The most striking thing about Assam’s handicrafts is that neither the style nor method of production has changed for hundreds of years.
Most recognised for exemplary quality silks, cane and bamboo items, Assamese artisans also produce an array of cotton fabrics, bell-metal utensils, masks, toys, pottery, jewellery and paintings.
Weaving is one of the oldest industries in the state and Assam is well known for its rich textures and designs leading Gandhiji to compliment Assamese weavers as artists who could weave dreams in their looms. So important is this ancient craft it is customary for all young Assamese girls to learn to weave in order to make a marriage match. The industry has been kept alive by the many tribes residing in Assam, which boasts the largest number of weavers and handlooms in the whole of India.
Traditionally every handloom fabric created was unique because the colours and designs varied from weaver to weaver who poured her own personality into the creation using images of birds, animals, creepers, flowers and people in the pattern as well as embroidering motifs on the finished article. Each ethnic group has its own distinctive design and style. Today, however, designers do incorporate patterns and designs based on market demand and the Regional Design Centre at Guwahati supplies new designs and colour patterns to the indigenous handloom societies in the state.
The raw materials mainly used are cotton, the world famous muga or golden silk, pat the white or “mulberry” silk and the warm eri or endi.
Known as the “king of silks” muga is golden yellow in appearance and is produced by a semi-domesticated silkworms endemic to Assam that are fed on som tree leaves. The silk, known for its glossy fine texture and durability, is exclusive since it can only be found in Assam. Because of the muga yarn’s low porosity it cannot be bleached or dyed so its natural golden colour is retained. It can be hand-washed, however, and its luster increases after every wash. A selection of traditional garments, like mekhela chador (fabric stitched into a wide cylinder and folded into pleats around the waist as a skirt worn with a length of cloth having one end tucked into the skirt with the rest draped around the body) and saris are made from this silk.
This is also called Mulberry Silk as the silkworms are raised exclusively on the leaves of mulberry plants. It is usually brilliant white or shiny silver in colour. The texture is very refined and it is in great demand among the fashion conscious around the globe.
The word Eri (also known as Endi or Errandi) is derived from erranda, the Assamese word for castor and is made from worms that feed on the leaves of the castor oil plant. Since the pupae are allowed to develop into adults and only the open-ended cocoons are used for turning into silk it is also known as Non-Violent Silk. It is only produced in Assam, the east Khasi Hills and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh. It is soft and warm and popularly made into shawls and quilts. A unique feature of this silk is that the products made from it are rather course when newly made but after regular use they become soft and smooth. It comes in a variety of colours, especially cream, gold, brown and beige.
Often referred to as the “Manchester of the East” Sualkuchi, situated on the north bank of the Brahmaputra about 35 kms from Guwahati, is the textile centre of Assam and renowned for its quality of muga, pat and eri silks. There are more than 3,000 weavers in and around the township. Sualkuchi’s weaving tradition can be traced back to the 11th century when King Dharma Pal of the Pala dynasty sponsored the craft and brought in twenty-six weaving families from what is now Barpeta district in Assam. It really took shape as a weaving village when the Shams occupied Sualkuchi defeating the Moguls in the mid 17th century.
Laichangphi, in the district of Cachar, is famous for its warm and soft quilts and the Mising tribe is renowned for their Mirizen shawls and blankets that can be used as bedcovers or even wall hangings.
The gamocha, a white rectangular piece of hand-woven cotton cloth usually with a red border on three sides and red woven motifs on the fourth, is seen all over Assam and is one of the most easily recognisable cultural symbols of the Assamese people besides the tamol-paan (areca nut and betel leaf). Although cotton yarn is most commonly used for weaving gamochas, sometimes pat silk is used for special occasions.
The gamocha is an integral part of almost all socio-religious ceremonies. A Bihu dancer wraps it around the head in a knot, it is hung around the neck and used to cover the altar or holy scriptures at the naamghar (prayer hall), honoured guests are presented with it when visiting and it can even be used as a waistcloth, loincloth and towel. Gamochas, also known as bihuwaans, are offered during Bihu as a token of love and are used equally by all irrespective of religious and ethnic background and is an article of great significance for the people of Assam.
