Monday, 24 February 2014

SUALKUCHI - "The Manchester of the East"!

What an apt moniker for this sleepy and charming town! Situated at a distance of 35 km from Guwahati on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, this town exudes a warmth like no other. 

In my last post, I had talked about the indigenous varieties of silk that is endemic to Assam, and today, I would like to take you on a journey to the nerve centre of where it all takes place!

The birth of this internationally acclaimed 'weaving village' can be historically traced to the 11th century when, Dharma Pal of the Pala dynasty, sponsored the craft of weaving and brought in 26 weaving families from Tantikuchi to Sualkuchi. These families were encouraged to give wing to their imagination and transfer their artistic talents to the looms and finally to the fabric! The fledgling industry was further boosted during the early part of the 20th century, when eminent Gandhians across the country, in answer to Gandhijis' swadeshi slogan of "back to the villages", supported the industry with financial aid. This acted as a big support for the production of Eri silk or the 'poor' man's silk, which was a favourite with the Gandhians due to its low cost. But the road to development and success was not an easy one for these weaving families, especially during the Indian independence struggle. But amidst many a strife and turmoil during the pre and post years of Indian independence struggle, the handful of skilled weavers of Sualkuchi, held on fast to their inherent artistic talents, to emerge victorious and stand tall, at the end of it all.

Today, Sualkuchi has about 17000 silk looms that are working tirelessly to give birth to a maze of intricate patterns woven on Muga and Pat silk. Accounting for more than 25000 direct and indirect employment under this industry. And as you casually walk down the streets of this town, you can hear the unmistakable click-clacking of the looms coming from the karkhanas ( workshops) attached to every house. Walk into any karkhana, and you will be welcomed in the traditional warm Assamese way and given a guided tour of what is going on! There is no interruption here, in fact, the owners are honoured to have guests witness their  art of silk weaving. Besides being privy to the manufacture of the world famous Muga and Pat Mekhela Chadar (traditional Assamese attire for women), you can also see the creation of silk sarees and skirts as well as kurtas and shirts for men, which have been done keeping in tune with the changing demands of the markets.

But all is not rosy for Sualkuchi and her 'silk weavers'. Unscrupulous businessmen and spurious brands, claiming to be the real 'Assam' silk, have in recent times, flooded the markets in the towns and cities with their cheap imitation products. This has caused a lot of problems for the genuine weavers and their authentic products. 

So how can you avoid being duped? Simple. Take a ride down to Sualkuchi, leisurely stroll along the streets, visit the many shops, and take what attracts you! Genuineness is guaranteed. You get what you pay for!

Till next time!

Friday, 21 February 2014

Stunning Assam Silk!

Muga silkworm
 Assam is blessed with three indigenous varieties of silk. The golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri.

The world famous Muga silk of Assam, starts its journey from the Antheraea assamensis variety of silkworm. This variety of silkworm is endemic to Assam. The silk produced from this silkworm has a beautiful glossy golden hue and its lustre improves with age and washing. It is said that this silk, very often, outlives its owner! 

Reserved for the royal families of Assam during the yester years, Muga silk is now woven into beautiful, intricately designed, mekhela chadar (traditional Assamese wear for ladies).

Muga mekhela chadar
This traditional ladies wear is treasured by both the old and the young and worn only during special occasions! Though the cost of this apparel is extremely high, but that is not a prohibitive factor for owning one. It is a must have for an Assamese lady!

The next variety of Assam silk is the Pat silk. This silk is produced from Bombyx textor silkworms that are grown on mulberry trees and is sometimes also known as 'mulberry silk'.

Pat silk sarees
Although Pat silk is light weight and delicate in texture, it is in fact very durable! This variety of silk is woven into sarees in vibrant bright colours, but the favourite are those in white, which stand for purity. With traditional motifs, which include flowers, human figures, animals etc, woven around the border, the Pat silk sarees perfectly compliments the Assamese bride!

Eri silk fabric
The third variety of Assam silk is the Eri silk. This is produced from the Samia cynthia ricini silkworm. The Eri silk is darker and heavier than the other silks and due to its thermal properties, makes a warm, comfortable cosy shawl during winter months. Due to its low cost, it is often known as the 'poor' man's silk and is widely used in the region. Eri silk products are a favourite among "Gandhians" and those that propagate the culture of 'non-violance', as the silk is extracted without killing the silkworm! Besides shawls, this variety of silk is also made into jackets, blankets, bedspreads, curtains, cushion covers etc. 

Although the silk industry of Assam dates back to the early 20th century, the method of production is still loom based and is concentrated in a small town called "Sualkuchi"!

But more about that in my next post!

Monday, 17 February 2014

The 3rd Element of Assamese Symbolism

Areca nut (Tamul)
 The humble areca nut or "Tamul", is a widely grown nut in almost all typical Assamese households. It is as if, without this nut tree, an Assamese household is not complete! Extensively chewed by both young and old, it is a part of the Assamese way of life.

Betel leaf
The betel leaf  or "Paan", compliments the "Tamul", and together with a dash of lime, spread on the betel leaf, make up what is called "Tamul Paan".

Saplings of this leaf are planted methodically or allowed to grow on the "Tamul" tree, as a creeper or vine and in some instances, this leaf grows wild.

There is nothing fancy or exotic about the "Tamul or Paan", in its normal state of usage. Consumed as a combination by many, it is just another habit forming practise, without any significance attached to it. It is so commonly used by people, that, to understand its symbolic importance in the Assamese culture, becomes quite confusing.

But this lowly nut and simple leaf, takes on a whole new grandeur during certain occasions of the Assamese people.  

