The Silk Village Sualkuchi

Sualkuchi is the home of expert Assamese (people from the state of Assam, North East India) weavers. Many families can trace their weaving tradition back to thousands of years. Even today, almost every household has a working loom. These weavers are highly skilled and extremely passionate about their inherited indigenous art.

North of the river Brahmaputra, about 35 kms from the capital city of Guwahati, in Assam’s Kamrup district is Sualkuchi. With narrow lanes that open onto built roads, this place with a village atmosphere but large enough to be called a town has been known and admired for its silk weaving, especially for the eri, muga and pat silk varieties.

Mekhela chadors, saris, gamusas (locally worn garments/bed linen)—all are produced in the town’s handlooms, using cardboard cards punched with intricate designs that remind one of Braille. Assam has many silk weaving centres. But the reputation Sualkuchi has earned over the years for its quality, design and technique sets it apart. Its proximity to the state capital is an advantage, as it adds to its accessibility.

But like other artisan communities in the country, Sualkuchi too has not been able to remain indifferent to the strong winds of free market economics. Customers who value authenticity and tradition still exist, but overall sales have inevitably been affected by cheap substitutes. This trend in turn affects wages, while the cost of the raw material, the silk that is woven, continues to rise.

Originally, Sualkuchi was a ‘craft village, home to several cottage industries like handloom weaving, oil processing, pottery, gold making etc. But all of these, other than weaving have almost become extinct.

The weaving industry of Sualkuchi remained confined to the Tanti community till the 1930s. Later on, people from other communities also took up silk weaving. Even some fishermen and Brahmin (upper caste) communities took to weaving as their main source of income as handloom was emerging as the most profitable source of income. The weaving industry of Sualkuchi received a major boost during the Second World War. Slowly, almost the entire village took up weaving.

Weaving comes naturally to the natives of this village. It is ingrained in their lifestyle. Expert weavers from other districts also throng this place for its commercial prominence. In fact, the migrant weavers who work on wages are dominating the locals at present. The women weavers outnumber the male weavers. Though cotton and khadi textiles are also woven, silk weaving is more prominent and well known.

As one walks the numerous tiny streets of Sualkuchi, one can hear the rhythmic sounds made by the looms and the flying shuttles. It is spellbinding to see these women and men at work. The rhythmic movements of hands and legs on looms turn silk threads into magnificent fabrics, with the help of punched cards surfacing gorgeous woven motifs. These premeditated motifs are first drawn on graph papers. Then holes are punched on rectangular cardboards along the lines of the design to make the punched cards.

The woven motifs are mostly inspired from the flora and fauna found in the state, ranging from various flowers to peacocks, deer and rhinos etc. Another common motif is the ‘Jaapi’ or the traditional Assamese hat. Weaving one saree takes about 6 days and sometimes more depending on the design. During the period of the royalties, only golden zari was used for the woven motifs but as weaving got commercialised, silk and even cotton threads for the motifs were used.

Nowadays, the rising prices of these indigenous silks have led to some weavers importing cheaper yarns from other places like Mysore (Karnataka, South India) and Bhagalpur (Bihar, East India). This has led to the mixing of these imported ones with the indigenous ones making them more affordable at the cost of quality. The streets of Sualkuchi are lined by numerous silk shops, selling variants of traditional, native silk with the blended ones. These are visited by locals, national and international visitors.

How to get there: Located at a distance of 35 kms from Guwahati, Sualkuchi can be easily reached by taking a bus or by hiring a cab.

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