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Medieval Economic Renaissance & Assamese Communities

Apart from Muga silk, Assam is also renowned for its production of Pat silk and Eri silk. Silkworms that feed on mulberry leaves produce Pat silk, also known as Mulberry silk. It is commonly used to create delicate and lightweight fabrics, often adorned with intricate embroidery. Eri silk, on the other hand, is popularly known as "Ahimsa silk" or "Peace silk" because the silkworms are not harmed during the silk extraction process. Eri silk has a unique texture and is often used to make warm and comfortable garments.

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By: Arup Saikia

Economic activities have been the driving force behind the social, political, and cultural history of mankind. The economy is directly linked to materialistic necessities. However, Assam, being a landlocked place, has been deprived of coastal trading and the assimilation of alien people or customs through sea routes. Nevertheless, during the reign of the Varman dynasty until the fall of the Palas in the 12th century, the Kamrupa Empire extended near the Bay of Bengal. This allowed the people of Assam to benefit from marine resources. The medieval economic renaissance of Assam revolved around some common commodities.

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Salt: In medieval Assam, salt was the most essential and coveted commodity among the privileged sections. It was extracted through a technical process from the ground. Salt production held political and strategic importance as well. The politics of the localities with salt wells directly influenced the salt production. These areas were scattered across the former Kachari Kingdom, which comprises the modern districts of Dima Hasao and the greater Twensang area of Nagaland.

Mysterious Chemkhar: Chemkhar is one of the oldest untouched villages in Assam, located 30 kilometers east of Maibong. The people of this village have been unwilling to mingle with others, making it a secluded and mysterious place. The village had the highest number of salt ponds in the region. Chemkhar’s strategic position, being located on a hill peak, was similar to Indian Kashmir. The Kachari king deployed brave Chemcha warriors to protect the village from possible Naga aggression. Chemkhar also became the highest revenue-earning place for the Kachari Kingdom due to its salt ponds.

After the fall of Maibong to the Ahoms in the early 18th century, the place no longer remained a safe haven for the Kacharis, and they moved to present-day Silchar in the Barak Valley in 1750. Eventually, the Chemchas of Chemkhar became a disconnected island, forming a separate community and cutting ties with their main tribe, the Dimasa. They had to fight many fierce battles with the Angami Nagas, leading to the creation of a multi-layered barrier that isolated them as an ethnic group. Interestingly, there was a strict tribal law that prohibited intermarriage or leaving the village, which piqued the curiosity of outsiders and earned the village its reputation as the “village of mystery.”

Later, in the 18th century, many foreign merchants joined the salt trade, including prominent figures like Jean Baptise Chevalier from France and Danielle Rous from Germany. Additionally, elite Assamese brokers emerged to facilitate the collection and logistics support of salt trading.

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Brass Metal: Alongside the prominent indigenous industry of Assam for economic self-dependence, the use of brass metal is deeply ingrained in the socio-religious culture of the Assamese. Brass is an alloy prepared by fusing 70% copper and 30% zinc. The exact origin of brass metal is not precisely known, but its use marked the transitional and developmental period of Assam’s shift from clay to metal. Brass metal was used in the pre-Ahom period to make bells and other religious utensils in temples. During the neo-Vaishnavite revolution, various musical instruments such as cymbals and bells were also made from brass.

Brass metal items, such as BHOGJARA, MAIHANG, and BATA, became royal insignia. Brass metal plates were available during the Varman dynasty in the 3rd or 4th century, but it was during the Ahom rule that various shapes similar to those found in Southeast Asia flourished. Influenced by Southeast Asian countries, popular utensils were manufactured with a stand at the bottom. Even GACHA and CHAKI, small lamps/chandeliers from the Ahom era, were made with stands and placed before altars or sanctum sanctorums.

In general, brass metal utensils, including various bowls, were prepared from brass for household use, even for common people, despite the availability of cheaper steel, ceramic, and silver materials. For many, the beauty of Assam lies in Assamese metallurgy.

Brass metal utensils are highly regarded in formal social occasions, symbolizing a sense of gravity. The industry of Sarthebari, located in lower Assam, is famous for producing brass metal items that are adored by the entire state. Moreover, a professional class known as KAHAR emerged to specialize in the manufacturing of brass metal materials. Offering food in brass metal utensils is considered a symbol of Assamese ethnic aristocracy, regardless of religion, even to this day.

