As famous as its picturesque tea plantations is Assam’s Muga silk. The gorgeous fabric, known for its extreme durability and natural yellowish-golden tint, was once reserved only for royalty. In fact, it is often compared to being as expensive as buying gold. Over the years, the silk has only managed to gain more popularity, with the Muga silk now becoming a coveted item for wedding and traditional wear.
Origin and history
Sericulture is an ancient industry in Assam that doesn’t really have a timeframe. Known to exist since the beginning of time, the first archives of Muga silk production coming into the spotlight was during the Ahom dynasty (1228-1826).
It was during this period that Muga culture thrived and became an integral part of the social and economic lives of the locals. Ahom kings were known to don only Muga silk and the fabric was stocked in the kingdom as well presented to visitors of their court as one of the finest local offerings.
Muga silk has been given the Geographical Indication (GI) status since 2007 and the logo for authentic production has been registered with Assam Science Technology and Environment Council. The Central Silk Board of India has the authority to inspect Muga silk products, certify their authenticity and allow traders to use the GI logo.
Muga silk, which is mainly produced by the Garo community of Assam, is obtained from semi-domesticated multivoltine silkworm, Antheraea Assamensis. These silkworms feed on the leaves of Som and Soalu plants and the silk produced from them is known for its glossy texture and durability.
Typically, a silk farmer requires access to at least an acre of land if he has to cultivate about 400 grams of Muga silk at a go.
Further, 1000 cocoons can generate about 125 grams of silk but a single saree requires at least 1000 grams of silk. The time taken to weave a single Muga silk saree is roughly two months, from rearing the silkworm to obtaining the finished product. The actual weaving process takes about one week to 10 days to complete.
The golden colour and shine of the fabric is one of the most unique features of Muga silk. In fact, the shine of the fabric is said to improve after each wash making it a product that will last you a lifetime, and also making it one of the costliest silks in the world.
A Muga Mekhela Chador, the traditional dress of Assamese women remains one of the most coveted fashion items for locals.
A golden yellow base colour is the main selling point of this silk. Additional colours are added via embroidery and zari work to make the product more attractive. However, if you have to invest in a Muga silk saree, the bright gold colour is a classic must-have.
Traditional motifs that are used on the fabric includes Jappi (the typical Assami topi), Miri Gos Butta (a pattern of miniature tree motifs) and kabutar (pigeons). These motifs are always geometrical in shape and have not changed over the years. Pure jari work is also found on the fabric, giving it a very royal, classy feel.
Mekhela chadors, a two-piece saree and the traditional outfit of Assamese women, often worn during weddings, and the five-yard saree are the biggest varieties of this fabric. You also get the silk in “reeha”, which is a piece of fabric that is worn on special occasions like pujas, weddings and festivals. You also see the Muga silk used in making shawls and dress material.
Current state of the art
Muga silk has the Geographical Indication status, which helps in ensuring authentic products and controlling quality in the market. In the last year alone, India produced 158 tonnes of Muga silk, out of which 136 tonnes was produced in Assam. India’s totally output that very year was 28,708 tonnes.
Muga silk remains a classic item that every woman desires to own, however its traditional outlook, and non-versatility (it hasn’t really evolved much beyond the traditional Mekhela chadors), makes the demand a little niche.
Nevertheless, the fabric does have a global connect especially in Japan where designers are using it to make kimonos and other traditional Japanese dresses.
Muga silk is one of the highest qualities of silk and its ability to retain the original golden glow, makes the cost worthwhile. An original piece of work can cost you anywhere between Rs.10,000 to Rs.1,50,000.
How to identify a Muga silk saree
The only method to identify a Muga silk from other natural silk is by using a certain kind of microscope. However, the strict quality check at the time of production and the GI status ensures that you only hold an original product in your hand. An alarm bell could be the cost – if it’s less than Rs.10,000 or if the shopkeeper is willing to sell it at a discount, you might be buying a fake product.
Dry cleaning is the most preferred method of maintaining a Muga silk saree. However, if you do have to wash the saree at home, avoid using soap during the first three washes. A rinse in cold water is more than enough. It is advisable to store the saree separately in a plastic or saree bag.
|KNOW YOUR CRAFT: MUGA SILK
|Technique||Handloom||Distinguishing factor||Natural yellowish-gold tint that gets shinier with every wash|
|Place of origin||Assam||Materials used||Silk yarn from the Antheraea Assamensis silkworm and embroidery threads|
|Manufacturing hubs||Assam||Time taken to weave||One week to 10 days to weave; two months for the entire silk rearing process and weaving|
|Type of fabric||Silk||Varieties||Mekhela chador, five-yard saree and reeha (a piece of fabric worn on special occasions)|
|Colours||Natural yellow-gold of the silk and colourful embroidery||Price||Rs.10,000 to Rs.150,000|
|Motifs||Jappi (the typical Assami topi), Miri Gos Butta (a pattern of miniature tree motifs) and kabutar (pigeons)||Care||Dry clean and store in a saree bag. Change folds from time to time|