Priceless art

Sudha Jain
Muga: A silk for all seasons & reasons
Verdant tea gardens, the melodious strain of Assamese folk music and beautiful women draped in eye catching, golden hued, delicately designed traditional muga ensemble, dancing to the tune of Bihu geet — this almost encompasses the beauty of Assam.
There is some magic about the muga silk mekhela chadar that enhances the beauty and charm that Assamese women are known for. Muga silk, a symbol of Assam’s rich culture and a treasured possession in every Assamese household, is considered the lifeline of the people of Assam.
Besides being famous for the one-horned rhino and its tea, Assam is also known for the golden silk known as muga. The state produces three unique varieties of silk — the golden muga, the white pat and the warm eri. Muga is cultivated, reeled and woven to make exclusive muga silk saris, kurtas and mekhela chadar. It is a non-mulberry silk, obtained from semi-domesticated silk worms, and is found only in Assam.
However, being the proud owner of this priceless silk comes with a price! A muga sari may cost anywhere between Rs 10,000 and 20,000, and sometimes even more. It is indeed very expensive, but once we acquaint ourselves with its production process, we will discern why this is so. Muga is produced by a silkworm known as Antheraea Assamensis, which is raised outdoors and is fed on two trees: som (machilus bomycina) and soalu (litsaea polyantha).
The worm feeds on trees, eats voraciously and strips them of their foliage. Consequently, there is a mass retreat of these worms from the tree, down the trunk. The worms are then collected and transferred to another tree until they are mature enough to spin the fibres.
When they are ready to spin their cocoons, they are collected by keepers and placed in small containers made of dry twigs. The silkworms then yield a beautiful golden thread called muga, which in Assamese means ‘gold’. The cocoons are then boiled in a solution of soap and soda, and are reeled in reeling machines. A muga sari is woven in two months and about 6,000 to 10,000 cocoons are used to yield a sari of about 1 kg. It is no wonder then that muga is one of the most expensive silks in the world!
In spite of the silk being this exquisite, the interest of the weavers is steadily and unfortunately dwindling. Assam is the only state in India where the weaving industry is spread out. There are around 9,500 sericulture villages in Assam. Muga threads obtained from all over the state find their way to Sualkuchi, 32 km from Guwahati. Sualkuchi, also called “the Manchester of the east”, is one of the world’s largest weaving villages.
Bhaskar Datta Goswami, a leading muga manufacturer in Assam, says, “In 1926, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Assam for the Congress Mahasabha, Sualkuchi came into the limelight, and has since developed as the weaving centre. The entire population here was engaged in weaving delicate silk fabrics.
Weaving a muga sari was a matter of pride for Assamese women. Even women from affluent families were known to weave their own muga saris. However, interest amongst the present generation is slowly waning. With the advent of television and a growing interest in other well-paying occupations, weaving has taken the back seat for young Assamese girls. Now men are more involved in this craft.”
“Furthermore, although the demand for muga silk is huge, its production is gradually declining. The adverse effect of global warming comes to the fore here. Good quality muga is cultivated in temperatures ranging from 32 to 36 degrees celsius. But now, owing to deforestation and demographic pressure, the temperature here has risen to 38-40 degrees Additionally, during 1993’s ‘Operation Bajrang’ (a government initiative to fight insurgents), when the Assam insurgency was at its peak, police entered the forest areas, driving the keepers to the villages. The environmental benefits of silkworm culture in forests was lost as people migrated to villages, leading to low production. Further, the industry is still unorganised and untapped, in spite of it being quite old. There has also been no initiative from the government to improve and popularise this precious industry. The income of these weavers does not match the amount of hard work and labour that they put into the weaving of muga fabric.”
But there is hope yet. Assamese designer Bandita Das says, “Muga silk has evolved over the years and we have found new ways to present it. Earlier, it was only used for making mekhela chadar, but now steps are being taken to popularise it amongst the youth. Muga silk is now used to make skirts, kurtas, ties and bags, and it is heartening to see the younger generation asking for more.” The silk is in demand in Japan for the manufacture of kimonos and ties, as well as in countries such as the US, Greece, Germany, France and South Africa. With the increasing demand in foreign shores, hopefully, the lot of these weavers would improve too.
What makes muga very special is its glossy, fine texture and its durability. Due to low porosity, the muga yarn cannot be bleached or dyed and it retains its natural gold colour. The silk can be hand-washed and its shine increases with each wash. Muga saris are passed from mother to daughter, down the generations. The gift of a muga sari is a gift that transcends time. Muga is a fabric for all seasons and is eco-friendly as it is chemical-free.
Says Bhaskar Datta, “With better textile machines available, muga cocoons are now being bought by manufacturers in Bangalore and Bhagalpur and the threads are reeled in a mechanised and systematic way. However, the gap between demand and supply has to be bridged. Steps should be taken to bail out this invaluable industry from its losses. Perks and better pay to these weavers will go a long way in addressing the problem and giving a boost to the industry.”