Eri Silk Industry: A pathway to Atmanirbhar Bharat
By Bhogtoram Mawroh and Aurilia Tariang
Last year, the Government of Meghalaya declared Raid Nongtluh Umden-Diwon as the first Eri Silk village of the State. This was in recognition of the work done by the village in the field of Eri silk garments production which is quite popular nationally as well as internationally. Eri silk, known as the father of all forms of cultured and textured silks, is one of the four types of natural silk produced in the world. It comes from the Samia cynthia ricini worm which is found in Meghalaya apart from Assam (Eri is derived from the work ‘erranda’ an Assamese word for castor on whose leaves the insect is fed) and Arunachal Pradesh in the North East and certain parts of China, Japan and Thailand.
Rearing and weaving of Eri silk has a long history in the State. When the British first arrived in Meghalaya rearing of Eri silk worms and manufacture of Eri silk garments was recorded as an important economic activity by PRT Gurdon in his 1917 seminal work ‘The Khasis’ amongst the Khryrwang and Nongtung villages of Jaintia Hills. The prominence of Umden-Diwon located in the present day Ri Bhoi therefore appears to be a recent activity which must have emerged from the interaction between the Khasis and Karbis. In the book, it is the Karbi, not the non-Pnar Khasis, who greatly desired the Eri silk threads for weaving their striped cloths. The non-Pnar Khasis instead obtained their silk cloths from either the Assam Valley or Jaintia Hills. Personal discussions with some Karbi villages in Bhoi revealed that they knew and had exchanged knowledge about Eri silk with adjoining Khasis villages. Staying in close proximity with each other and the fact that in many cases Karbi identity merged with that of the Khasi must to have led to the spread of Eri silk among the communities in Ri Bhoi, Umden-Diwon being one. Umden-Diwon are however not the only Bhoi community who are involved in Eri. A very important cluster is also found in the Bhoirymbong area with the effort of some individuals being very important in the development of the Eri silk industry in the area.
Kong Rikynti Syiem is a resident of Khweng (a village in the Bhoirymbong CD Block) who has her own enterprise known as M/S Rikynti Training and Weaving Centre. In the past rearing of Eri silk worms was done by only a few households in the village. In such households at least one member also knew how to spin the threads from the cocoon. This thread was then used for weaving clothes which were meant only for the family members. One of the fond memories Kong Rikynti has of her grandmother was of her weaving clothes for her children and grandchildren (with Kong Rikynti being one of them). Inspired by the knowledge and skill of her grandmother Kong Rikynti was motivated to carry on this tradition.
In 2005 with the support of (L) Bah Tenny Lyngdoh, DSO of Sericulture Department Kong Rikynti received trainings, demonstrations and exposure on rearing, spinning, dying and weaving from Raid Iapngar Handloom Centre. She also sought the help from experienced artisans like Kong Tran from Umden especially about the various parts and accessories associated with the loom. Initially she was working on her own but after a couple of years she began to hire community members to help her with meeting her orders. The raw materials, i.e., cocoon were also sourced from the village itself and in case of shortage from the neighbouring villages that rear the Eri silk worm. In the past the cocoons were sold by the villagers to a middleman in exchange for dried fish. This continued till very recently when money became the medium of exchange. With a view to expand the business she took a loan of Rs. 6000 from the SHG of which she was a member to help in setting up a shed (apart from the one she already had) that could fit 2 looms and 4 spinning machines. The DHO (District Handloom Officer) Nongpoh also provided one loom as a grant. Sensing the need to support his wife with the growing business, Bah Jalong Lastnokhel (the husband) quit his job in the Police Department to help with the work. Using the floor loom had started to take its toll on Kong Rikynti’s health. Bah Jalong also came up with the method to ease the strain by raising the loom and making the seats with bamboo.
Like any enterprise especially based in rural areas, the biggest challenge is the market. In the early days demand for Eri silk was a not very high, averaging only 2 to 3 products per year. To ensure that the business remained afloat, apart from Eri silk Kong Rikynti also used cotton and wool to make bags, garments, etc. She received a subsidy from the State Government in the form of a loom priced at Rs. 10,000 which also greatly helped in keeping the enterprise going. Around this time Kong Rikynti began collaborating with non-profit agencies like MRDS (Meghalaya Rural Development Society). This then brought her into contact with NESFAS who began giving her platform to showcase the Eri silk work.
In the Mei Ramew Festival held in St Edmund’s in 2013 Kong Rikynti was able to able to showcase the products and demonstrate the various processes involved in the production of Eri silk. She also got the opportunity to attend the International Terra Madre held in Italy where she was able to sell some pieces. At another exhibition held in Kathmandu, Nepal, the Chief Secretary of Nepal also bought an Eri silk muffler from her. She also attended many exhibitions conducted under the DC office. All these exhibitions allowed her to form a network of customers, agencies and other organizations. Gradually the products began receiving interest allowing groups like NESFAS to place orders. At the same time, she continued to receive trainings for improving her skills. These ranged from a couple of renowned designers from abroad along with designers from Delhi, GIZ (a German Development Agency) and from the Raid Iapngar Cluster through the Scheme provided by the Textiles Department of Government of Meghalaya.
Almost a decade after she started the business Kong Rikynti has started to see the fruits of her labour. She receives national and international buyers from places like Kerala, Bangalore, Delhi, and countries like Japan and Cambodia. Her daughter also began taking interest in the work and is now playing a big role in running the family business through online platforms like Instagram. Covid-19 did affect the business but since the restrictions were eased business has started to pick up and orders are coming in.
The journey of Kong Rikynti, which is still continuing, has a lot to offer to local entrepreneurs who are looking to build something for themselves. It was the love for her grandmother that prompted Kong Rikynti to enter the business. The support from individuals (which included her husband who left his job to support her) and institutions, both government and non-government, was crucial for her to continue in the business especially during the initial stages. Diversification (use of wool and cotton apart from Eri silk in the early stages) and building networks were important strategies she used, especially the latter, to gradually build a reliable clientele. All the while she continued improving her skills. But maybe the most important lesson for all aspiring entrepreneurs here is the patience and perseverance she showed in continuing with the business for many years. Presently, there is a lot of emphasis on ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ which wants to create a more self-reliant nation by focusing on local resources. The Eri silk industry of Meghalaya is a very good example of such a vision and entrepreneurs like Kong Rikynti, are important guides of how to achieve it.
About the authors: Bhogtoram Mawroh is a Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at NESFAS and can be reached at [email protected] Tariang is a Field Coordinator at NESFAS and can be reached at [email protected]