By: Dr. Tulika Baruah
The Muga is a special type of insect that produced golden silk yarn. It acquires the stage of yarn production after passing several stages of its life. The scientific name of muga is ‘Antheraea Assamensis’. From time immemorial, the muga craft has been taking a separate place in the culture and civilization of Assam. The place of muga is remarkable among all Biya Naam and Bihu songs of Assam. It seems muga and Bihu are both sides of the same coin. It is impossible to imagine the female Bihu dancer (Nachoni) in other dresses without the pair of Riha-Mekhela (a traditional garment of the indigenous females of Assam) made from muga.
“Muga riha mekhelare,
Kapalot senduror fut”
(Beautiful body dressed up and embellished with Muga-Riha Vermilion mark on forehead)
As the Bihu is dearer to the Assamese people, so the muga robe is to them as well. Similarly, the gift package of Juron (pre-marriage ceremony) in the Assamese marriage ceremony is incomplete without the muga garments (Mekhala Chador). ‘Hatote sukuwa muthite lukuwa’ (can be dried easily and slender) the pat-muga robes bear the customs and traditions prevailing in the Assamese society, and the skills of Assamese weavers. The Ayatis (a kind of female singer) express these through the Biyanaam (traditional songs sung in a marriage ceremony) when they come out to the Juron —
“Ulai aha Daibokiye rojar moha doi
Hubhakhya ne jatra kori jurun diu goi
Kharumoni kundal luwa aru hathori
Tel sendur phani luwa horai khoni bhari
Pat mugar hutar kapur aru mejankori
Bharkhoni hojai luwa ati jatankori”
(Let’s come to Daiboki, o’ the chief queen,
To start the journey to conduct the Juron,
Take bracelets, pearls, and ear-rings
Take oil, vermilion, and comb filling up the Xarai
Take the dresses made of pat, muga, and mejankori
And get the pack well-arranged)
From ancient times, muga which is produced in complete natural form has been considered unique for its durability, toughness, exceptional colour, and glossiness. So muga is called the ‘ Bashtrarani’ (the Queen of Textiles). But any reliable fact about the beginning of muga rearing process is not found. Nevertheless, it can be said firmly that the history of muga in Assam is much older. In the epic Ramayana, it is mentioned that there is a country of Palu rearing in the east. In that way, Kautilya had written in his writings that golden silk yarn is produced from a specific insect in Kamrup. In the Kalika Puran, it is mentioned that four types of clothes are produced in the state of Kamrup. They are cotton, wool, clothes produced from the fibers of trees and the Palu (a worm). In Harshcharita, written by Banabhatta, it is mentioned that among the items gifted to King Harshvardhan by Bhaskar Barman, the king of Kamrup, a kind of cloth was considered as the most precious which was as bright as the autumn moon and was purely gold-like. In the notebook of Hiuen Tsang, too, it is mentioned that the same type of golden cloth was produced in the state of Kamrup at that time.
According to the description in the Paryplus documents, muga yarn and muga cloth were exported from the southwest coastal area up to Central Asia from the ancient Assam. Besides, as mentioned in these documents, in the past time, it was traded by sea route through the south-west ports via the Ganga valley. In later time, during the reign of King Joydhwaj Singha (1648–1663), the Muslim scholar named Sihabuddin Talish, who came with Mirjumla, mentioned this matter along with others in his book “Fathia-E- Ibria”, the book contains the account of the then Assam, that the people of Assam knew well how to weave pat and mejankori clothes. Mejankori cloth is made from the fibers which are produced from the leaf-eater muga worms of mejankori tree.
In his travel report, JB Travernier, a French jewellery trader and traveller who came to Assam in 1662, mentioned the muga insect, muga cloth and muga silk, “The Kingdom of Assam is one of the best countries in Asia, for it, products all that is necessary to the life of men, without being need to go for anything to the neighbouring states. There are mines of gold, silver, steel, lead and iron, and much silk. There is a kind of silk, which is produced on trees and made by an animal having the form of our silkworm. The stuff which is made of this silk is very brilliant. It is in the Southern direction where these silks are produced and that the gold and silver mines are situated. (Travels in India).
