Muga silk is an important cultural heritage of Assam and received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Assam in 2004. However, neo-liberal activities resulting in climate change is threatening muga culture where the livelihood of rearing and weaving communities of muga silk is at risk. Unless there is a bottom-up approach to conceive and implement new policies and technologies to revive muga culture, the socio-economic conditions of the communities will deteriorate and lead to the gradual decline of this heritage.
MUGA SILK AND ITS HISTORY IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT
India has a unique distinction of being the only country in the world to produce Mulberry, Eri, Muga and Tasar silks (Tikader et al. 2013). While muga silk is golden yellow in colour, eri is creamy white and both these silks have reflected the cultural and aesthetic traditions of the Assamese people. To know the exquisite art of silk creation, one has to understand the wonderful world of sericulture. In Assam, all the four varieties of silk are available as sericulture in the state comprises of muga silkworm (Antheraea assama), eri silkworm (Philosamia ricini), mulberry silkworm (Bombyz mori) and oak tasar silkworm (Antheraea prolei). A diversity of products, from traditional Assamese dresses like mekhela, sadar and riha for women and seleng sadar and eri sadar for men, to modern fashion ensembles, furnishings, upholstery, carpets, and rugs, are created from these magnificent fibres.
Muga silk is famously known as the Golden Silk or Queen of Silk of the world. It is endemic to Assam and other neighbouring Northeastern states and this silk has received the Geographical Indication tag in 2004 for Assam. The name ‘muga’ comes from the Assamese language which means a rich amber colour, representing the colour of the cocoon of the silkworm. The host plants in which the silkworm feed are Som and Soalu that are distributed throughout Northeast India and which grow up to an altitude of 1,500 feet above the mean sea level. In Assam, the muga growing pocket lies mostly in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Jorhat, Golaghat, Darrang, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Goalpara and Kamrup districts (Deka, 2009).
In the Brahmaputra Valley, muga rearing and silk weaving are major activities in most households (especially in rural areas) other than agriculture. Women play a major role in weaving and rearing of silk that provides financial independence to them. Muga silk not only contributes to the improvement of livelihood, but it is deep-rooted in the culture and tradition of the people of Assam. Traditionally, Assamese families have been using muga for making the mekhela-sadar which is the traditional attire of Assamese women and this is worn during Bihu, the main festival of Assam. Many communities of Assam also consider muga silkworm as a cuisine in their diet.
Muga silk shimmers in its natural golden colour and is available in various shades of natural gold. It is also the highest priced among all other silk fibres. Unfortunately, muga silk has not been able to contribute much to Assam’s GDP. Sualkuchi, which is known as the ‘Manchester of Assam’ is the hub for muga silk weavers from pre-modern times. However, weaving of muga silk is hardly visible these days in Sualkuchi village due to various reasons which I explore further in this essay. As one can observe, there has been a gradual disappearance of the presence of muga silk in the lives of the Assamese community.
Silkworms were originally domesticated in China thousands of years ago. Sericulture is the methodical rearing of the silkworms in their natural and man-made nests for the production of silk fibre. It has over thousands of years of practice, got transformed into an industry of its own virtue. According to oral narratives (Deka, 2009), silk products and the silk rearing practice in all probability, made inroads into India through matrimonial alliance of a Chinese princess to an Indian prince. Textual evidence points to the practice of mulberry sericulture in India for almost two thousand years. Places like Magadh, Amba and Paundra were the chief sites of active sericulture, as described in the Ramayana. Sericulture was also actively practiced in the present district of Kamrup in Assam, which has been mentioned in ancient Indian texts such as the Arthashastra and Harshacharit. In all likelihood, sericulture spread to India from China, mainly into the valleys of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges around 140 BC (Deka, 2009). It is however, difficult to trace the exact period when muga sericulture began in Assam. There are accounts from Periplus manuscripts around the first century BC, and later from Ptolemy and Pliny on muga sericulture. Muga sericulture earned royal patronage with various ruling dynasties such as the Kirats (AD 100-250), the Koches, the Kacharis and later the Ahom kings (AD 1228-1750). Chand Saudagar, a river and sea merchant of Eastern India pioneered the commercialisation of the muga thread around AD 300-450 from the eastern provinces of India. Muga was also traded with China through Tibetan merchants from Lhasa. The English initiated trade with Europe on muga through a deed of trade signed with King Gaurinath Singha in 1703 AD. During this period, the muga fabric, owing to its uniqueness commanded high demand in the markets overseas (Deka, 2009).
