Textile Traditions of Northeast India (Namrata Sarmah, India, ITP 2018)

Weaves, crafts and craft traditions are influenced by local topography, climate and socio-religious factors. Creativity of Assamese weavers and crafts-persons gives Assam and North-East India a unique identity. The textile gallery of Assam State Museum depicts the Textile of the Ahom Royalty of Medieval Assam. They depict nuances of Royal costumes.

The long tradition of spinning and weaving in Assam is evident from historical sources. Textile culture entered Brahmaputra Valley from both its eastern and western fringes. Numerous sculptures, inscriptions, manuscripts, epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat, Kalika Puran and other sources depict the prevalence of this craft in Assam.

Medieval paintings and illustrated manuscripts reaffirm the widespread nature of textiles. Hiuen Tsang, a Buddhist monk from China who visited Assam in the 6th century has left a valuable record about the craft.

Folk songs such as Bihu Geet, Biya Naam (wedding songs), Bangeet (songs praising the nature), Baromahi Geet, Nao Khelor Geet, Nisukoni Geet (lullabies), Malita (descriptive poems) and Phokora Jujona (proverbs) also depict the weaving culture in abundance. Renowned folktales such as Silonir Jiyekor Sadhu (Tale of the Kite’s Daughter) and the story of Tejimola also hints about the importance of the craft in the local lives.

The craft flourished under the patronage of the Ahom monarchy. There were many Rajagharia (royal) looms which produced textiles for the royal household. Queen Sarveshwari, the wife of the Ahom King Siva Singha personally supervised the industry and the training of young girls in the looms. It is also interesting to note that Assamese people especially the Ahom Queen used scented paste and cream and body lotion derived from certain aromatic plants such as Agaru, Chandan and Sal to use in the cloths.

Map of Assam and the territorial extent of the Ahom State

Assam is a majestic land traversed by the mighty Brahmaputra river and is enclosed by lush hills on both sides. Its historical traditions and material heritage are equally fascinating, and handicrafts play an important role in them. In the idyllic rural landscape of the state, it is not uncommon to hear the rhythms of the handloom coming from each and every household since the break of the day. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked, “Assamese women weave dreams on their looms.”

Due to the historical movement of diverse groups of people, Assam’s demographic composition is extremely heterogeneous. Numerous ethno-linguistic groups with their own unique traditions live in the state in harmony. Each of these communities have their unique traditional attires, and prefer certain specific designs, colours and motifs. The harmonious colour schemes of these indigenous designs are often achieved by naturally procured ingredients. This makes it a very sustainable and holistic industry.

The traditional knowledge of textiles, handlooms and manufacturing of colours are often passed from one generation to the other: from parents to their children and from mentors to their apprentices. As a result, many places in Assam are renowned for the concentrated expertise about the craft among their inhabitants. Most notable among them is the village of Sualkuchi in Kamrup district. It is noteworthy that Eri has been identified as Assam silk, as Assam was its original home. It is the only non-mulberry variety, the worms of which are completely domesticated. During the turn of 19th century, the British East India Company attempted for the spread of eri-culture in India, but it did not spread beyond Assam. The tea planters also found Eri-culture uneconomical. Without making any headway as an industry, the Eri-culture remained only as a small cottage industry in Assam for domestic consumption.