Sunday Shillong caught up with the women of Umden-Diwon village at the forefront of Eri Silk production
“Ryndia. Ryndia, the thread of life and rhymes
Ryndia, Ryndia, the glory of ancient times
Ryndia, Ryndia, such organic beauty to behold
Ryndia, Ryndia, the shades of exquisite folds”
(Translated from the Ryndia song in Khasi)
Meghalaya is known for its rich textile tradition. In recent times, the state has been making a splash in the world of textiles with its unique Peace or Ahimsa silk – so named because no cruel methods are used to extract the Eri silk from the cocoon.
The other name for Eri is Ryndia, an ethnically singular term for the material produced in the state. Umden-Diwon village under Raid Nongtluh is the epicentre of the Ryndia narrative. In February of this year, the village was declared as the state’s first Eri silk village, along the lines of Vietnam’s Hai-An village and Sualkuchi in Assam closer to home.
An art form that is almost dying, the women of Umden-Diwon are at the forefront of a tradition passed down the generations. They earn their livelihood from Ryndia and it has made the village prosperous.
Sunday Shillong caught up with the women of Umden-Diwon village to get a glimpse of their silken journey. Deni Tariang, the District Handloom Officer, introduced us to Mei Wis Mallai, a 76-year-old weaver from the village and among the few instrumental in reviving the ancient art form. We met Kong Swerlis Syngkli and Kong K. Tmung among others.
We witnessed first-hand, the process: from farm to fibre, from fibre to fabric and finally from thread to trend.
Women at the Forefront
Like a mother tends to her child, the weavers of Umden-Diwon take care of the silkworms, feeding them the nutritious Kynshor and Rynda leaves that last three weeks. After the feeding stage is over, the cocoons start to form. In a delicate manner, they are then treated and packed.
A constant temperature is maintained – in winter, their growth is slow. To keep them warm in winters, the worms are kept in earthen pots, often covered in a cloth. Mosquitoes are a problem and in summers, the silkworms are kept inside mosquito nets because they feed on the eggs, scarring them in the process and causing diseases. A mosquito bite can be fatal for the worms.
At the next stage, the cocoon is gently extracted from the nest and its gathering. Care is taken not to harm them in any manner. Then comes the boiling stage which starts the dyeing process. The thread is then dried, following which organic dye is used for colouring. Turmeric, lac, onion peels, herbs and plant materials are used for this process. Indigenous fruits from the village are used to fix the colours. What follows next is the weaving. Chemicals are not used in any of the stages which shows how labour-intensive the Eri silk production is.
Minimal technological intervention is involved. Traditional looms are used and Khasi motifs, textures and patterns give the Eri silk its distinct identity.
The men are also a part of the Eri narrative, even though the women of the village are at the forefront of the story.
We also spoke to Ibalarihun Mallai, a designer cum social entrepreneur from Umden. She quit her job in Bangalore to not only work closely with the weavers but to create her own label, KINIHO that works towards “traditional textiles with sustainable ethics”. She spoke of how it is important to gel with the weavers and not micro-manage them, since it is a community-driven affair. Since Ryndia is not mass-produced, the concept of ‘slow-living’ is inherent to its narrative. She hopes to balance the ethical aspect with the business side of Eri silk production. She spoke of how she innovates, along with using traditional motifs. Innovation is key and Ryndia silk production is not just limited to stoles, but accessories – handbags, shoes, bowties, among the like.
The Journey of the Mothers
In the olden days, the women would rear the worms, unaware of which ones had a disease and which were disease-free. When put together, it would pass from one worm to another, making it infectious.
Earlier, there would be three colours – yellow, red and black – that come from turmeric, lac and iron ore, respectively. There are 24 colours now, made using onion peel, herbs and plants.
They would put the yarn along with the raw dye materials which weakened the yarn. With the intervention of technology, the yarns are now softer. They use a strain and the liquid after the dye materials are boiled, which has improved the quality of the yarn. Nowadays, they also use fruits, a modern-day agent that prevents the colour from fading.
It is like taking care of a baby. The worms have to be fed day and night. During winters, they often go to the forest to get the necessary nutrition for their worms. The worm rearing stage is the most crucial. The weavers mentioned how they have no time to sleep. Come rain or storm, they have to be on the watch to ensure that the worms are not harmed.
The cocooning stage makes their weariness go away. When they see the pupae (chrysalis stage), they start singing. This transitional stage is important – to see a healthy worm makes them happy. Then comes the spinning into yarn and dyeing stage to get the colours. Once again, they go to the forest to search for the leaves, bark of the trees and iron-ore. Back home, they grind the colours and dye the yarn in warm water. Post-drying stage, which takes a long time, the women start weaving. This stage ushers in a celebratory mood. Church services are held. Weavers from the neighbouring villages also join in the festivities.
What Can We Do?
In an age where we are dependent on technology, we must be careful about deforestation. Moreover, it is not always possible to go to the forest. The people of Umden-Diwon have started to grow their own plants in the land they own.
Freddy Kharkongor, Commissioner & Secretary, Department of Textiles, gave us an idea of what we can do. As a department, he said, it is important to “give them roots and wings”.
For this purpose, the department is collaborating with NIFT to build a Design Resource Centre that will provide a platform to the weavers of Eri silk. It will have a working lab and integrate designers and weavers. The research will form a crucial part of the centre keeping in mind the traditional ethos of the Ryndia. To give increased visibility, an Eri Corner has come up in Shillong and another one at Umden, rural in spirit, is in the pipeline to give visitors a single point for witnessing the entire production process. The objective is to provide visibility to the last mile weaver.
However, care must be taken that technology should not dilute or compromise the unique identity of how the silk is produced. A conducive eco-system will bring various factors together, which in turn, will nurture and sustain the true heroes of Ryndia – the weavers and spinners.
As we left the village, we remembered how the weavers, mothers and singers of Umden-Diwon sang the Ryndia song in the hall we had gathered to meet them, the basket where we saw the worms in Mei Mallai’s home, the dyeing process in Kong Syngkli’s workshop/home and the fine yarn in master trainer Kong Tmung’s workshop/residence. Two of her sons take part in Eri silk production.
(Sunday Shillong would like to thank the Department of Textiles for all the assistance and the resources shared in writing this story)