PRESENT SCENARIO AND CHALLENGES
Rearing of muga silkworm is done in the outdoors unlike many other silkworms. Muga silkworm is endemic to Assam and neighbouring Northeastern states due to the specific optimum temperature that is required to sustain the silkworm as it requires a temperature that ranges from 25°C to 27°C and humidity in the range of 75- 85 %. The optimum condition for rearing muga silkworm is 21- 31°C and 65 to 95% relative humidity (Tikader et al.,2013). Alteration of climatic factors such as relative humidity and temperature, affects almost all the aspects in the life cycle of silkworms taking their development and survival into account (Gohain & Borua, 1983). As per the Indian Meteorological Department data, the mean temperature in Assam between 1950 to 2010 had increased by 0.01 °C per year (Chakravartty, 2018). There has also been noticeable increase in temperatures across seasons, especially in the post-monsoon and winter temperatures. Such weather changes have affected the growth and production of muga silkworm as well as the livelihoods of their rearers and muga weavers too.
In my interaction with a few rearers in Boko in 2019, they mentioned that they are facing immense difficulty in adapting to the new weather and climate change in Assam and how to carry ahead with their occupation. While some have shifted to alternative livelihood sources, others are trying to come up with new indigenous changes in their rearing location or methods (Kashyap, 2020). Many rearers now travel to cooler areas of Assam, usually to the Assam-Meghalaya border regions to rear muga silkworm and also come up with novel ideas on rearing the silkworm, such as allowing them to feed on the trees near ponds or streams due to the cool air. Rearers have also come up with solutions such as mating muga silkworms (tying both the opposite moths together) during the night between 7 PM and 8 AM, as they do not mate during summers, and putting the pupae of muga silkworms to feed on their host plants from dawn to early morning to avoid the heat. Significantly, there has been a shift in the rearing season due to changes in the weather, which include a longer summer season, excess humidity, shorter period of winter and erratic rainfall.
The establishment of tea plantations and rubber plantations near the rearing lands and the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers have also adversely affected muga silkworms by causing various bacterial and fungal diseases. Muga silkworm seeds (eggs) are also in a vulnerable state due to release of various kinds of harmful gases and pollution due to industrial activities such as oil refineries and other extractive sector companies. P. R. Bhattacharya (1994) argues that the usage of pesticides in neighbouring tea gardens is the reason for destruction of the large scale muga culture in Upper Assam. She further argues that another cause for depletion of the muga silkworm is air pollution due to incineration of natural gases being produced from oil wells and seismic surveys by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation for the purpose of oil exploration and pollution from brick kilns. Over the years, many tea estates and rubber plantation activities have encroached on land for rearing muga silkworm. Few rearers have also given away land to these estates voluntarily due to the loss of their occupation and changed their professions to tea labourers. Such changes in land and labour patterns have also impacted the weaving communities in different parts of Assam. The growth of industrialisation, neo-liberalism along with global warming, has had adverse effects on muga silkworm and the livelihood of the communities dependent on this silkworm.
The developments explained above, have made the silk dearer for any common person to buy. The decline in production of muga silk and the rising demand of muga silk outside the state and country has led to a rise in its price. For instance, Dharani Kalita, a Mahajan (owner) of a xhal (handloom) from Sualkuchi, says that it costs anywhere between thirty-five thousand to forty-five thousand rupees today to buy a muga silk mekhela-sador set, as compared to its price five decades back when the same garment would only cost somewhere between four hundred to five hundred rupees. According to him, at that time, one kilo yarn used to cost Rs.500-700 while it costs Rs.15,000-20,000 now. The gradual increase in the cost of the yarn as well as muga silk cloth started after the Assam Movement in the early 1980s, when tea plantation gained more popularity in the state which led to cutting down of host plants (Som tree) of muga silkworm in the rearing fields. Many rearers switched to tea cultivation mainly due to the seasonality of commercial muga rearing which restricts the occupation to only two months, while tea can be grown and produced with profit throughout the whole year. It is due to this low production of the muga silkworm and its raw material, that the price of the muga silk has simultaneously risen up. While Sualkuchi is one of the core places for production of silk, all the farms for rearing muga silk have closed down and rearing communities of Sualkuchi have shifted to other alternative livelihood sources such as daily wage labour, agricultural labour, etc. Such closures have been due to various environmental factors such as increase in humidity, erratic rainfall, increase in temperature and human factors such as urbanisation and pollution which lead to increase in mortality rate of the muga silkworm. Muga silk weavers in Sualkuchi collect raw material from nearby places such as Palasbari and Boko, but many rearers themselves have started to weave due to low production and because selling of a small number of raw materials will only be a loss to their economy. Most of the muga xhal in Sualkuchi have been converted into paat xhal, which is used to weave mulberry silk, for income generation. Hence, what once gave Sualkuchi its pride and heritage has left all its footprints.
