A for Assamese Gheecha

It was a plain, creamy-beige silk, with bright red woven triangles in the border and larger triangles of the same colour in the pallu.  The fabric seemed a little coarse, but was surprisingly smooth to the touch. “How much does this Tussar cost”? I recall asking the sales lady, in a saree shop in Chennai, one wintry morning (whatever that is).

“Madam this is Assamese Gheecha – not Tussar” she said, with a smirk I think.

What is an Assamese Gheecha?  I had never heard of this saree before. I wanted to know more. “Both are completely different Madam” the sales lady had looked at me with disdain and ticked me off. Of course, I said with a smile.  And no, I did not want to look silly in front of her one more time. Best to be quiet now I thought. And best not to be taken for a ride too. Since this Gheecha silk looked so much like Tussar.

I was curious about this Assamese Gheecha and excited at having discovered one more type of saree. By  now, I was not just greedy for sarees but also for the story that came with each type. And the accompanying science, history and geography were also welcome.

Gheecha silk, a friend informed me, was not named after a town (like Kanchipuram) or a weave (like Ikat). It was a type of silk. Just like Matka, Tussar, Mulberry, Jacquard and Raw Silk and many others.

Deep love cannot last without deep understanding. So besides making sense of types of sarees, I realized that I must also understand these myriad forms of silk to help me build an authentic collection of sarees.

For most of us, the first lesson in silk happened in school. A silkworm eats leaves and cocoons itself. The filament of this cocoon is reeled out and made into silk. In my later lessons I learned that the type of silk depends on 4 things: the species of silkworm, the tree whose leaves it eats, how its cocoon is processed into yarn and finally the technique by which the yarn is woven into a saree.

Let’s take Mulberry Silk for example – the finest silk available in India. When a silkworm called the Bombyx Mori  eats the leaves of Mulberry tree you get a cocoon that ultimately gives you Mulberry Silk  a thick and lustrous, expensive silk. The filament of the cocoon is ‘unreeled’ as a single thread, without breakages – giving Mulberry silk its lustre and strength. A Mulberry silk feels satiny smooth, luxurious to touch and strong. It can be thick – like in a Banarasi saree or thin and sheer like in a chiffon. Read more about the legend of how Mulberry Silk was discovered.

The wasteful remains of the Mulberry cocoon filament – gives Matka silk. The name ‘Matka’ or clay pot refers to the vessel where this waste is stored after removing the filaments for the Mulberry silk. It is thinner, not as lustrous, but still feels like silk. It is usually much less expensive.

And get a load on Tussar. It is born from the cocoons of moth worms that feed on the leaves of Juniper and Oak trees. The moth pushes itself out of the cocoon thus breaking the continuity of the filament. Hence the resulting filaments are short and coarse. This is why Tussar silk, though looks very good, is rough to touch. This silk does not bond too well with dyes. Hence most Tussar sarees are beige, their natural silk color. They do however, hold prints very well, hence printed Tussars look good and are popular.  Read more about different types of silks to update your knowledge about it.

And now coming back to the love interest of this episode, the Gheecha silk. It is obtained when a certain species of worms, found only in Assam, feed on the Eri tree. Eri, originally is ‘Eranda’ – the  Sanskrit name for Castor (from where we get Castor Oil. Yes, that god-awful stuff that we as kids were made to drink sometimes for bad tummies.) So even though the Gheecha silk looks a lot like Tussar, its texture is smoother, softer, due to the filament that comes from the completely domesticated Eri worm.

A lady draped in an Assamese Gheecha Saree

A model wearing a beautiful Assamese Gheecha saree.
Image courtesy and copyright http://www.mirraw.com

It has been 10 years since I first saw this north-eastern jewel in the heart of South. I did not buy that saree at that time as I did not know enough about it. Meanwhile I continued looking for it in Government sponsored handicraft fairs and emporiums. I still have not found one that I like or one that convinced me that it was not a Tussar palm-off. So wait I will. For the next convincing smirk.

And next week it is B for Banarasi as we board the Dibrugarh Rajdhani and travel 1000+ kilometers from Assam to the heart of UP – Banaras. Until then…

Sources: For reference: http://mytextilenotes.blogspot.in/2009/05/some-online-resources-in-silk.html and the URLs mentioned in the write-up. For inspiration: Several cups of Assam Tea. With milk on the side. Not kidding!

15 thoughts on “A for Assamese Gheecha

  1. Did not know that Assame Saree is called Gheecha…. would love to have one now… please put the picture of the saree as well so that we can have a better understanding…..

    • Thanks Shammi. There’s also the Mekhala Chador, usually in cotton or silk too, which is worn as a wrap around or as a saree in Assam. I am trying to source good pictures and will definitely put them up soon.

  2. Wow punam this gets more and more interesting. I always loved sarees without being bothered about its origin. Now it will b fun to know , possess and wear.

  3. I loved the blog. This was my dream project.Though I must admit that I am too lazy to turn my dream into reality. Hence thanks a ton for collating and putting it all toether. It will also give me reasons to possess sarees I did not know about!!

    There is something called Endi silk available in Assam. Reading the blog I was confused whether this Endi is called Gheecha. Can you throw some light?Now Gheecha is also made in MP , Bihar, West Bengal, Chattishgarh etc . So is this a particular way of processing the cocoons / extracting the silk threads and hence can be from multiple states?

    Quoting from wikipedia: ‘Eri silk is made by Samia cynthia ricini which feed on leaves of Castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). It is also known as Endi or Errandi silk. Because manufacturing process of Eri allows the pupae to develop into adults and only the open ended cocoons are used for turning into silk, it is also popularly known as non-violent silk. This silk is soft and warm and is popular as shawls and quilts.’

    • Thank you for the appreciation. To answer your question, Endi silk, sounds like the word ‘Erandi’ – the word for castor, so I guess it would be the same as Eri silk or Gheecha silk. You are right about Gheecha silk now being available in other states as well. My understanding about Gheecha’s soft texture is that it is made from the Eri plant. Tussar cocoons also come out the same way as in Gheecha – due to which the filament is ruptured and we get short, coarse yarn. The difference however is that Tussar is made from leaves of Oak and Juniper – hence there is also a silk called Oak Tussar. Other than this, I too am not an expert, just some one who cares enough to read about it – usually from Google. If I get any other information which throws light on your question, I will definitely update the blog. Thanks again for posting a comment.

      • Just found some information regarding Endi silk. Cannot substantiate its authenticity (like so many other things on the Internet) but for what it is worth, here goes
        Matka silk is also 100% pure silk. In this, the yarn in warp is the usual silk yarn, whereas the yarn in weft is obtained from the cocoons that are cut open by the moths as they emerge. Later after they have laid eggs, these moths are crushed to death. Recently with a view of selling this silk under false pretences of it being ahinsak or involving no killing, it is being marketed as Endi silk.

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