Tai-Ahom Silk Weaving
A silk textile craft practiced by the Ahom or Tai-Ahom people of Assam, Tai-Ahom silk weaving traditionally uses muga silk, which the Ahoms are believed to have introduced to the region. The Tai-Ahoms have been historically involved in the rearing of silkworms and manufacturing of silk cloth, especially indigenous varieties such as muga, eri and paat (mulberry silk).
Ahom kings ruled the region corresponding to modern Assam from 1224 CE. In the late thirteenth century, King Suteopha is believed to have initiated the rearing of silkworms to produce muga and eri, leading Sualkuchi in the present-day Kamrup district to develop as a major weaving centre. Muga silk was particularly favoured by the Ahoms for use in royal robes, in the attire of officials and aristocrats, and in gifting to other courts. At various points in time, the Ahom royal household owned silk looms and employed expert weavers to operate them, usually women. Ahom rulers also encouraged the rearing of silkworms exclusively for the royal looms in tracts of land known as Rajaghoria sumonis. Silk from the region was exported to courts and markets in present-day Tibet, Myanmar, Bhutan, and the Gangetic Plains.
The establishment of Mughal power in Northern India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had significant impacts on the Ahom royals’ patronage of silk. In the early seventeenth century, King Pratap Singha decreed that every able-bodied woman was to engage in weaving at least two copses of yarn everyday. His successors Jayadeva Singha and Rudra Singha encouraged the migration of weavers from Delhi and secured access to weaving technologies and techniques from elsewhere through diplomacy and trade. Rudra Singha is also encouraged the weaving of Mughal-style clothes such as turbans, jamas and pantaloons to the court. A few Ahom queens played an active role in the patronage of the silk industry, such as Phuleswari, who personally oversaw the training of young girls in weaving and the administration of the royal looms in the early seventeenth century. Silk produced in the Ahom kingdom was worn in the Mughal court and was exported from the coasts of Bengal, Coromandel and Malabar. Muga silk was also exported to Europe by the British East India Company in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Motifs found on textiles from this period include imitations of flowers, ferns, butterflies, birds, animals and the royal insignia of the dynasty, the mythical winged creature Ngi Ngao Kham. These were usually executed with geometric designs. Oral legend holds that the 16th century Vaishnava saint Sankardev took up tapestry weaving along with weavers from Tantikuchi (present-day Barpeta, Assam) to create fabrics known as Vrindavani Vastra, altar covers with depictions of the dance of the Hindu deity Krishna. The demand for silk led to a large section of Tai-Ahom men and women being engaged in spinning, spooling and hand-weaving silk, done on the back strap or loin loom. The Katonis or Jogis, and immigrant Muslim Tantis and Jholas were the dominant spinning and weaving communities towards the end of the Ahom period. Weaving was also undertaken by members of the Tai-speaking communities that settled in Assam, such as the Tai-Phake and Tai-Khamiyang communities.
The British East India Company took over the Assam region in 1826. Despite the loss of Ahom royal patronage, silk weaving was still considered an important skill, especially for brides. Domestic demand for the silk and woven garments decreased with the influx of cheaper mill-woven cloth imported from Britain and with the colonial emphasis the rearing of tea. There were no significant developments to the weaving industry in general until the early twentieth century, when the demand for local textiles began to grow again under the influence of the Independence movement. The recovering silk weaving industry initially relied on localised efforts of the rearers and weavers themselves. After independence, the industry gained additional traction with the establishment of the Central Silk Board in 1948 and the Directorate of Sericulture and Weaving in Assam between 1956–57. The 1977 Industrial Policy Statement established schemes such as Multipurpose National Sericulture Project (MNSP) in 1989–90, Catalytic Development Programme (CDP) and Project Golden Thread during 1997–2002, with the CDP merged with the North Eastern Textile Promotion Scheme (NETPS).
Unlike in most other weaving traditions, silk weaving in Assam was traditionally performed by women, but is now carried out by both men and women. Some of the garments made from cloth produced by Tai-Ahom weaving are mekhela chador, cheleng chador, sapkon, and the basual tongali. Important silk weaving centres in Assam today include Sualkuchi, Dhahuakhana and Dhemaji in lower Assam. Most Tai-Ahom weaving villages are located in upper Assam, in the region where they first settled.
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