Though weaving communities in Assam weave various kinds of silk, yet, most of these silk threads are imported from other parts of the country. The paat silk which is used as the main dress for an Assamese bride or also commonly worn by Assamese women, is today, imported from places such as Surat, Bangalore and Mysore in India. This is because Assam does not have enough technology for twisting threads to extract raw materials of paat silk and the changes in climate have caused low production of mulberry silkworm. Muga silk is the one type of silk other than eri, that is reared and woven in Assam itself. These traditional occupations have helped in the upliftment of the socio-economic condition of the weaving and rearing communities from rural parts of Assam. To cope with the high rate for muga raw material, many weavers weave by mixing muga and tassar silk which is commonly called toss, by weaving one in the digh (vertical weave) and other in the bani (horizontal weave). Muga and Assam tassar silk have similarity in their colour, thus, at times, toss is used as a substitute for muga silk in textiles.
The livelihood and the socio-economic status of rearers and weavers have deteriorated with the changes in their occupation, wage, income generation and so on. Consequently, this has also impacted the health of these communities and the education of children. Introduction of modern machines for weaving and scientific technology for disease free laying (DFL) muga silkworm egg production and extraction of silk yarn can lead to an increase in the production of muga silkworm and create a suitable life for the communities who are related to muga culture. Although new rearing methods have been introduced in certain areas, rearers are apprehensive about these methods due to lack of awareness and also for a preference towards traditional methods of rearing. Most of these newly introduced machines in rearing and weaving communities have been done so by the government through a top down approach without any grassroots involvement. Holiram Rabha, a rearer from Boko, told me during an interaction in 2018, that there are various loopholes in the techniques and they do not help in increasing the production. Usually, the machines are introduced to a community through a short demonstration, which the government sericulture department terms as ‘workshop’. During distribution of the modern machines and technology, the power dynamics within the community becomes prominent and certain people who are well connected with the administration are chosen as beneficiaries leaving out most weavers who are actually vulnerable and are in need of assistance.
There are overlapping factors that is leading to the diminishing of muga culture in Assam. Other than climate change and developmental activities, urbanisation and neo-liberal policies have motivated the new generation of weaver and rearer communities to search for alternative livelihood opportunities. People have been migrating from rural to urban areas for education, job opportunities, daily wage labour and a better standard of living. To ensure the survival of this heritage and to improve the production of muga silk which will attract the new generation to continue the tradition, there needs to be adoption of better policies, development of skills and implementation of better programs and schemes that are done through a participatory bottom-up approach. But these steps may not be enough, if anthropogenic activities fueled by capitalism which negatively impact the environment and climate like burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, pollution and so on, are also not countered.
- Chakravartty, Anupam. “Climate Change in India: Cuisine, culture take a hit in Assam.” Down To Earth, URL: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/climate-change-in-india-cuisine-culture-take-a-hit-in-assam-61876 (accessed 28 July’ 2021.
- Bhattacharyya, P. R. Studies on the effect of oil field population upon nutritional quality of “Som” (Machilus bombycina) and the biology and certain biochemical aspects of muga silkworm “Antheraea assama Ww”. Unpublished PhD thesis. Guwahati: Gauhati University, 1994.
- Deka, H. Assam: Land and People. New Delhi: Thomson Press (India) Limited. 2009.
- Gohain, R. and Borua, R. “Effect of temperature and humidity on development, survival and oviposition in laboratory populations of Eriworm”. Archives Internationales dePhysiologieet de Biochemie, 91, no. 2(1983): 87-93. doi: 10.3109/13813458309078581
- Kashyap, Julina. “Impact of Climate Change on Muga Silkworm and its Rearing Culture.” In Environmental Degradation and Sustainable Development, (ed.) Dinesh Das, 274-280. New Delhi: Abhijeet Publications, 2020.
- Tikader, A., Vijayan, K. and Saratchandra, B. “Muga Silkworm Antheraea assamensis (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) – an overview of distribution, biology and breeding.” European Journal of Entomology, 110 (2013): 293-300.
Julina Kashyap has worked closely with the rearing and weaving communities of Boko and Sualkuchi of Assam to understand the culture of muga silk and effects of climate change on this culture. She has completed her Master’s degree in Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development. Her areas of interest are political ecology, biodiversity conservation, community-based conservation, indigenous knowledge systems, climate change, and gender and feminist studies. She is currently pursuing an M.Phil in Women’s Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.