Eri Silk of Assam, India

Assam and its adjoining stated in the North East of India are famous for silk. Silk was the royal attire of Tai Ahom Kings. These people came to Assam from a Chinese province through Patkai range of hills and enchanted by the beauty of the region, settled permanently and intermingled with the local people. They must have brought the silkworms with them from China.

Silk is woven in the homes. It is part of economy of the state. Of many varieties Muga: the golden silk and Eri or Ahimsa silk are most famous. Eri is produced by the silkworm called Philosamiaricini and is reared indoors on the leaves of Castor, Kesseru, Payam and Tapioca trees. The yarn from cocoons is spun. The word Eri is derived from Erranda which is Indian word for Castor.

It is produced only in Assam, the East Khasi hills and parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Bodo women weave Dokhana (draped skirt), Chaddar (upper cloth) and Jhumara in addition to plain shawls. Endi shawls are highly prized outside. The same silkworms produce different colors of thread in different areas.

Silk pattern
Silk pattern
Bodo woman with silk clothes
silk-3
Reared indoors
silk-4
Cocoons & thread

Tai Ahoms: The Easterly Kshatriyas

Indian subcontinent can be accessed on land and by sea from three sides. In the past, invaders entered it through West from the side of Afghanistan. It is protected from North by Himalayas which act as a formidable wall. The mountains which cover the India from North West to North East have been responsible for keeping the invaders entering from the North directly and also for creating the weather particularly the Monsoon which gives India respite from sweltering heat and helps in meeting the irrigation requirements and bestow bounteous crops to the region. Its snow capped mountains feed the perennial rivers which sustain the life of teeming masses inhabiting the entire northern India.

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The people entering from the West mingled with original people inhabiting the region. Soon their population escalated and they were obliged to spread in search of newer avenues where the conditions existed for habitation. In this process they spread over whole of Ganges valley up to Bengal.

The other entry point was the North East where people from South East Asia and China entered India. In comparison to the Western corridor mentioned earlier, terrain here is more difficult. Also people who came and settled in the North East confined themselves to the Assam and its 6 sister states in the North East. One reason for this might have been the difficult proposition to expand towards West where already stronger kingdoms existed. Secondly the narrow strip called chicken neck area separating the North East states from rest of India must have acted as a bottleneck which might have dissuaded them.

Assam and the 6 other states namely Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland & Manipur in the North Eastern part of India possess enchanting natural beauty. Due to the lack of industrial progress, the environment is still free of pollution. The natural products are forests of bamboo & teak, crops of rice and vegetables grown on the fertile land on the edges of river Brahmaputra without any application of contaminating fertilizers. Of course most famous product of Assam known all over the world is the tea. You travel by car on any road and along both sides are never ending teas plantations. You can see the women laborers with special kind of baskets hanging from their shoulders plucking the leaves and putting in the baskets.

Nederlands: Een vrouw aan het werk op een thee...

Parasuram Kunt, Arunachal Pradesh

There is plenty of fish in the rivers. The area is rich in petroleum. In fact, the oldest oil well in India was drilled in Assam at Digboi. The original people are mainly tribals whose customs and rituals are entirely different from rest of India.

The most important migrants to come and and settle in this area came from Yunnan province. First to enter the North East region was Sukhapa, who came with army, his women and nobles. Although initially they did not practiced Hindusim but later Kings leaned towards this religion and ultimately converted to Hinduism. Local inhabitants called them Tai-Ahoms.

Arunachal Pradesh is famous for its mountainou...
Arunachal Pradesh is famous for its mountainous landscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As they became more tolerant towards Hinduism, the elements of Hindu mythology entered into their history. Thus it was stated that Brahma created the human beings from a gourd. These people were gentle and pious. But by the time of Treta Yuga, the moral values declined and Indra became worried and sent his grandsons: Khunlung & Khunlai to rule the earth and bring back the old order. These were the progenitors of Tai-Ahoms. They descended to earth facilitated by a golden ladder on the Mung-ri-Mung-ram mountains. Thus the Tai Ahoms, as they won over the local people labeled themselves as Eastern Kshatriyas.

Doyen of Assamese Films

Assam and its sister states namely Meghalya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh & Nagaland jointly called 7 sisters once upon a time constituted only one state and were known as Assam only. Like every other state and great diversity of cultures in India, Assam and its sister states have preserved their unique culture alive. One reason for this is lesser contact with rest of the country due to nature of terrain and Central government’s apathy for years. Despite being very rich in resources, the area has not seen the prosperity due to it. The most important ingredients for an area to progress economically are transportation facilities, communications and raw resources. First two have been neglected for over 57  years.

During the British rule, it was their sole aim to plunder the wealth of state namely petroleum, tea and precious wood. This trend continued almost unabated even after the independence. The area was taken for granted by the government at centre. The result was disillusionment and rise of unrest and many militant groups which also took their toll of progress.

