through the process of emerging into moths, mating and then laying new eggs to continue the cycle. At the other end of the spectrum are cocoons that are used for silk, and Muga farmers also produce spun Muga yarn from pierced cocoons.
Cocoons go through a process of cooking or boiling to make its fibre reel-able by making it softer. Traditionally, cooking is done by boiling Muga cocoons in alkaline solutions for up to 20 minutes.
After cooking comes reeling which involves several processes, the most common ones being done using a bhir or bhowri. Bhir is a traditional wooden apparatus on which hand reeling is carried out, to create a more lustrous silk fabric due to the reeled yarn having lesser twists—twists being the amalgamation of ends and filaments of the cooked cocoons. Reeling also includes the washing of raw silk with water to remove the excess alkali and a long cohesive reeling and re-reeling until it yields a yarn.
The reeling is followed by commercial weavers producing Muga fabrics using both this hand-reeled Muga yarn as well as now prevalent machine-reeled yarn. While the old Assamese loin looms are still in use, there is also the use of shuttle and fly shuttle looms, each needing varying degrees of human intervention and involvement. Weaving, on some level, continues to be a cottage industry with people involved in it at the family level. In the Muga growing areas, there are amateur weavers involved in producing only what is needed to meet their family’s requirement. There are also part-time weavers who sell their surplus products and enter the commercial sphere, and then there are purely commercial full-time workers who work under cooperatives and factories and are heavily concentrated in places like Sualkuchi.
A point to note on the lengthy process of making Muga is that cleanliness and disinfection of all appliances at all stages are central to the rearing to reeling cycle. Every step from preparing the host plant to hand-spinning yarn is labour intensive and requires a skilled hand. Moreover, Muga culture represents one of the most scientific forms of traditional knowledge that are used by rearers and weavers who have had access to this knowledge as a part of their indigenous communities and oral traditions that have been passed down over centuries.
The story of Muga is incomplete without Sualkuchi, which is famously known as the “Manchester of the East” for being a reputed silk producing centre that is believed to have been set up by Momai Tamuli Barbarua during his ministership. Twenty weaving families were brought and settled here, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, to create what is now a heritage handloom village.
Sualkuchi is the textile centre of Assam and one of the largest weaving villages in the world. The weaving tradition which began in the 11th century has continued down the ages and recent figures find that 73.78% of the village’s households are engaged in commercial weaving and the handloom industry. More than 50% of the weavers here are women.
Muga is one of the main silk varieties produced here and traders of Sualkuchi even have a monopoly on the purchase of commercial cocoons. It is estimated that more than 75% of all Muga cocoons of the North-east are produced in Kamrup district, for the purpose of cocoon trading, yarn production, fabric weaving and silk cloth marketing. And within Kamrup, it is Sualkuchi that still maintains its place of primacy.
Muga silk is one of the most recognisable and seemingly opulent material among all textiles of Assam, because of its lustrous golden appearance that makes it exempt from any kind of dyeing. It has the highest tensile strength among all natural fabrics, its shine increasing with age and wash, and its body being amenable to any kind of embroidery.
Muga silk is used to make traditional dresses like mekhela chador, riha, gamosa, kurta, jainsem, saree and the like. It is a quintessential fabric in ceremonial dresses and occasions but in contemporary times it has also been diversified to make upholstery items like curtains, cushion covers, or fusion clothing such as dress suits, robes and sundresses. The difference between apparel and home furnishing items is usually that coarser Muga silk is used for the latter. Aside from its aesthetics, its practical usage extends to industry where it is used in the production of parachutes, bicycle tires, comforter filling and even artillery gunpowder bags.
Its high fashion appeal makes Muga a highly lucrative item, both in the export of goods made from Muga silk to states outside Assam and India, as well as in attracting tourists to the centres of silk production, particularly to places in the north bank, from Sualkuchi to Dhemaji. Sometimes the demands of the tourists even shape the designs with products being custom made for silk fairs and festivals, leading to an exceptional synthesis of cultures.
The most significant development in the ascension of Muga silk as a valued industry and object unique to Assam happened in 2007 when it was granted official Geographical Indication status. In 2014, Muga silk was also granted GI logo for trademark. The logo is registered with the Assam Science Technology & Environment Council.