Cane & Bamboo
Cane and bamboo contribute a great deal to the lifestyle and economy of Assam. Many varieties grow in abundance and each has its own special uses. Bamboo in particular is an integral part of architecture in the villages.
Cane and bamboo are also used in making furniture as well as many other day-to-day articles like beer mugs, sieves and various tools and utensils.
One of the most important articles is the japi, a traditional wide brimmed Assamese hat, made from strips of bamboo and tokow paat (dried palm leaves) and used by outdoors workers for protection from the sun. These days they are also used as decorative items in drawing rooms and have become a popular souvenir for tourists.
Other typical articles made from bamboo are baskets in a variety of patterns, shapes and sizes. The large ones are called duli or tali and the small ones khorahi and are used for storing and carryng different things like rice, paddy and betel nuts. Baskets are usually made by the men of the family.
The men also make other items like chalani (sieve), kula (winnowing pan), fishing traps, fishing apparatus, fences, musical instruments, walking sticks, hand fans, floor mats, umbrella handles and even tea-trays, some of which are promoted in other parts of the country and even exported internationally.
Metal craft is the second largest and another of the oldest cottage industries in Assam. Famous all over India bell-metal utensils, made from a mixture of brass and iron, can be found in almost every Assamese household. In the days of the Ahom kings gold, silver and copper were used for royalty and there is a rich collection of these items on show in the State Museum at Guwahati.
A formal Assamese dinner is served on kahi (plates) and bati (bowls) made by local artisans out of bell-metal and food kept in containers made from this material keeps fresh for a long time. Xorai, a bell-metal offering tray (now often made of brass and silver) fashioned on a stand with or without a cover, has become the traditional symbol of Assam and is used to offer paan (stuffed betel leaves) to visitors. Offering trays for food and other items that are placed in front of altars in the naamghar (prayer hall), decorative symbols during traditional functions like the Bihu dance and gifts to guests of honour are also often made from bell-metal.
Brass forms an important cottage industry in the Hajo region of Kamrup district, close to Guwahati and the Sarthebari region in the same district is famous for its bell-metal products like kalah (water pot) and tal (cymbals) with practically the entire population engaged in their production. Bell-metal items are also produced in Titabar, Jorhat district and Raha in the district of Nagaon.
These utensils make attractive souvenirs for visitors and in a bid to compete in today’s world modern artisans are constantly innovating new ideas for fashioning bell-metal into ornaments.
The woodwork industry in Assam was prolific in ancient times when the forests were abundant with rare and valuable woods like sandalwood, salmali, agaru and vata (banyan). It was traditionally carried out by a group of people named khonikors who hand carved wooden decorations in the palaces of the Ahom rulers. It is reported that their work was so highly regarded and popular with the royals that a separate village called Khonikargaon was built for them near Sibsagar in the district of the same name.
Testimony to the artistic creations of the khonikars is evident in many naamghars (prayer houses) and sattras (Vaishnava monasteries) in Assam and the indigenous tradition of wood-working still continues in the district of Sibsagar. Here local carpenters still make simghashan, throne-type structures which are often supported by four elephants, twenty-four lions and seven tigers, kharai (book rests) and carve the wooden doors, windows and beams of the prayer houses and monasteries with mythical figures like Hanuman, the monkey deity who featured in the story of the Ramayana, leaving visitors awe-struck by their beauty.
In the plains districts of Assam the traditional carpenters, important in village society, belong to the community Sutradhar who have worked with wood for generations. They traditionally earned their livings building houses, manufacturing carts, ploughs, looms, furniture, icons and boats and doing wood repair work, decorating their looms and boats in particular with intricate carvings of peacocks, monkeys, fish and floral designs, but their numbers have declined and some of the businesses are now being run by migrants to the state with a more commercial outlook.
Still retaining large areas of forest Assam does continue to have a thriving woodcraft industry although boatbuilding has declined over recent years. Carpenters now tend to focus on making domestic items like stools, chairs, tables, walking sticks and kharam (wooden sandals) while in the tribal villages artisans still use their traditional tools for building houses and making the household apparatus and utensils they need and the modern-day khonikars produce artifacts like the great one-horned rhino and replicas of the world-famous Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati that appeal to visitors to the state.
