Sericulture and weaving is an essential part of the Assamese culture and economy. The varieties of silk found in the region are muga/the golden silk and eri. Eri silk is also called the Ahimsa silk or peace silk as it is processed without killing the worm as done in obtaining other silks.
The word eri is derived from erranda, the Assamese word for castor. Eri silk is produced by the silkworm Philosamia ricini. This silkworm has many ecotypes. The Kokrajhar variety produces rust-coloured cocoons while the remaining produce white coloured cocoons.
The silkworm is reared indoors on the leaves of tapioca, castor, kesseru and payam. The larva feeds on the leaves ravenously and spins a cocoon around itself during the process of metamorphosis. The adult moth then pierces the cocoon and comes out. These cut cocoons are degummed by boiling in water, made into small cakes that resemble cotton pads and then thrown against the mud houses for drying. Once dried, they are used for spinning the yarns. The tools used in the process include vessels for heating water, bamboo tray, and takuri/ drop spindle.
Eri silk, also known as ‘the poor man’s silk’, is coarse and has a unique texture. The fibre is a good insulator with anti-fungal properties. The design possibilities while spinning and the eco-friendly process make eri a remarkable and important fibre of the coming times. The yarn is hand spun on a drop spindle and single spindle motorized machines by the Bodos and the Assamese. Hand spinning produces a wide range of yarns and is even effective in utilizing waste. The weavers also buy cut muga cocoons from government seed farms and spin yarn from their silk waste.
The silk is native to Assam, parts of Arunachal Pradesh and the East Khasi Hills. Bodo women weave plain shawls/endi shawls, jhumgra/patterned narrow cloth, dokhana/draped skirt and chaadar/upper cloth.
Endi shawls are admired and cherished in Bihar and Nepal. They are offered as gifts to honour people. A man’s endi shawl is wider than a woman’s. The demand of mekhla chadors, woven of a finer eri yarn, rises during the festival and wedding season in Assam.