M for Mekhela Chador

THE MEKHALA CHADOR POST BY OUR GUEST BLOGGER KUMKUM NUNGROM

The state of Assam is one of the striking regions of India. There is hardly any other state which has greater variety and colour in its natural scenario and in the cultural treasures of the people that inhabit it. The region combines the ethnic setting of weaving skills in white and golden Assam silk, indigenously called Pat and Muga, together with agriculture and fishing in the neighbouring villages.

 Mekhela chador is the traditional Assamese dress worn by women. It is undoubtedly one of the most elegant costumes worn in any of the Indian states. There are two main pieces of cloth that are draped around the body. The bottom portion, draped from the waist downwards is called the mekhela. It is in the form of a very wide cylinder that is folded into pleats to fit around the waist and tucked into an underskirt.

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The Mekhala Chador is the Assamese style of draping a 2-piece garment with a blouse

The top portion, known as the chador, is a long length of cloth that has one end tucked into the upper portion of the mekhela and the rest draped over and around the rest of the body. Invariably there is a blouse that is worn underneath, which is similar to a saree blouse.

Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being the muga, the golden silk found exclusively in this state. It is said that the muga silk is a family heirloom and is often passed on through generations due to its strength, durability and sheer beauty. It is known to outlive a few generations….at least!!

The weaving tradition of Assam can be traced to the 11th century when king Dharma Pal, of the Pal Dynasty, sponsored the craft and brought 26 weaving families from Tantikuchi to Sualkuchi. The village took shape as a weaving village after the Mughals were defeated in the 17 th century. Since then, most Assamese homes in the traditional weaving villages, both in the lower and upper banks of the Brahmaputra, boast of a loom, and weaving is part of life. So much so, that the great Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that ‘the Assamese women weave dreams in their looms’!

Assam silk denotes the three major types of indigenous silks produced in Assam; the golden Muga, the white Pat and the warm Eri silk. The Assam silk industry, now centered in Sualkuchi, is a labor intensive industry.

Muga silk is the product of the silkworm “Antherea assamensis” and endemic to Assam. The pupa of these silkworms feed on “som” (“Machilus bombycina”) and “sualu” (“Litsaea polyantha”) leaves. The silk produced is known for its glossy fine texture and durability. Due to its low porosity, the Muga  yarn cannot be bleached nor dyed and its natural golden color is retained. This silk can be hand-washed with its luster increasing after every wash. Assam has received a geographical indication for the production of Muga.

Pat silk is produced by silkworms which feed on mulberry leaves. It is usually brilliant white or off-white in colour. This silk cloth has the ability to dry in shade. Eri silk is made by “Philosamia ricini” which feed on castor leaves. It is also known as Endi or Erandi silk. Due to the fact that manufacturing process of Eri allows the pupae to develop into adults and only the open ended cocoons are used for turning into silk, also popularly known as non-violent silk. This silk is soft and warm and is popular as shawls and quilts.

There are some popular weaving motifs on the ‘mekhela chadors’. The most commonly used are the khing-khap, (emblem),  mogor (creeper ), mina (jewel), miri (tribal art) , gos (tree), jaapi ( bamboo hat), moyur (peacock), gor (rhino) and the gumkharu (traditional bracelet) designs. All in all, most of them are the aristic translation of everyday objects on the cloth or silk.

The traditional  silk mekhela chador has become very popular amongst the ‘saree – enthusiasts’ in the larger cities of the country. It is every such woman’s dream to own either a muga or a paat set for its sheer grace, elegance and exclusivity!

THE MEKHELA CHADOR GALLERY

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A close up of the miri or tribal design. Brilliant colours.

 

 

 

 

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A phool design on a resplendent pat silk

 

 

 

 

 

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A moyur design on a pat silk

All the images in this post are the courtesy and copyright of the author of this post – Kumkum Nongrum.

Sources:

http://www.assaminfo.com/tourist-places/32/sualkuchi.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekhela_chador

 

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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!