Meghalaya has already achieved a prominent place in the silk trade map of the world thanks to its tradition of weaving. What is unique about the silk produced in the state is that the thread is obtained from the cocoons without killing the larvae, giving the silk the moniker ahimsa silk.
The Department of Textiles recently published a book, Woven Narratives: A Glimpse into Meghalaya’s Textile Industry, that tells the state’s history of sericulture and weaving and its journey to the modern markets around the world.
The state boasts of a rich culture of silkworm rearing, yarn production and weaving. What is interesting is that sericulture and weaving here are dominated by women, especially young mothers and older women who cannot go to the fields to work. The art is handed down to generations and is also a great source of livelihood.
In Meghalaya, the tradition of weaving dates back to hundreds of years. Though Meghalaya produces all four types of silk — mulberry, eri, tassar and muga — ryndia or eri holds a special place. Ri Bhoi district has emerged as a vital eri silk centre with the Umden-Diwon cluster of villages set up as the hub of eri silk production in the state. The Garo Hills is known for the best quality eri cocoons and almost every household has all the equipment to produce yarn and weave eri cloth.
Ryndia, or castor, is the Khasi name for eri. It derives the name from castor plants that nourish the eri silkworms. Eri’s texture is not as smooth as mulberry and muga but it has the feel and behaviour of wool. Its yarn is the only one that’s spun and not reeled.
Mulberry silk has excellent value for its fine texture and elegant sheen and the Khasi women never fail to proudly drape themselves with mulberry silk ‘dhara’ on special occasions.
On the other hand, muga is the exclusive golden silk, extra-luxurious and the most expensive, and it is also the most difficult to produce. Muga silkworms thrive outdoors, feeding on the leaves of mostly the som or the soalu tree. This is the reason why the rearers have to be extra careful and keep monitoring the worms to protect them from predators and external adversities.
Tassar is the wild silk from different species of silkworms reared outdoors. It is challenging to produce and does not have many takers.
Ryndia: Its characteristics
Ryndia or eri silk is an exclusive heirloom and traditional fabric of Meghalaya whose fibres come from the cocoon of the domesticated eri silkworm, Philosamia ricini.
This variety of silk is a favourite of both men and women, especially on festive occasions. While women look elegant in checked thohriaw stem wraparounds, men flaunt ryndia shawls and turbans during festivals.
Eri’s short fibres are like wool and the fabric behaves like wool. The fabric is light and soft and is equally comfortable in summer and winter. Versatile and durable, eri lasts for decades if properly cared for.
Eri yarn comes out in a natural shade of white but it also can take a faint reddish hue. Even in its natural colour, red and white eri look and feel premium, but customers can opt for colours of their choice that would then necessitate dyeing.
The traditional dyeing method involves naturally available mineral and vegetable sources, such as lac, iron ore and turmeric.
With a mastery passed down through generations, Khasi and Garo weavers of Meghalaya traditionally weave ryndia silk fabrics in distinct styles, unique motifs and captivating designs on simple apparatuses made locally with wood and bamboo.
The loin loom is a versatile piece of equipment that can be set up anywhere quickly and the weaver works sitting or squatting on the floor. The Garos now have a raised loin loom where the weaver can sit on a stool.
Another improvisation is the frame loom with a flying shuttle that quickens production and enables weavers to achieve more finesse and detail in the end product.
There are several local entrepreneurs, designers and traditional weavers who are promoting ryndia in the state and outside. The most popular among them is Daniel Syiem who has taken the fabric to the global forum. The designer’s fashion house focuses on the heritage ryndia, weaving modern and contemporary fashion marvels that resonate internationally.
Among the other popular brands is Kiniho, the brainchild of Iba Mallai from Ri Bhoi. The brand was established in 2016.
Ri & Last is another star in eri silk manufacturing, natural organic dyeing, eri silk spinning and traditional dressmaking. From elegant stoles and mufflers to luxurious shawls and wraparounds, this brand has created a niche of its own.
Zong hi I, a fashion house from Umden, combines tradition with contemporary flair through their exquisite eri handloom products. The brand’s mission is to empower women weavers and preserve cultural heritage.
Other propagators of eri silk in the Khasi-Jaintia-Ri Bhoi region are Nela Handloom Training Centre cum Production Unit, Sai Loom and Baphinbha. Nela founder James Eventis Dkhar is an award-winning weaver, trainer and entrepreneur.
Among the prominent brands from Garo Hills are Ripok Dokatchi, Norombi, Chada’s dakmanda and VA Silk Industry.
Ripok Dokatchi is a cooperative of about 15 women artisans who skilfully blend modern elements with traditional eri craftsmanship.
Chada’s dakmanda is the creation of Merbarine C Marak, who has been weaving for the last 25 years. With three weavers and eight frame looms, she creates a beautiful blend of conventional products with a modern touch.
The Norombi Sericulture Loin Loom Weavers’ Cooperative Society is led by Mentila N Marak in a small village in Williamnagar. Norombi produces shawls, dakmanda and other custom-made products.
Vivian A Sangma is the driving force in the local eri silk industry, taking it to the next level. She has established a cocoon processing unit converting eri and muga cocoons into yarn, making her the sole player in this sector. VA Silk is her brainchild.
The fame of ryndia has reached far and wide. The state government is also supporting weavers to not only take the product to the world but also help weavers earn substantial value for their craftsmanship. The Design Innovation Resource Centre at Diwon is one such initiative that provides a one-stop centre for weavers, dyers, researchers and aspiring learners to come together and learn and promote the traditional fabric.
(The article is based on the book Woven Narratives)