Sualkuchi is known as one of the world’s largest weaving villages, where almost the entire population is engaged in weaving exquisite silk fabrics. With time it has emerged as a renowned centre of silk production, particularly known for the ‘Muga’ silk, the golden thread of Assam, which is not produced anywhere in the world
Drive toward the Northern bank of the mighty Brahmaputra crossing the Saraighat Bridge, 35 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the Guwahati city; you will reach the picturesque village of Sualkuchi referred as Manchester of East. Yes, we are talking about the silk village or the weaving village of Assam, where thousands of local weavers create dreams on the unique ‘Pat’ and ‘Muga’ silk. In the context of silk weaving in the country, Sualkuchi is a name that stands apart. This hamlet’s weaving tradition can be traced to the 11th century when the Pala dynasty king Dharma Pal sponsored the handy craft and brought 26 weaving families of nearby ‘Tantikuchi’ to the Sualkuchi.
Today Sualkuchi is known as one of the world’s largest weaving villages, where almost the entire population is engaged in weaving exquisite silk fabrics. With time it has emerged as a renowned centre of silk production, particularly known for the ‘Muga’ silk, the golden thread of Assam, which is not produced anywhere in the world. Despite the pandemic and loss incurred in two consecutive seasons, the handloom silk industry in Sualkuchi made its way to revival.
The main product of Sualkuchi is the traditional Pat-Muga “Mekhela-Sador”. The Mekhela-Sadar (like saree) is a pair of clothes the Assamese women wears in every occasion of life. Pat-Muga silk Mekhela-Sadar is a must wear by the Assamese women for special occasions like weddings, festivals (Bihu, Puja, etc.). It is also the customary bridal wear in Assam. Khanin Kumar Das, a local weaver and entrepreneur, explains that the Sualkuchi handloom industry is not only a profit-making industry; it is related to the culture, beliefs, rituals and social life of the people of Assam. More than the money or profits, all the weavers find peace-creating the dream wear for a bride or woman who wears their product with such pride. Khanin Kumar Das owns about 41 handlooms in his tiny factory in the backyard of his house near the Sualkuchi main market. He said, before the pandemic, the business was flourishing. All his 41 handlooms were working day and night to meet the customers’ demand. But things have changed drastically in the last two years. Because of the lockdown, the demand has decreased, but still, the production has not stopped. Das now employs 21 weavers who produce nearly 69 pairs of bridal wear (Pat silk Mekhela-Sador) every month. The proud entrepreneur is optimistic that the wedding season will make up for the lost time. If the third wave doesn’t arise or there is no further lockdown then the handloom industry will regain its loss in the next two seasons. Professor Nihar Ranjan Kalita, who is also associated with the industry, explains that there are nearly 13,500 weavers in Sualkuchi. Together they produced almost two lakh square meters of Pat-Muga silk cloths before the pandemic created havoc. The monetary value of these clothes is around Rs 500 crores. While other sectors are badly affected by the pandemic in the last two years, the Sualkuchi handloom silk industry still survives. Professor Kalita explains the whole industry is related with the customs and rituals of the Assamese society, so the impact is recoverable. The production has dipped by 30 per cent, but one or two seasons will re-flourish the industry.
Weaver Das stated that his 21 artists are now engaged in full-time production of bridal wear, and if there is no more lockdown in the future, he will increase the production capacity to his full strength of 41 handlooms. For the last three months, amid COVID-19 protocols, he has been producing 60 to 69 pairs of bridal wear, mostly pre-ordered, costing around 19000 to 25000 per pair. The cost is higher in the retail outlets. Professor Kalita said that the handloom industry employs about 17500 people directly and another several thousand indirectly. It produces five types of textiles, mainly traditional Assamese dresses and shares, Functional wears, accessories, tribal traditional dresses, and export wears. The unique Muga silk cloths produced in Sualkuchi are exported to Japan, China, Germany, the United States, and the UK. But most of these exports are pre-ordered. Still, the export comes around 2 per cent of the total production, which is roughly Rupees 10 crores in a year. But the export to other states of India has increased marginally in last decades. People now know about the finest quality silk produced in Sualkuchi, and so the demand has increased, said Prof Kalita.
Fillip to Bridal wear
The handloom silk industry of Sualkuchi has given employments to thousands of artists. Labanya Timongpe, who has been working in Sualkuchi for the last 15 years, said that she takes it as a pride more than employment. The graduate in Political Science from the hill district of Karbi Anglong chose weaving as her profession due to her sheer passion fro traditional clothes from her childhood. She said, in a month, we weave three pairs of Mekhela-Sador. “Depending on the design, we get Rs 3500 to 4500 per pair, which comes around to Rs 12,000 per month. The owner provides us food and accommodation, so we are satisfied creating dreams on silk.”
Achyut Baishya, a retailer trading in Pat-Muga cloths for decades, said that the Sualkuchi silk industry is not like other industries, which could die due to two seasons of bad business. It is related to the identity of the Assamese society so that it will revive in the next two seasons. He said a traditional Pat silk Saree costs about Rs 7000, which is a bit higher. But the value it adds to the personality is unmatched. The country’s people came to know it, and the demand for Assam silk will only increase.