So one can imagine what must had been the scene way back in 1900. At such a time Jyoti Prasad Agarwala was born into a Marwari family which had migrated some generations back to Assam. Marwaris are a business community from Rajasthan. They have the business acumen in their blood.They don’t need any degrees to be successful businessmen. They are highly adventurous as far as the reaching such remote places where no one will thought of going for establishing their shops. Most of them are non-vegetarians and are known for eating simple food, abstain from drinking, the ingredients which make them ideal businessmen. They spread to the remotest corners of Assam whose people were content to be where they were and eat and wear whatever was available locally. They would not venture outside in search of better opportunities. They are pleasure and self content people. Despite being endowed with most beautiful landscape, Assam could not develop its tourism industry. In this respect Goa and Kerala have been the most enterprising in selling the beauty of nature to foreign tourists. One reason may be their proximity to sea which adds to the natural beauty of the place. One positive aspect of non development of tourism have been that the pristine beauty and unpolluted environment is still intact.

We have digressed much from the subject. It should have been along the straightline but we have made the journey sinuous. Coming to point, it is enough to say that there are abbreations sometimes. Agarwala who was affluent in wealth and was educated in Calcutta and Britain opted for a altoghther different carrer. He became the founding father of Assamese cinema. He was a script writer, song writer, musician and what not. He is fondly called the Roop Kanwar by Assamese people and his death anniversary is celebrated as Shilpi day. He made the fisrt Assamese movie called Joymati which depicted the extreme sacrifice of a princess for his husband who was imprisoned by the  King. She was successful in scheming to free his husband and went into exile. She was captured and tortured.

Agarwala was also a freedom fighter and participated in the freedom movement against the British. He died in 1951 suffering from cancer.

Yellama or Renuka: Victim of Unjust Curse

In the Hindu mythology, there had been many sages endowed with supernatural powers, who had used these powers for the destruction of women for very flimsy reasons. May be the customs and culture was such that men prevailed over women when it came to equality.

One such story concerns Renuka or Yellamma who was cursed by her husband, sage Jamadagni. Her only fault was that she thought about having sensual pleasure after coming across a couple having the carnal pleasure in a jungle.

Sage Jamadagni lived in a cottage in woods with his wife Yellamma and five sons, the youngest of who is known as Parshuram. After the fifth son, the sage occupied himself in very difficult penances and took the vow of complete abstinence from sensual pleasure. Yellamma was also supposed to follow this oath.

Every morning, she will go to fetch water from the lake for the sage to perform various rituals. She was very spiritual and upright woman. By leading the pious life she had also acquired extraordinary powers. She went to fetch water without any pitcher. After taking bath in the lake, she will concentrate her powers on the sand and a pitcher would be created. After filling this pitcher, she would make a rope of a snake on her head to place the pitcher and come home.

One day, an incident took place on her way to bring water from the lake which turned her life to nightmare. As she was crossing the woods, she chanced to see the fairies called Ghandharas, indulging into carnal pleasures. She was curious and since it had been years, she had such pleasure with sage, she watched and listened and in her imagination substituted herself and sage with the couple.

As she came out of fantasy, her concentration was lost. She bathed but could not create the pot from sand however hard she tried. She realized her mistake and with downcast gaze she returned empty handed to the cottage. Sage understood and became enraged and cursed her to become ugly and loathsome. The sage then asked his four sons to kill their mother but they refused. At this, the sage went mad with anger and with his powers burnt his sons to ashes. At this time, Parshuram was not at home.

As he returned home, he saw the painful scene. His father then ordered him to kill Yellamma and promised him to grant a boon in turn. Parshuram, intelligent as he was, killed her mother with an axe, but in the boon, he asked from the sage to return all his brothers and mother to life again. Sage did this. But his anger was not quenched. He expelled his wife from cottage. She went out, begged alms and according to one legend, lived with poor low caste women. Even after all this, she performs penances so that her husband would forgive her.

According to another legend, when Parshuram killed his mother, the axe stuck to his hand and would not dislodge. He went place to place seeking pardon from sages and ultimately reached at Brahamkund. When he took a dip in the holy water, the axe detached from his hand. He threw the axe away and it hit a frozen mountain, which split into two and waters flowed to a reservoir. This is said to the Parshuram Kund and is located in the Arunachal Pradesh and is a holy place where thousands of pilgrims take bath to cleanse themselves from all the sins.

The temple of Yellamma is located in Karnataka and is called Yallammagudda, Saundatti. The Goddess was revered by low caste or temple girls called Devdasis. They were, in ancient times, devoted to the temple and supposed to be married only to the Lord. But now due to the ban on this abhorrent custom, the economic conditions force many of them to turn to prostitution.