In Assam the craft of making pottery can be traced back many centuries. The two traditional potter communities in Assam are the Kumar and the Hira.
Kumar is a Hindu caste name indicating that the profession followed by the majority of that particular group of people is pottery. The process followed by these people has not changed much since ancient times. They dig clay which they then beat and knead with the hands, feet or mallets of stone or wood and use a chaak (potter’s wheel) to fashion different utensils which are then fired in a panja (kiln). They then paint the finished articles.
In particular, pottery is made in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra River and cultural capital and cradle of Assamese civilisation, from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood fired kilns exactly as it was during the ancient Harrappan civilisation over 4,000 years ago.
The most commonly made pottery products are household articles such as pots, pitchers, plates, incense-stick holders, and earthern lamps as well as some more modern design ornaments.
The Hira potter population totals over 32,000 in Assam (of which 3½% are scheduled caste) and is distributed in the Soalpara, Kamrup and Barpeta districts of the lower Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The majority of the Hira live in rural or town fringe areas. They have Assamese as their mother tongue and regularly visit the naamghar and sattra.
According to folk belief the mythological origin of Hira the potter dates back to 500-600 BC. The story tells that the head of a family died while performing a pilgrimage forcing his wife, Hira, to care for her two young sons alone. While she walked with them along the banks of the Brahmaputra searching for food she saw some bright clay, from which she made some small earthern pots to sell to nearby villages. Since that day her pottery craft is known as Hira potter and the unique type of clay is called Hiramati.
Only the Hira women make pots and the art is passed down from mother to daughter. The men perform the hard labour - they collect the clay, collect fuel for the fire, build bhati (ovens) and transport the finished articles to the bazaars.
The Hira women who follow this centuries-old tradition do not use a wheel but mould clay shapes with their hands. After letting them dry in the sun they then use a wooden paddle-like instrument called a pitani to help assemble and beat them into the final objects before firing them in the bhati and colouring them.
Both the Kumar and Hira are also known for their toys made from pottery.
Masks are one of the lynch-pins of Assamese culture and tradition. They are usually worn during theatre and bhaona, a traditional performance carrying religious messages that was created by 16th century Sankardeva, Assam’s most famous spiritual leader, and which revolves around tribal myths and folktales. Assam’s tribal people also often use masks in the dances they perform to celebrate their own particular myths and folklore.
Assamese masks are typically made from a variety of materials including terracotta, bamboo, wood, cork and sometimes metal. They usually represent local gods and goddesses, characters from the ancient epics like the Mahabharata and historical figures. The masks are divided into three types according to size. Cho mask is the biggest and usually made of two parts to cover the head and body. Lotokoi is a smaller version of cho and the mukh mask covers the face only.
The mask-making industry is a major means of livelihood for the rural population. The craftsmen do not belong to any specific caste and are distributed throughout the state. The skill is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next or in the sattras (Vaishnava monasteries) under the guidance of a teacher.
In Assam it is a time-consuming process that involves splitting bamboo strips to form the frame and then pasting on layers of cloths dipped in clay which are then dried in the sun. It normally takes between ten to fifteen days to make a mask. Earth or vegetable dyes are usually used to decorate the masks and the most common colours are red and yellow however, these days chemical dyes are also used. The masks of Majuli are also very popular. They are made of clay, bamboo or cloth and are very light which makes them unique and sort after.
This industry has grown over recent years as more and more people buy masks to decorate their homes.
Toys are a significant part of everyone’s history and they speak volumes about the cultures and lifestyles of different people. Every region of India has its own unique style of making toys, but they are all surpassed in Assam. The skilled craftsmen there use few tools and yet produce some of the best toy specimens in the country.
Assamese toys can be classified into three types according to the raw materials used to make them.
The district of Goalpara is noted for its clay mother and child toys that have characteristic pinched features. Both the Hira and Kumar communities are also known for the clay toys they make which are usually figures depicting brides and grooms. Other clay toys made by traditional toy makers include the figures of gods, goddesses and animals and the Kumar and Hira communities often make animals too.