The whole "Tamul" and "Paan" when offered on a "Xorai" draped with a "Gamocha", exudes an aura of sombreness, reverence, respect and a feeling of welcomeness. The simplicity of the nut and leaf are transformed. They become symbols of reverence and respect to those being offered. And it is expected that, to those who are being offered, receive it with utmost humility and respect also.

This transformation of the betel nut and betel leaf, is even more pronounced during festivals and religious ceremonies. Devotees dressed in their traditional Assamese attire, offer the "Tamul" and "Paan" on a sparkling "Xorai" draped with a "Gamocha" as obeisance to the deities on bended knees and bowed heads.

Wedding invitations in the typical Assamese culture, mandates that it be done with whole "Tamul" and "Paan". There is no fancy wedding invitation cards sent out to the invitees, but rather, people are personally invited by offering of this nut and leaf.

Guests are welcomed with this traditional symbol and offered pieces of the nut and leaf after a meal.

Symbolism is an integral part of Assamese culture. And the three elements, namely, the "Gamocha", "Xorai" and "Tamul Paan" are inter-woven with the Assamese way of life! 

Monday, 10 February 2014

XORAI - the traditional symbol of Assam

'Xorai' is a traditional symbol of Assam.

In very simplistic terms, the Xorai is an offering tray, with a stand, which may or may not have a cover. But to the Assamese people, it is more than its physical structure!

Symbolism is an important aspect in the Assamese culture. Though handed down over the centuries, this ancient cultural practise is still very much in vogue even today. Various elements are used to represent beliefs, feelings, pride, identity etc. And the 'Xorai' is one of these elements!

It is made out of bell-metal, having a rounded tray for offerings with a stand. The cover is dome shaped with a pointed apex that can be removed.

The 'Xorai' is an element of great respect. It is used as an offering tray for betel nuts and leaves to guests as a sign of welcome and thanks. For offering food and other items to the Gods in the Namghars (place of worship). During cultural functions, the 'Xorai' occupies a prominent place on stage, as a symbol of respect and reverence for the culture. And it is, on many occasions, given as a gift to honour prominent personalities.

The Assamese 'Xorai' does not exude any tangible extravaganza as an object, but the intangible symbolic representations are immense to the people of its land.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Stunning GAMOCHA: symbol of Assamese identity!

The intricate motifs of the 'Gamocha'
The word "Gamocha" or "Gamosa" means, 'Ga' - body and 'Mocha' or 'Mosa' - to wipe. So when put together, it literally means 'to wipe ones body'. The Assamese equivalent of the towel!

This piece of woven cloth is unique to the Assamese people. It is a symbol and identity of their culture, which occupies a status of immense respect and reverence.

History does not offer too much about the origin of this piece of Assamese attire. Although, traces of something similar to this are found in some south-east Asian countries, but this piece of cloth is absolutely unique to Assam and its people. 

It is rectangular in shape, with a diameter of 2 feet by 4 feet. The base material is cotton. It has intricate motifs on three sides, usually woven with red thread. A very simple piece of workmanship but the designs on three sides speaks volumes of the artistic qualities of the weavers.

The usage of the "Gamocha", in fact, is very versatile in nature! From being used to wiping ones body after a bath to the sweat off ones brow, the use of the "Gamocha" takes on another facet during religious functions and celebrations. It is used with immense respect and reverence during such occasions. Folded neatly along its four feet length, it is draped over the neck of those to be honoured! During Bihu, it is gifted with love and affection and is called a 'Bihuwaan' and forms a part of the attire of the Bihu dancers, who tie it around their heads.

The Assamese society cannot be imagined without the simple "Gamocha"! The only constant in the ever changing social dynamics. 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Me-Dam-Me-Phi - the festival of the Ahoms!

The festival rituals.
One of the most important festivals of the Ahoms, the name itself is made up three references to different entities!

Me- means offerings, Dam- means ancestors and Phi-means Gods, when put together, it literally means, paying homage to the departed and to the gods.

This festival is celebrated every year on the 31st of January by the Ahoms of the Tai-Shan stock. It is a way of paying respects to their fore-fathers and acknowledge the contribution to the society. 

The Ahom faith and tenets as chronicled, suggests that when Lengdon, the God of Heaven sent two of his grandsons, Khunlung and Khunlai to earth by a golden thread; Gasingpha, the God of knowledge advised them (the grandsons) to perform certain rites and rituals during different months of the year and on different occasions. Thus the Ahoms have Umpha, Phuralong, Me-Dam-Me-Phi and Rikhan as festivals that are celebrated on different occasions and during different months of the year.

Deeply entrenched in their customs, Me-Dam-Me-Phi, according to the Ahoms, assumes the most significance, as they believe that a man after his death remains as Dam (ancestor) only for a few days and soon becomes Phi (God). They also believe that the soul of a man, which is immortal unites with the supreme soul that possess the qualities of a spiritual being, and always blesses the family.

So in order to worship the dead, every Ahom family on this day, erects a pillar, called the Damkhuta, on the opposite side of the family kitchen or Borghar, where various offerings are made, like home made wine, ma-prasad, rice and different types of fish and meat preparations. The meat of choice being pork.

Me-Dam-Me-Phi not only reflects the manners an customs of the Ahoms, but also creates an atmosphere of brotherhood and understanding among the new generation.

 My earlier post on the Rise and Fall of the Ahom Kingdom - in a nutshell of 10th December 2013, gives a brief account of the genesis and end of the Ahom kingdom, which will give a better understanding of this post!

Till next time!!