On a refreshing summer morning, holidaying in Assam, as I usually do, before venturing elsewhere, I set out this time to Sualkuchi, the textile hub of Assam. What name does one give to this small, seemingly innocuous village, which, when observed from close quarters reveals its uniqueness in the fact that the entire village weaves magic with silk- “Manchester of the East?” Yes, the name is apt for the village folk have done justice to the words inscribed on the gate welcoming visitors to Sualkuchi- “Melting point of religious and work culture ethics”.

Tracing the history, Sualkuchi came to be known as the textile village of the East around the 10th and 11th centuries, when King Dharma Pal of the Pala dynasty introduced the craft by bringing the Tanti weaving community here from Tantikuchi. However, it was established exclusively as a weaving village when the Ahoms occupied Assam by defeating the Mughals in the mid-17th century.

Since, Sualkuchi is only approximately 30 kilometres from Guwahati, a good idea would be to stay in the city where there are far more options such as the Radisson Blu Hotel, the Hotel Rajmahal and the Ginger Guwahati.  As I began my journey with an old school friend of mine, I glanced at the heavy fabric of the clouds hovering above and prayed that the inevitable shower would be delayed. The drive was a beautiful one, though we were saddened by a glimpse of the paddy fields submerged in water during the monsoons. Soon we saw the gate welcoming us into this quaint village. We discovered that each home has a hand loom in place and one or more members produced the silk “Mekhla Chadors”, the two-piece traditional attire which brings sheer grace to a woman, sarees and “gamusas”, which are also draped stylishly around the neck during functions.

Taking my camera out, I started taking photographs trying to capture the throbbing energy of the village. The synchronized sound of the looms and flying shuttles vibrating across the village almost created a symphony in my mind. As we visited several homes, we were amazed by the single-mindedness of the men and women happily engrossed in their endeavor. We stood watching as the workers with rhythmic movements of their hands and legs on looms turned silk threads into magnificent fabrics with unerring precision. They used prefabricated motifs outlined on graph papers and then made holes on rectangular cardboards along the lines of the design to make the punched cards. A common motif is the ‘Jaapi’ or the traditional Assamese hat. The Muga silk is the most expensive amongst the three types of silk indigenous to Assam and is the most durable. The Paat silk is ivory in color and the light beige Endi or Eri silk is used to weave shawls because of its natural warmth and softness of texture.

Thrown into the limelight thanks to fashion designers such as Sanjukta Dutta, who created an ensemble of exquisite Mekhla Chadors, the rest of India have begun to appreciate them. Sanjukta’s collection displayed to their best advantage by stars such as Priyanka Chopra and Zarin Khan made waves in the fashion industry and enthralled the audience. It was a proud moment for Assam when she was nominated in the designer category of the Stardust Global Achiever's Icon Award to be held sometime this year.

Due to escalating prices, some weavers have been compelled to import cheaper yarns from places like Mysore and Bhagalpur instead of the expensive zari or “guna”. But, their skill has remained intact and their enthusiasm unabated despite the minimal profit margins which are due to many factors as we would be observing in this narrative. Their complacent demeanor was badly shaken in April 2013, however, when Banarasi silk products, a fair imitation of the traditional motifs of Assam, penetrated the market and were sold at much lower prices than their local counterparts. This was a blow to the already harassed weaving section.  Protests broke out and took an ugly turn. Foreign items were mercilessly destroyed. In fact, the army had to intervene and impose curfew to control the violence.

As I began speaking to some of the villagers and tried to get an insight into their business, I managed to pick up certain nuances that revealed the underlying tension and trepidation faced by these simple folk due to stiff competition stemming from a free economy. But, there has been great effort from institutions such as the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship (IIE) in Guwahati, an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to improve the condition of the weavers. Their aim is to make the weavers aware of market realities and encourage them to participate in market tie-ups and training sessions as well as international fairs and introduce start-up funds. They are the interface between the weavers and entrepreneurs.

There is also the Scheme IPP, a self-help group implemented in 1987 by the North-Eastern Council initiating vast improvement. Most importantly, the scheme worked towards providing self-employment to the rural masses, especially women. Subsequently, the Assam government, in collaboration with the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) introduced Project Sualkuchi, “A dream of the people, by the people, for the people”. NIFT aimed at developing the handloom cluster in terms of various technological and skill up gradation programmes.

I would like to conclude this narrative on a positive note, hopeful that the condition of the weavers would be improved, albeit painstakingly with the help of organizations such as Mazankari which directly connects weavers to buyers instead of having to deal with middlemen. Help Mazankari reach out to more weavers in Sualkuchi and preserve the rich heritage of Assam by generous donations. To get more information you can log on to www.travelspeak.in/sualkuchi-the-manchester-of-assam/ © Travel Speak.

For silk lovers, Sualkuchi is a must visit amongst the innumerable beautiful places in Assam. There is the Silk Museum with its exclusive collection priced reasonably to coax visitors like us to indulge. The contact details are +9198641-42079 and you can log on to www.silkmuseumassam.com. I must not forget to mention that they also gave me a certificate of authenticity from the Sualkuchi Silk Testing Laboratory.