The Goalpara region is also famous for cork or pith toys, which are mostly birds, although some animal figures and forms of gods and goddesses are made as well as toys carved from wood and bamboo. These are generally used for puppet shows and come in a variety of figures like birds, animals and even human forms.
Great importance is attached to the toys made from cloth, so much so that it is almost mandatory for every Assamese girl to learn this craft which is passed down from generation to generation. These toys are often used for puppet shows and a common theme is the human figure, particularly brides and grooms.
Dating back from ancient times Assam has built up a rich collection of traditional jewellery designs unique and exclusive to the state that hold a special place in the hearts of Assamese women and are worn during cultural and religious events. Jorhat, the 2nd biggest city in Assam located in the district of Jorhat is the main jewellery-making centre and thousands of natives and visitors flock there every day to browse in the numerous outlets. This district also has a number of small scale cottage industries where skilled jewellery-makers also work.
Assamese jewellery is mainly made from gold which was found in abundance in many Himalayan rivers, notably the Subansiri, flowing through the state and which originally gave rise to the industry. A division of the Bodo-Kachari family, a tribe called the Sonowal Kacharis, were especially engaged in gold panning of river sand during the reign of the Ahom kings, hence their name Sonowal, meaning gold washer. Apart from gold other metals like silver were also used in conventional jewellery-making.
There are many beautiful and elaborate styles of necklaces, bracelets, rings, nose rings, and earrings, set with pearls and all kinds of precious stones. Two examples of classic designs are the gam-kharu, a wide (perhaps 3” or more), engraved bracelet made out of solid silver or gold with a clasp that secures it tightly round the wrist and the loka-paro, earrings embellished with back-to-back twin birds set in gold with rubies or more simply enamel coated.
The traditional paintings of Assam serve as a source of inspiration to thousands of art lovers around the globe. Renowned for their unmatched quality and outstanding strokes of mastery, they have become an integral part of Assam’s rich heritage. With origins traced back to the seventh century AD, Assamese paintings were illustrations inspired by the epic mythological tales like the Mahabarata. Many original ancient manuscripts have been collected from all over the state and published complete with their original illustrations. They were executed on bark and a fine lint-like surface known as tulapat.
Some of the original manuscripts are on display at the Assam State Museum in Guwahati while others are in the hands of private collectors. In addition the Assam Fine Arts and Crafts Society in Guwahati and the Jorhat Fine Arts Society in Jorhat are also playing significant roles in preserving the rich cultural heritage of the state.
This form of art was not restricted to just manuscript, however, and although limited, evidence does exist of paintings on woodwork, muga silk and other surfaces.
Schools Of Painting
The paintings of Assam can be categorised into three main schools.
The earliest existing examples of manuscripts illustrated in Assam represent the Tai-Ahom School and are from the Phung Chin manuscript dated 1437 AD, which contains illustrations depicting the mythological sixteen heavens and sixteen hells. As a well-established artistic tradition exists in other forms of work in Assam it is thought that the art of painting existed before this, but due to the high humidity and adverse climatic conditions of the region, earlier works may not have survived.
The Sattriya school of painting was developed by Sankaradeva, Assam’s 16th century spiritual leader. The earliest existing example is the 17th century manuscript the Chitra-bhagavata originally called the Adi-dasama, the text of which was translated into Assamese by Sankaradeva and recovered from a sattra in the district of Nagaon. Characteristics of the Sattriya school include nude male figures, the similiarity of male and female forms which may only be distinguishable by dress, large and wide fish-type eyes, ponds filled with lotus flowers, waterfowl and vermillion backgrounds.
Ahom or Court School
With the arrival of artists from the west the Sattriya school was eclipsed when superior techniques were incorporated and the Ahom or Court school emerged. This flourished under the patronage of King Rudrasimha and the reign of King Sivasimha in the 1700s and was in fact a fusion of the Sattriya school and imported Muslim styles. Manuscripts that survive from that period include the Sankhasur-badha (1726) and the Dharma-purana (1735).
The Sattriya school of art still survived, however, and ran parallel to the Ahom or Court School.