When Mahatma Gandhi saw Assamese women working on looms in Suwalkuchi, the silk village, during his visit to Assam in 1946, he said: Assamese women weave dreams on their looms. People of the various communities of Assam are traditionally good weavers apart from being experts in basketery, mat-making, fishing implements and various other handloom and handicraft activities. Not only in Sualkuchi, but across the various villages of Assam one can find various forms of arts and crafts. From the various forms of silk to the arts of bamboo handicrafts, pottery, metal crafts, etc. Assam has always been producing arts and crafts in a production method that has not changed and is similar as decades ago due the technique of producing these goods as handmade.
In every community, there are different forms of baskets for different purposes, as also different kinds of earthen, brass and bell-metal pots and plates. The bamboo on the other hand is very important to the Assamese communities. From making various kinds of flutes to making pyre for the dead, bamboo is an inseparable that while a young man in a bihu song describes the bamboo grove as his sibling from the same womb, an adage says – jaar nai baanh, tar nai saah (meaning one who doesn’t have a bamboo, does not possess courage)!
Women on the other hand work over eight hours a day picking two leaves and a bud with nimble fingers from the lush-green tea bushes from which are produced several varieties of tea that are exported to all over the globe. At home, women in the Assamese communities are simply wizards of the heart, making countless mouth-watering dishes and recipes even out of simple herbs growing in the backyard. These Assamese women are also expert weavers on handlooms and weave out some of the finest handmade textiles across the World! Literally every home in an Assamese Village has a loom and the spirit of weaving on these looms are inculcated in the minds of the girls of the traditional village family from a young age. At certain villages, the ability to weave out exquisite ‘Gamusas’ and traditional towels from the loom is a characteristic every prospective bride should possess and acts as a prerequisite for marriage. This weaving ability of these ladies has ensure that this art form of Assam is still very much alive and practiced extensively that gives you bright and beautiful colored patterns of handmade traditional garments which are a treat to the eyes of every beholder.
1| The Indigenous Silk Fabrics of Assam – Muga, Pat & Eri
The Silk fabrics of Assam are renowned across the World for its grandeur and have earned recognition from around the World. Silk weaving is an important occupation of the people of Assam and it also forms an important aspect of the socio-cultural life of Awesome Assam. Silk weaving looms are found across a majority of tribal households of Assam that weave out exclusive garments of the three varieties of the silks of Assam namely the Muga silk, the Eri silk and the Pat silk. Visitors to Assam who have seen these three varieties of silks of Assam easily proclaim that there is nothing as grand as the Muga silk of Assam.
Muga silk of Assam is of a naturally golden color and is considered among the finest varieties of silk in India. Produced only in the State of Awesome Assam, it was prevalent in the earlier times that the ability to weave the Muga silk of Assam was a primary qualification for a young girl for her eligibility for marriage. This fact perhaps explains as to why Assam has the highest concentration of handloom weavers in India primarily in the town of Suwalkuchi – ‘the Manchester of the East’. Sericulture in Assam is a traditional cottage industry which is rooted in the life and culture of Assam. The Muga silk of Assam has a unique characteristic wherein the shine of the Muga silk fabric improves after every wash which notably makes it one of the most expensive silk varieties in the World. In Assam, for every Assamese women, the Muga silk Mekhela chador is the most prized possession!
The Pat silk of Awesome Assam is of a brilliant white or offwhite color and is produced from the ‘Bombyx textor’ silkworm which feeds on mulberry leaves. The Pat silk of Assam is known for its brightness, high quality and durability. Pat silk has a unique characteristic wherein the fabric made from this silk variety of Assam can dry in a shadow.
The Eri silk of Assam is another popular silk variety of Assam and has a coarse and thick texture owing to the reason that most of the fabric is hand spun. Eri silk has a characteristic of being warm and that allows it to be spun into shawls and jackets. In addition, the Eri silk of Awesome Assam has a characteristic of being anti-fungal, non toxic, biodegradable and a most sustainable form of textile. Eri is also referred to as the non-violent silk.
2| Bamboo & Cane Handicrafts of Assam
The indigenous people of Assam have practiced handicrafts as a profession from times immemorial. The vast availability of raw materials viz. bamboo and cane across the forests of Assam have made the people of Assam practice this art as a profession and this over time has ensured that the people of Assam transform into adept craftsmen. The handicrafts of Assam made from Bamboo and cane look exquisite and are exported across the World. Although most people in Assam use bamboo and cane handicrafts for their personal day to day use in their households but in recent times the fine craftsmanship of these bamboo and cane products have caught attention and people from across the World visit Assam to witness this age old practices of handicrafts in the villages of Assam along with the intrinsic process of silk weaving in Assam.