In his report, he mentioned that there was the trading of these things with foreign lands in ancient times. In several rock inscriptions discovered in different parts of Assam, it was inscribed that there were people here related to a profession of weaving in handlooms, along with other people who were related to other professions. In the Tezpur rock inscription, it was inscribed that there lived a kind of people named Tanti along with other people of different professions such as Koiborta, Kumar, Naworia, etc. According to the information found, Dharma Pala (1035-1060), the king of the Pal dynasty of Kamrup, brought 26 weaver families belonging to the Tanti community from Tantikuchi in Barpeta and settled them in Sualkuchi in the eleventh century, and they were made to engage in cloth production. Later, during the reign of Ahom King Pratap Singha (1603-1664) in the middle of the seventeenth century, to trade with outsider states, Mumai Tamuli Barbaruah thought to produce silk clothes. With that view, he brought again some people belonging to the Tanti community from Tantikuchi in Barpeta district to Sualkuchi and made them engaged in this work. Silk fabrics mean muga, pat, and eri. Of course, the toss cloth is also included now along with these clothes. Since then Sualkuchi has been taking a unique role in the production of pat and muga clothes in the state. When Mahatma Gandhi came to travel in Sualkuchi on January 9, 1946, a silk artisan named Rajen Deka wove the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in a pat cloth so beautifully that the discrepancy in two incisors of the front side of Gandhiji was displayed very distinctly. Charmed at this craftsmanship, the Father of the Nation said, “The maidens of lovely Assam weave dreams on their handlooms.”
It is to be mentioned that muga cultivation is possible only in the land of the northeast, especially in Assam. Those areas which are known as the Bor Asom (Greater Assam) of the past are suitable for muga cultivation. Of course, this cultivation cannot be done in the much cold areas. Like that, in Assam too, its production is either increased or decreased if the temperature is more on the days of the hot season. This cultivation is done specially in different places of the districts of Sivsagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Charaideu, Dhemaji, Lakhimpur, Goalpara, Kokrajhar, Kamrup (rural), and Darrang in Assam. Of course, nowadays, in many places of these areas, the production of muga is decreasing due to people’s engagement in other works instead of muga cultivation. But, on the contrary, at present, in many places of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts, especially in Dhakuakhana and Ghilamora areas, the number of mugasumoni (muga rearing plant area) has increased tremendously. Another good news connected with the muga sector is that, a few years ago from today, in various places of Arunachal like Pasighat, Roying, Siang, etc., many huge summonses have been grown. Still, pollution-free to some extent, the muga produced in these areas are known as more standard.
This is how muga is mentioned in a note by Captain Welse in 1794, ” In almost all the state, except for a few places, several people plant trees whose leaves are fed up by the muga. With regular enthusiasm, muga silk will probably be very valuable and a thing of export in plenty. A kind of hard silk is made from a kind of worm which eats Erapat (leaves of castor tree).” Many people want to point out China or Thailand as the original land of muga worms. But this fact has no acceptable proof. If muga had migrated to Assam from these countries then in the present time also, muga would be available in those. In many places, muga cultivation has been tried to do experimentally but they have not succeeded in this respect. Though Som tree (Machilus Bombycina) is available in Bangaluru and other places, muga cultivation has not been possible there. It has been known that there, after staying for a few days in the trees, the muga worms had died before attaining perfection. Efforts have been made to do this cultivation in some parts of India but no special progress has been gained. In the hill states of the northeast, muga cultivation has been good during the days of summer (June, July, and August) in comparison to Assam. So, we have seen since childhood, bringing the seedlings of the seeds of Katiyamuga (grows in the month of Kati, an Assamese calendar month falls in September & October) and Jaruwamuga (grows in November and December) from those places, especially from Nagapahar, Garopahar, etc.
The Golden Era of muga craft in Assam starts during the reign of Ahom. Earlier the Ahoms used black-coloured clothes. After coming to Assam, they had begun to prefer the silk clothes produced in Assam such as pat, muga, and eri clothes. As a result, pat and muga fabrics had received this dignity of the royal family at a time. Simultaneously, muga gained a special preference from the king’s intervention. Along with the king and queen, the royal officers of different posts wore pat and muga clothes as the emblem of the elite.
These things have found a place in the Bihu songs in such a way –
“Swargadeu ulale bat chora mukhale
Duliyai patile dula
Kanat jilikile makare kundale
Gate gomsengor sula”
(Swargadeu, the king, was ready at Batsora to go
The bearers set the palanquin
His ear is shined with ornaments
And body with a shirt made from gomseng)
….to be continued