Silks of India

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An important stop on the legendary Silk Route of ancient times, India remains one of the world’s largest suppliers of a fabric that is a marvel of nature.

“If you want the best, you’ve got to know where to look for it,” says my guide Subandhu Chakravarthy as our vehicle navigates the potholed jungle track. “We are getting close now.”

I am nearing the end of an epic 18-hour journey involving ’planes, trains, automobiles, cycle rickshaws, and foot power. And it has all been in the name of one thing only – the purest freshly woven Indian silk. Not ordinary silk, but a lavish variety known as ‘eri’ found in the depths of West Bengal, ten kilometres from the Bangladesh border. Eri is highly revered for its warmth and durability and is largely endemic to the north-eastern region of India, making it something of a rarity.

As we approach the village of Islanpur Chowk, a faint rat-a-tat-tat crescendos, like an orchestra of cicadas – but it’s coming from inside the houses rather than the tropical forest canopy.

In Islanpur, everyone is involved in the business of either silk production (known as sericulture) or weaving, with skills passed down through generations for 400 years. Each house has its own handloom, a production line where lovingly-crafted pieces of luxury are made from the cocoons of the Philosamia ricini silk worm which nourishes on the leaves of the castor plant.

The worms only start to produce silk after 25 days of solid eating – they are now 10,000 times heavier than when born. The raw silk is secreted through two glands known as ‘spinnerets’ and solidifies on first contact with the atmosphere. Their work rate is staggering – with each worm producing one mile of silk every two days. But nearly 50 filaments are required to produce a single thread – which means 5,500 cocoons are needed to produce just one kilogram of silk.

India is the second largest producer of silk in the world, and each of the five varieties has its own distinct sericulture, geography, and usage.

Mulberry is the largest commercially available silk in India, accounting for 90% of total production. Centred around Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, it derives its name from the mulberry plant on which the Bombyx mori worms feed.

Muga – arguably the queen of all Indian silks – is known for its shimmering golden yellow colour and found only in a particular region of the state of Assam. The Muga silk worm (Antheraea assamensis) lives almost exclusively on the Som and Soalu trees in the Brahmaputra river valley. The production process is the most organic of all the silks. The worms strip the trees of foliage and move en masse down the trunks to the next tree.

When they are ready to spin their cocoons they once again leave en masse to be placed in specially prepared boxes full of dried twigs.

As well as its aesthetic quality, what is most remarkable about Muga is that its lustre actually increases with each wash, giving it an unrivalled durability which is reflected in its high price.

Perhaps the least revered are the Tassar silks, less lustrous varieties often used in men’s clothing, furnishings, and interiors.

Although silk is liberally depicted throughout ancient Indian texts, there is some debate as to the exact dates of when sericulture first existed in India. It is widely believed the Chinese held a closely-guarded monopoly on its production – thoroughly searching the Silk Road traders for hidden cocoons when they left the country. This suggests sericulture first started in India around 300 AD. But recent archaeological evidence from the ancient Punjabi cities of Harappa and Chanhu Daro suggests it could have existed as early as the Indus Valley civilisation 4,000 years ago.

During the Mughal Empire, teams of artisans would use real gold and silver thread in their creations, sometimes taking up to one year to produce saris for royalty. But silk was not just used for saris; many smaller artisan-based industries grew up using it as their raw material. In Rajasthan culture it became a staple in traditional Mughal paintings in the 17th to 19th century, of which the state’s desert landscapes became the favoured settings for the art. The paintings, which often depicted beautifully silk-clad women lounging in the royal courts, were enhanced with gold and gemstone powder. Although the country today produces nearly one fifth of the world’s silk, it is the insatiable consumption of the textile that has made it synonymous with India.

Throughout history, silk has always been associated with wealth in India – a deliberate statement of success bestowed on those who could afford it. Its most visible manifestation has been in the Indian sari. A single length of unstitched cloth, ranging from four to nine metres in length, it can be worn in hundreds of different ways, with pure silk saris the most desirable.

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