Hidden within the colour, weave and design of tribal textiles are many legends
Desmond Kharmawphlang, 53, collects folklore for a living. On most days, he can be found travelling between villages nestled deep within forests and those perched on hilltops, acquiring songs and stories that have a deep connection with the weaving traditions of the North-East.
This quest has taken him to Assam, Meghalaya and some parts of Tripura. He talks, for instance, about his journeys through the jungle villages of Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district, one of the few places in the region where ground looms are still used. “The Bhois (a subgroup of the Khasi tribe) have myths around the evolution of cotton and how the loom was created out of the body of a monster. They have a deep connect with nature, and I have come across designs whose origins lie in folk songs about the growing of flowers," says Kharmawphlang, who is a professor at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.
If you were to look beyond the visible landscape of a weave, you would find myriad stories hidden in the colours and designs—tales about human creation, magical deities and kindred forest spirits. These patterns offer tangible evidence of legends that have been passed down orally in each tribe over centuries. It makes them truly significant in the study of the region’s sociocultural fabric.
Today, the dual onslaught of commercialization and urbanization, means that weavers are being forced to churn out designs which cater to the demands of the market, rather than those which focus on their folk traditions. “However, there is now a growing movement to preserve indigenous identity, and some serious attempts are being made to revive age-old customs, rites and stories by a conscious few within society," says Ramona Sangma, a professor of English at the North-Eastern Hill University who has presented papers on the link between folklore and weaving in the Garo tribe. Today, folklorists, anthropologists and sociocultural experts have intensified efforts to trace the imprints of myths, legends, ballads, songs and folk narratives in the weaves of the North-East.
Each pattern is a little capsule of information—containing tales of ancestors, social values, clan practices, and more. Sangma cites the example of the dakmanda, a modern Garo wrap. It is believed that there once lived a wealthy man, who had a precious cloth, pandra, that had been gifted to him by a female spirit, mitde. He gave the cloth to his daughter and asked her to take care of it, saying it would shield her from difficult times. The girl got married, and, on one hot day, hung the cloth on a bamboo pole as she went out of the house, instructing her husband not to touch it till she returned. No sooner had she left than the wind began to blow and the husband reached for the cloth to save it from the rain. As soon as he touched it, he was transformed into a peacock. On her return, the wife, touched the pandra and turned into a peahen. “The peacocks left behind a beautiful flowery pattern, and ever since then, these patterns, along with motifs that resemble the eye of the gods, have been woven into the dakmanda," says Sangma.
It has also been observed that the one thing common to most weaves and motifs is the role of women as creators. “When I was the co-chairperson of the working group in handloom sector for the 12th Five-Year Plan, our research revealed that 80% of the weaving was done by women," says textile historian Jasleen Dhamija. It is their hand that shapes the folk narrative in each weave—from the birthing garments to the shrouds of death. “When women from the household would work at the loom, their designs would emerge from their world view, understanding of oral traditions, folktales, the surrounding sacred groves, and more," says Meeta Deka, professor and former head, department of history, at Gauhati University, Assam.
Take, for instance, Rekha Doley, a young weaver from a Mishing village in Panbari, Assam. Her designs are inspired not just by the verdant beauty all around her, but also by the legends about medicine men, the creation of the universe—of the sun, donyi, believed to be the tribe’s mother and the moon, polo, its father. Close to tempestuous rivers, folktales about floods and natural calamities, also find their way into the Mishing weave. It’s no wonder then that one of the recurring patterns in a Mishing weave is the diamond, which symbolizes the chang ghar—a structure important for the tribe’s well-being. It is a house with a raised platform, built with the help of timber, bamboo and thatch, to protect the families from rain and floods.
Within some communities, designs are also markers of age and marital status. For instance, Wekoweu Tsuhah, programme manager of the North East Network, a women’s rights organization, cites the example of the mahapulu, meant only for unmarried girls. “Married women wear a different pattern. This style features a different colour for women of different ages—young married girls, middle-aged women, old ladies, widows, et cetera," says Tsuhah, who is based in Chizami village, Nagaland, and works with the weavers there. Many of the Chizami weave designs are abstracts and inspired by symbols, signs and everyday lives.
Shillong-based Hasina Kharbhih, founder of Impulse Social Enterprises (ISE), which creates income-generation activities for women such as Doley through the artisan brand Empower, explains: “The diamond-shape motif is common to both the Mishing weave as well as the Assamese designs, inspired by the Tai-Ahom (a community in Assam). But while the shape in a Mishing weave stands for the chang ghar, in the Assamese pattern, it is linked with the harvest festival of Bihu, especially Rongali Bihu." As part of the festivities, young people go to the field to construct bhela ghar or meji ghar, with thatch and dry plantation leaves. “This diamond represents that temporary structure, which is believed to thread society together," says Kharbhih, who is also part of the initiative undertaken by Unesco to define and map folklore and traditional knowledge of weaving.
In spite of all these efforts, there is still so much to discover about the relationship between folklore and weaving in the North-East—every new journey offers a new story. For instance, in certain Bhoi villages, Kharmawphlang found an unusual design known as the “eye of the priest". “It’s a diamond-shaped design and is considered auspicious, to be used only in ceremonies and rituals. The preponderance of the design is unique. There were a range of other ‘eyes’ in the design as well, such as the ‘eye of the lizard’," he says. Through his interactions with folklore scholars from parts of South-East Asia, he realized that the ocular motifs in weaving are linked with the Buddha. “I am not yet ready to make that connection in the context of the Bhois. But there is definitely a striking similarity," he says.
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