Silks of India
Written by Tom Parker
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Where to buy the silk?
Today weddings and festive occasions are the best places to see these luxurious, often individually-crafted pieces that can still fetch thousands of dollars. Fortunately it does not have to cost a small fortune to buy good quality silk in India. Most regions have a thriving local scene – with their own unique style of weaving and design of saris, turbans, dhotis, and shawls all available at reasonable prices.
Why so special?
Silk’s unique shimmering lustre is caused by the prism-like structure of the fibre that refracts light at different angles producing a kaleidoscope of colour.