Everyone loves silk, that smooth and timeless fabric that looks forever classic and elegant anywhere and everywhere. But do you know that silk yarn is a natural fibre that comes from the cocoon of the silkworm larva of the silk moth, Bombyx mori? Each cocoon yields silk thread up to about one mile, or one thousand yards, long. It takes 2,000 to 3,000 cocoons to produce a pound of raw silk.
The origins of silk remain shrouded in mystery but according to ancient Confucian records, the Chinese were the first to discover how to domesticate silk moths and unreel silk threads from their cocoons. One of the many legends tells about how the Chinese Empress Leizu, wife of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor (2697-2597 BCE) discovered the silk thread when a cocoon accidentally fell into her tea. As she unwound the thread it finally revealed the larva. This made her realise that she could produce silk threads if she reared silkworms. Leizu taught the technique to her people and thus silkworm domestication and silk fabric production were born. That was around 2700 BCE.
More archaeological findings in China put the dates even further to between 5000 and 3000 BCE. However, it was during the Han Dynasty circa 205 BCE to 220 CE that trade in silk started to become more widespread. This was the time that the famous Silk Road came into being that opened up overland trade routes between the East and the West.
Sericulture in India
Sericulture or silkworm rearing and production came to India around 140 CE and have flourished ever since. Today India is the second largest producer of natural silk after China. The top silk producing states in India are the southern states, with Karnataka topping the list, producing 80% of the total output. In the Northeast, Assam is the highest producer, followed by Meghalaya in the sixth position. Nagaland and Manipur are close behind.
Sericulture in Meghalaya
Meghalaya is known for its four types of silk:
- Eri Silk or ‘Ryndia’
- Mulberry Silk or ‘Rusom’ (Resham)
- Oak Tasar
Meghalaya has the ideal climate for successful rearing and harvesting of all four types of silkworms. Among these, the Eri or ryndia is the peaceful, non-violent or Ahimsa type where the silkworms need not be killed to get the yarn. According to official data, in 2015 Meghalaya produced 857 metric tonnes of raw silk which accounts for 3% of the country’s raw silk output. In contrast, Karnataka produced 9823 metric tonnes or 34.44%. This figure can be enhanced and the government must have taken cognizance of this fact. Ri-Bhoi is the foremost district where rearing of silkworms and handloom weaving has been one of the people’s occupation since long, a supplementary source of income for many farmers.
The Government has identified thrust areas for development. It set up integrated and systematic methods of cocoon rearing, silk production and training to enhance productivity. There are at present six Mulberry, three Eri and two Muga seed farms, nine Mulberry and four Muga nurseries spread among the districts. Besides, there is a training institute for sericulture at Ummulong and another for weaving technology at Mendipathar which conduct a variety of certificate courses.
The Government’s Integrated Basin Development Livelihood Project (IBDLP) also has schemes with objectives that aim at increasing areas of production, the supply of disease-free cocoons, latest technology and designs. The project claims that one of its objectives is to assist in the marketing of the products as well as the development of Silk Tourism in the villages.
Meghalaya’s silk industry is a cottage level enterprise. One remarkable aspect is that the activity of spinning and weaving is done by womenfolk. This deserves encouragement because besides reflecting the rich and colourful culture and heritage it is also empowering to women enabling them to earn livelihoods and supplement their family’s income. It also gives them a sense of pride to be able to perpetuate this ancient tradition, create designs, and pass the knowledge down to their daughters.
According to government sources, there are about 16,000 families that are involved in silkworm farming and 15,900 families in weaving. For such an important industry there need to be more participation from agencies apart from government ones. It was in 1979 that the infrastructure inherited from the Government of Assam became a full-fledged Department of Sericulture and Weaving under the Government of Meghalaya. The industry has finally come out of its cocoon, with Government support and assistance from other agencies. But the effort has to be sustained.
Umden Village on the Silk Map
Of particular mention is Umden village in Ri-Bhoi district, which is about 60 kilometres away from the capital, Shillong and 30 kilometres from Nongpoh. Umden is famous for its traditional food, music and more importantly, its Eri Silk or Ryndia. Two decades ago the art of rearing Eri silkworms, weaving and dyeing was almost abandoned because of the onslaught of cheaper and more functional machine-made modern fabrics. However, a few tenacious women of Umden refused to let their centuries-old art die. Two decades later their efforts have transformed their village into a hub for organic silk and other fabrics of different designs, colours and utilities. The dyes they use are completely natural and organic, obtained from leaves, fruits and other plant parts. The women also helped create a thriving ‘Silk Tourism’ destination of their village.
Some Items Made of Eri Silk
The most ubiquitous is, of course, the ‘jainsem’, the formal traditional dress of khasi women. Eri Silk jainsems are for formal wear on festive occasions. Dhara and Mukhli, the ethnic and elegant Mulberry festive silk wear of women are sometimes woven from Eri silk yarn and Muga silk yarn. Eri shawls especially the ‘Ryndia tlem’ for men are popular along with mufflers and turbans and stoles for women. While men’s items usually come in single colours, the women’s are distinctive by their multi colours.
Silk fabrics can be made into shirts and kurtas or kurtis and many clothing items a designer can create. Though the yarn is white or off-white in colour, it can be dyed into different shades using natural, organic dyes, and woven into intricate designs.
The Future of Sericulture in Meghalaya
With better infrastructure, improved machinery and right impetus, this indigenous art will see more lights of day and more uses in the future. This needs viewing in the right perspective, as we notice the relevance of silk fabrics even after 5000 years of discovery. Such a sustainable and eco-friendly industry is hard to come by. It would be a shame not to promote it and to bring more innovation.
There is a need for conscientious businesses to contribute too. If South India’s Kanchipuram and Mysore silks are so popular today there is no reason why Meghalaya Dhara, Muga and Ryndia cannot be scaled up too. The resources and talent are there but the drive and direction are missing. This becomes the driving force for us at Zizira. We keep striving to bring out the life and beauty in tradition. We help contribute to life, prosperity and beauty. To learn more about Eri silk products subscribe to our newsletter.