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Apparel of Assam: Clothing is one of the most vital socio-cultural materials with significant economic importance in terms of trading and manufacturing. Over time, the sericulture industry in Assam grew, but the precise origin remains unknown. The first reference to Assam silk was found in Valmiki’s Ramayana, where a traveller passing through the east mentioned the country of cocoon rearers. In Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a politico-economic book from the 3rd century BC, there is a description of ornate silk attire from Assam, mainly produced in Suvarnakudyaka (modern-day undivided Kamrupa). Silkworms feed on leaves, and according to the Kalika Purana, as early as the 10th century, colorful silk clothes (known as Muga in Assamese) were used for worship and to cover deities. The Dikkarvasini Pitha or TAMRESHWARI temple in Sadiya, under the Chutiya Kingdom, used Assamese silk (Muga) for worship and covering deities.

Origin of Silk: Since the majority of the Assamese people have Tibeto-Burman origins, the knowledge of weaving and sericulture came with them from China around 3000 BC. This connection is why the famous Silk Road started from China, passing through Myanmar and connecting to India through Assam. Various sects of the Bodo-Kachari tribe, including the Bodo, Dimasa, Rava, Sonowal, Garo, Koch, and Chutiya, introduced the farming of silk of different colours and varieties in Assam. The northeastern corner of Assam served as the gateway to silk trade and production, which later spread to the rest of India. The Mongolian people originally called silk “SIRKEK,” and the word “saree,” the popular attire for Indian women, is said to be a derivative of “Sirkek.”

Silk under Pala, Chutiya, Ahom: Three prominent monarchies, namely the Pala dynasty in the west, and the Chutiya and Ahom dynasties in the east, cultivated silkworms for cloth production. Historical records mention that in 1524 AD, the Chutiya king gifted MUGA (golden-colored clothes) to the Ahom monarch as a peace pact. This was probably the first official introduction of Muga clothes to the Ahom monarch and the royal household. The Ahom king and ministers were impressed, leading to the hiring of many Chutiya weavers to weave dresses for the royal households. Prior to this, until the 16th century, the Ahoms used to wear traditional black clothes from the Yunnan province and China.

After the introduction of Muga silk by the Chutiya kingdom, the Ahom dynasty embraced silk production and weaving as a significant part of their culture and economy. They established specialized workshops and employed skilled weavers to create exquisite silk garments.

The Ahom kings and nobility were known for their elaborate attire made from Assamese silk. The king’s attire, called the Japi Mekhela, consisted of a majestic silk dhoti (mekhela) adorned with intricate designs and patterns, accompanied by a silk scarf (chadar) and a traditional hat known as Japi. The queen and the royal family also wore splendid silk garments, showcasing the richness and elegance of Assamese silk.

Silk weaving became a hereditary craft among certain communities in Assam, passed down from generation to generation. The weavers, known as Muga Miris, were highly skilled artisans who mastered the art of silk weaving. They used traditional handlooms and techniques to create unique designs and motifs, reflecting the cultural heritage of Assam.

Apart from Muga silk, Assam is also renowned for its production of Pat silk and Eri silk. Silkworms that feed on mulberry leaves produce Pat silk, also known as Mulberry silk. It is commonly used to create delicate and lightweight fabrics, often adorned with intricate embroidery. Eri silk, on the other hand, is popularly known as “Ahimsa silk” or “Peace silk” because the silkworms are not harmed during the silk extraction process. Eri silk has a unique texture and is often used to make warm and comfortable garments.

The silk industry in Assam continues to thrive, with clusters of weavers and craftsmen producing a wide range of silk products. The government has taken initiatives to promote silk production, provide training to weavers, and preserve the traditional techniques of silk weaving. Assamese silk garments, with their vibrant colours, intricate designs, and rich cultural significance, are highly valued not only in Assam but also across India and the world.

In recent times, Assamese silk has gained international recognition, with designers incorporating Assamese silk fabrics into contemporary fashion. The fusion of traditional Assamese silk with modern designs has created a unique and captivating fashion statement, attracting fashion enthusiasts globally. The apparel and metalwork of Assam hold immense cultural and historical significance, representing the rich heritage and craftsmanship of the region. They continue to be cherished and celebrated, playing an integral role in the cultural identity of the Assamese people. (The author is an alumni of Delhi University and a noted cultural activist, actor, scriptwriter and poet. He can be reached at arupsaikia07@gmail.com)

 

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The Hills Timeshttps://www.thehillstimes.in/
Welcome to The Hills Times, your trusted source for daily news and updates in English from the heart of Assam, India. Since our establishment in 2000, we've been dedicated to providing timely and accurate information to our readers in Diphu and Guwahati. As the first English newspaper in the then undemarcated Karbi Anglong district, we've forged a strong connection with diverse communities and age groups, earning a reputation for being a reliable source of news and insights. In addition to our print edition, we keep pace with the digital age through our website, https://thehillstimes.in, where we diligently update our readers with the latest happenings day by day. Whether it's local events, regional developments, or global news, The Hills Times strives to keep you informed with dedication and integrity. Join us in staying ahead of the curve and exploring the world through our lens.
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