Bamboo is particularly inseparable from the lives of all communities of Assam and thus also comprise the most important raw material for handicrafts. Equally important is the use of cane. Bamboo and cane crafts have been practiced in Assam since ages and every traditional home in the State is full of various items of daily use made of bamboo and cane. These include a whole range of baskets, musical instruments, fishing implements, weaving accessories, chairs and stools and finally the Jappi – the traditional sun shade. There are several villages across Assam by the name Jappi-sajiya – meaning village where Jaapis are made.
The handicrafts of Awesome Assam are completely hand made which gives them an exclusive finish. Bamboo tree is the lifeline of the people of Assam and is used in construction of a complete house. Bamboo fences and bridges over streams are a common sight to be seen across the villages of Assam. Bamboo and cane handicrafts of Assam include bamboo mats, bamboo and cane furnitures, cane walking sticks, bamboo and cane baskets, musical instruments, bamboo fishing traps, bamboo hats, hand fans, bamboo slit screens, floor mats, cane seats, bamboo trays, bamboo beer mugs, bow and arrows, etc. The ‘Jhapi’ of Assam which is a traditional hat continues to be the most prestigious of all bamboo items of Assam and visitors to Awesome Assam are welcomed with the ‘Jhapi’ and the traditional towel of Assam viz. the ‘Gamusa’.
Bamboo has been intrinsically associated with the life and culture of Assam. From birth ’til death, people of Assam have incorporated bamboo in every aspect of their life. Its importance in Assam can be measured by the fact that it is not only used for handicrafts, but also in the kitchen to make sumptuous dishes out of the bamboo ingredient of Assam viz. the ‘Khorisa’. Bamboo is further employed in medicines as a remedy to fight various diseases.
3| Water Hyacinth Handicrafts of Assam
Water Hyacinth is a free floating aquatic plant. Commonly found across the State of Assam, this plant has been known to cause havoc especially in the fisheries and lakes of Assam as it chokes marine life and provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes. But these days, the artisans of Assam have found a very interesting way of putting this havoc of a plant into good use viz. the water hyacinth handicrafts of Awesome Assam.
The stem of the water hyacinth plant is used to make beautiful water hyacinth handicrafts like purses, ladies hand bags, mobile covers, file covers, hand fans, slippers, etc. Though not produced in mass scale these products are gradually catching up in the Indian and global markets. Continuous research is being put into development of more exclusive handicrafts from water hyacinth and launching these across International markets. Visitors to Assam can buy these handicrafts from retail outlets at Guwahati.
4| Bell Metal Handicrafts of Assam
Assam’s metal products – made of bell metal and brass – are not only in use in every household in the State but also have an international market. While utensils dishes, plates, tumblers and bowls of these metals are found in use in every home, musical instruments like bells and large gongs travel all the way into numerous Buddhist Monasteries in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar apart from the neighbouring states like West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar. Utensils specially made for religious rituals on the other hand have a huge market in temples, naam-ghars as well as in domestic prayer rooms.
While Hajo, about 25 kms from Guwahati is famous for its bell metal cottage industry, manufacture of brass metal items is a household activity in the villages of Sarthebari about 100 km west of Guwahati. Bell metal items are of major utilitarian and aesthetic value in Assam; they are inseparable items in marriage and religious ceremonies, eating on bell metal dishes is considered good for health. Most common bell metal items include cymbals, bhog-jora, baan-kanhi, baan-baati, pik-daani, etc. while huge cymbals and gongs in most Buddhist Monasteries across the country are also made in Assam. The most popular brass metal product on the other hand is the sorai – a traditional utensil for ceremonial offering of betel nuts and betel leaves used during weddings and other social rituals, as also in welcoming guests as souvenir.
5| Pottery Crafts of Assam
Earthen pottery works has been a part of human life since times immemorial. Assam in fact has two professional communities called Kumar and Hira who were traditionally engaged in earthen pottery. While the Kumars use the wheel in their workshops, the Hira people make pottery products without using the wheel. Moreover, while only men in the Kumar community, it is the women who display more expertise in the trade.
Assam also has a rich tradition of terracotta, and Asharikandi village near Dhubri is said to be one of the most important terracotta artisans’ village in the whole of India. The main raw material for terracotta is a particular soil called hira-mati (meaning diamond earth) in Assamese.
With tourists from different countries visiting the village, terracotta products of Asharikandi have travelled to different parts of the World.
Other places worth visiting nearby Dhubri town; while Guru Nanak visited Dhubri in 1505 and met Srimanta Shankardeva there, Guru Tegh Bahadur established the Gurudwara at that site in 1669. This is the oldest Gurudwara across North East India and hundreds of Sikhs come here for pilgrimage. Other places close to Asharikandi worth visiting include the Mahamaya Temple at Bagribari, the 17th century Rangamati mosque, the Panch Peer Dargah in Dhubri town, the Matiabag Palace at Gauripur and the Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary.