there were always butterflies to chase after and try and catch; powdery colour left behind on your fingers as the winged one found a way to escape your clutches. not just the usual yellow and white butterflies. they were blue and black, brown with large eye like patterns, some had purple streaks, some ornate wings with frilly edges. in the reserve forest there were many more. and there were moths too. big ones, tiny ones, in the house, in the garden, black, brown, greyish white, part of life. sometimes, you caught a caterpillar and kept it in a jar to see what happens. invariably mine turned out to be a moth.
growing up in assam, i took the jungle for granted, and also the garden. butterflies, orchids, lizards rushing off leaving their tails and eggs, frogs croaking at night, machranga the kingfisher poised above the water, fireflies glowing green in the dark or in your cupped palms, snakes coiled by the side of the road as you walked past trying not to look that way, an egret sitting still on a buffalo’s head; roses, marigolds, gerbera, phlox in a profusion of colours, dahlias, nasturtium, begonia, dog flowers you squeezed to make the “dog” bark, nectar at the tip of the stamens you’d pulled out of the pretty ixora, pale white magnolia in the moonlight, bamboo bending.
lawns with thick bladed grass, tea bushes rolling along gently undulating land, tall sparse shade trees, water hyacinth covered puddles and ponds along the way. moths, so many kinds of them. who’d have thought the dour dull moths could bring about such beauty.
of course, i knew muga. the mekhelas in muga with red and black embroidery that everyone seemed to wear. especially during bihu. i didn’t know it was a silk. nor that it was a wild silk, and a very rare one at that. i just liked the look of the fabric and the sound of the word. muga, no idea what it meant, but it seemed cool.
muga is made from the larva of a moth that is found only in assam, the assam silkmoth or antharaea assamensis. the assamese word for yellowish is muga. but it’s not really yellow, more golden sheen, and deeply molten. for centuries and more, muga has been made in this part of the world. i read somewhere, muga with its natural golden colour, durable and lustrous, has been mentioned in kautilya’s arthashastra, even the rig ved.
in 1228, a tai prince from yunnan province in china, came and settled down in the brahmaputra valley. he was accompanied by people from his land; prince sukaphaa established the ahom kingdom. the ahom are the descendants of the tai, often from marriages with local people. the ahom kings loved muga, can’t blame them, so the silk became valuable and much cherished; its production grew. my history is not sound, this is straight from the net. what i do know is, assam has a different take on beauty, a deep indigenous aesthetic. one that’s rich with the sweetness and texture of its natural surroundings. i look at the motifs, and there are the flowers, the birds, the lions and tigers, sometimes angular and geometric, though languid curves abound as well, little signatures of assam in weave.
in duliajan, where we lived, many of the assamese families had looms in their homes. weaving was an art most women learnt, much like knitting or embroidery. for weddings, births, and even everyday use, mekhelas and sarees would be woven by the women of the household. there is an intimacy with the cloth that is worn around here. maybe nowadays, many don’t weave at home any longer, but i’m sure they have carefully kept away pieces that were made for them especially, for an occasion.
muga was never cheap, now it’s very expensive. production hasn’t grown much and there is demand, both at home and overseas. since 2007, muga silk is protected by geographical identification or gi as it’s known; it’s officially recognised as belonging to the state of assam. even so, pure muga is hard to find. muga and tussar are mixed, if you aren’t familiar with the fabric, you’d find it difficult to tell the difference. tussar is beautiful too, but it’s not muga. it doesn’t shine with a natural gold. nor does it last that long. almost thirty-five years ago, my mother bought me a phulia tangail with muga yarn checks on cotton. it was fashionable at the time i think, the rage during that year’s durga puja maybe: tangail with muga highlights. i wore the saree the other day, still not frayed, still shimmering. i took the phone very close to capture the shimmer.
really, how come this silk has that natural gold tint?
i have a couple of muga sarees, one of them feels authentic, the other i don’t know. at present i’m busy pestering a friend in assam to get me a pure muga mekhela. have taken the madness a step further, planning a trip to assam after almost forty years, have another friend there, a senior officer in the government. she says she’ll take us to the right place for muga. wonder if the butterflies are still as colourful in assam, and if there are snakes, and was one of my moths an antharaea assamensis. before i go, the brahmaputra, did you know, is the only male river in our land. my father used to say that.
sarees tell stories | muga with orange and black motifs from sampa’s boutique, calcutta, around 2006; muga with red and black motifs bought from a friend in 2004; muga and cotton tangail from calcutta, 1982/83.