Assam's Silk village of Sualkuchi
Talk of Assam and one immediately thinks of the mighty Brahmaputra, the Bihu dance or the rhinos of Kaziranga National Park. But very rarely do we think of the indigenous eri and muga silk of Assam. Unique in style and displaying some of the finest craftsmanship ever, the Assam silk is one of the finest art forms of the northeastern state.
A sleepy village just half an hour away from busy Guwahati is often called 'Manchester of East' for producing one of the best kinds of silk in the state. This picturesque village on the bank of the mighty river Brahmaputra is a heaven for silk fabrics ranging from the golden muga to the ivory white pat and the light beige eri or endi silks. The village took shape as a weaving village when the Ahoms occupied Sualkuchi by defeating the Mughals in the mid 17th century. Patronised by the Pala and the Ahom kings, the craft established itself and during that period, it was a luxury enjoyed only by the royalty of Assam.
It is a common belief that weaving comes naturally to the natives of this village as it is ingrained in their lifestyle. Expert weavers from other districts also throng this place for its commercial prominence. In fact, the migrant weavers who work on wages are dominating the locals at present. The women weavers outnumber the male weavers. Though cotton and khadi textiles are also woven, silk weaving is more prominent and well known.
In the numerous tiny streets of Sualkuchi, one can hear the rhythmic sounds made by the looms and the flying shuttles. Every house has a loom, and in it, the weaver weaves exotic mekhla chadors, the traditional Assamese attire, with an adept hand. It is spellbinding to see these women and men at work. The rhythmic movements of hands and legs on looms turn silk threads into magnificent fabrics, with the help of punched cards which help in imprinting gorgeous woven motifs.
These premeditated motifs are first drawn on graph paper. Then holes are punched on rectangular cardboard pieces along the lines of the design to make the punched cards. The woven motifs are mostly inspired by the flora and fauna found in the state, ranging from various flowers to peacocks, deer and rhinos etc. Another common motif is the 'Jaapi' or traditional Assamese hat. Weaving one saree takes about six days and sometimes more, depending on the design. In the past, golden zari was used for the motifs but now silk and cotton threads are used.
The village of Sualkuchi, situated on the northern banks of river Brahmaputra, with sprawling green hills all around, is a beautiful place to visit. The picturesque Sualkuchi forest range on the opposite side, well-tended agricultural fields and the village fishing pond complete the rustic setting. During one of our walking tours through the village, we found weavers settling down behind their wooden contraptions strung with colourful spools. One of them manoeuvred his arms and legs and through the threads and brought the silk fabric alive, which the master weavers examined for flaws. They repeat this painstaking process for hours each day to produce the saris.
One can get a glimpse of the ethnicity and rustic crafts of the village in the lovely bamboo artefacts and their houses covered with mud, which maintains coolness in summers and keeps warm in winters. Marvel at the ecological diversity along the Brahmaputra's banks: forest, riverine and wetland eco-systems, with birds, flora and fauna.
Dotted with temples, namghars and monasteries, the village offers simple hotels and homestays in three basic mud and bamboo huts on the crest of a hill, with stunning views, and in 'Little Paradise', a private farm. Sualkuchi serves delicious Assamese cuisine. The main ingredient is rice and bamboo shoots. Fish and meat dishes are popular as well. Mostly, non-vegetarian dishes are served in the local restaurant but the vegetarian food is equally delicious. Try the local Asomiya Thali of fish,ry the local Asomiya Thali of fish,vegetables and poultry, subtly spiced and eaten with an array of accompaniments.
Try on a traditional dress: mekhela chador (women), churiya and thenga (men). Enjoy Bihu and Bagurumba dance, performed with delicate grace and measured steps, and Naam, Borgeet, Jikir and Jari folk music (devotional songs of different communities), during festivals like Bohag Bihu (April), which marks the sowing of grain, Kaati Bihu (October), when crops are transplanted, and Maagh Bihu (Jan), the harvest festival. Learn about organic farming, cooking native dishes, and brewing of local drinks.
Enroll in Gurukul programmes to learn weaving techniques in the village workshops, Take a boat ride out on the Brahmaputra river to catch a glimpse of the Gangetic dolphin, catch fish with fishermen or visit Rakshyashini Pahar (an island near the village), and enjoy the traditional boat race on the birthday (Aug / Sept) of Srimanta; Sankar Deva is a renowned religious and cultural guru of Assam.
Enjoy shopping or cultural activities such as temple visits to Sidheswar Devalaya temple, Hatisatra monastery dedicated to Lord Krishna, the ancient Ganesh Bigrah Temple, as well as the Hayagriva Madhava Temple and the holy Muslim shrine known as Powa-Mecca, both in Hajo. Boat rides are available between Sualkuchi and Fancy Bazaar Ghat, 20 kms away. You can reach Sualkuchi by cab from Kamakhya temple (30 km), or from Guwahati Airport, 30 kms away.