The Ahom are an ethnic group in India who are descendants of Tai people who settled in the Brahmaputra Valley in the early thirteenth century. Most Ahom people now live in Assam, and some live in the Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh. Today, the Ahom community is estimated to number between 1 to 2 million.
Founded in 1228, during the mass migration of Tai-speaking ethnic groups from southern China towards the South and West, the Ahom Dynasty governed the region until 1826 when the control of the kingdom passed into the hands of the East India Company. The Ahom Kingdom represented the furthest reach of a diverse Tai culture that is shared by communities speaking Tai languages in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. Separated from Tai communities in China and Southeast Asia for centuries, Ahom culture is essentially unique due to the fact that it did not embrace Buddhism. Ahom language, a Tai dialect similar to Khamti and Shan that was spoken by the founders of the Ahom Kingdom in the 13th century, is free of Sanskrit and Pali linguistic influences that infuse even the 700-year-old Sukhothai inscriptions in Thailand. By the 19th century, the Ahom language was regarded extinct, but it was possible to reconstruct it from surviving manuscripts and with the help of traditional priests (mo, or Deodhai) who continued to use Ahom language in rituals.
Textile weaving was a fine art which attracted great interest in Assam since ancient times. Apart from cotton textiles and some wool products, three kinds of silks – muga, paat and endi or eri – are produced in Assam until today. Especially silk was in great demand in adjoining regions like Tibet, Bhutan, Burma, Sikkim and Bengal. The Mughals also valued silk textiles from Assam, which were either sent as gifts to the court of the Mughal Empire or were exported for sale.
Distinctive textiles originating from Assam have been documented in the Harsacharita of Banabhatta (7th century CE). In the beginning of Ahom rule in the 13th century, the kings were taking great interest in the promotion of silk production and textile art. During the reign of King Suteopha (1268-1364) the rearing of silk worms to produce silks like muga, paat and eri was given royal patronage. Ahom textiles were popular beyond the borders of the Ahom Kingdom for their fine quality, bright colours and durability. The designs and motifs of the textiles were inspired by nature, like for example imitations of flowers, ferns, trees, butterflies, birds and mammals, as well as mythical animals like the winged lion-dragon “Ngi Ngao Kham”, the royal insignia of the Ahom Dynasty. Motifs were often represented in abstract and geometrical shapes depending on the weaving methods. Traditional Ahom textiles in their design resembled Shan and Lao textiles.
Muga silk is one of the rarest silks in the world. It is made exclusively in Assam by cultivation of the Assam silk moth (Anthaerea Assamensis). It was during the Ahom dynasty that muga silk became valued as a luxury commodity as it was reserved for royalty and for high ranking officers and aristocrats. The silk is of a soft golden colour, and it appears to be more durable than other silks. It is sought-after to use for heirloom fabrics because its natural lustre increases with time and wear. Pat silk is a product of the pat silkworm – it is also called mulberry silk as the larvae prefers white mulberry leaves for food. The silk comes in natural white or off-white, has excellent durability and is known for its glossy quality. Eri silk is a vegan product as it is produced without causing any harm to the silkworms. The cocoon of the Ailanthus silk moth is harvested only after the moth has left. Somewhat woolly in texture, but very durable and moisture-absorbent, eri silk has excellent thermal qualities which makes it perfect for use in both hot and cold climate and in household products.
Historically, royal looms were operated by skilled female weavers within the palace, and the fabric woven on them was destined exclusively for the royal family. However, almost every Ahom woman and many men were proficient in spinning, spooling and hand-weaving since textiles production was one of the major industries in the Ahom Kingdom. A young woman was considered unfit for marriage if she was not able operate a loom.
The traditional dress of Ahom women depended on their status in society, but it consists basically of a three piece attire: the suti sula is a blouse, the mekhela is like a sarong or tube-skirt, and the reeha is a long piece of cloth draped around the waist and the shoulder. Another distinctive part of the traditional attire of men and women alike is the turban or paguri worn on the head, and the cheleng chador worn like a scarf. This was mainly worn by royalty as well as high officials, but is common today for festive occasions. Ahom men’s dress consists of the sapkon which is a short shirt that is tied at the waist with a basual tongali, a kind of belt-type strap. The lower garment is called suria, it is wrapped around the waist and extended to the knee or below it. The length of the suria was an expression of the social status of a man. Finally, the hengdang, a sword that is part of the male attire, used to be the pride and identity of any Ahom man.
In 2007, muga silk received geographical indication (GI) protection, which means that genuine muga silk can only be produced in Assam. One important centre for Ahom silk weaving is Sualkuchi, located in Kamrup district of Assam, which rose to fame during Ahom rule and is arguably the most striking feature of Assam’s culture and tradition.
All photographs by Oliver Raendchen, Assam 2007-2013
By Jana Igunma (SEACOM Berlin)
Dastkari Haat Samiti: Sualkuchi: Commercial weaving enclave of Assam (March 2018)
Dinesh Baishya: The fabric of Ahom Life (21.10.2004)
Pallabita Bora Phukon: Traditional attires of Assam and the Ahom dress (25.5.2020)
Raju Phukan: Muga Silk Industry of Assam in Historical Perspectives (2012)
Ravi Mokashi and Menuolhoulie Kire: Silk Weaving Tradition of Sualkuchi, Assam (no date)