Weaving Traditions from North East



To understand the craft traditions of north-eastern India, one must know the terrain, its people and their way of life. For in this area, as is in most other parts of India, crafts are not practiced as hobby, nor are they a commercial venture; they are very much an integral part of the life and customs of the people. The Background

The northeast of India is like a variegated patchwork quilt. A multiplicity of tribes and tribal groups each with its own distinct culture inhabit this region.
Indigenous groups, such as the Kacharis and the Bodos, inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley, were conquered by Ahoms, a Buddhists tribe, in the thirteenth century. Earlier, the Tai-Khamtis, who to this day adhere to their Buddhist faith, came in from the east and settled in what is now the Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. Thus, the area became the stage for the interplay of varying cultures and religions, the main ones being Hinduism and Buddhism. As a result, a certain commonalty in their cultural patterns also accrued, although many differences persisted.

Handicrafts, one of the threads woven into the tribal fiber of life, also developed certain common characteristics.

A common feature of the entire region is that weaving is practiced alike by all tribal groups in Arunachal Pradesh,

Nagaland, Manipur and in the valley of Assam. There are only a few exceptions, such as the Nokteys of Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh and the Khasis of Meghalaya who do not weave.

Only Women WeaveIt is the women who are the real clothiers of this north-eastern region. Whether it be the Monpas and Sherdukpens of Kameng, the Mishmis and Khamtis of Lohit or the wives of the Wanchoo chieftains of Tirap in Arunachal Pradesh, or any of the Naga tribes, or even the Assamese in the plains, it is the women who weave unlike the rest of India, where men predominate the weaving profession. Many of the tribes have a taboo which prohibits weaving by a man who, it is believed, would lose his virility were he to follow this effeminate craft.

Different Style Of Weaving

The weaving in the hilly parts of this region differs from other Indian states in that the loin-loom is used here as opposed to the larger fly-shuttle, throw-shuttle and pit-looms used in Assam and in the southern states of India. This loom is also found in Mexico, Peru and Guatemala where it is known as the 'backstrap Loom'.

Loin - Loom A Simple Machine

Contrived out of bamboo, the loin-loom is simple, cheap and mobile. The weaver can bask in the sunshine as she weaves or roll up her work and move indoors if threatening clouds darken the horizon. Although the loin-loom is a simple device, the products woven on it vary in texture, color and design. Every tribe has three or more distinctive cloths of its own. An important aspect of the weaving is that the designs are a result of a process of evolution. They are not just something created individualistically by the weaver but have a cultural significance. Every weaver uses this canvas to trace new designs and manifest her creativity keeping in mind the traditional norms. They may be inspired by phenomena of nature: the markings on a snake, the black and white of the human eye, or the design on a butterfly's wings.

Using Colors And Designs

The colors originally used in the traditional tribal cloths were white, black, red and blue. In some cases, the designs are highly sophisticated while others depend on a combination of color for artistic effect although the pattern may consist of a series of parallel lines only. Examples of the latter are provided by the skirts or 'galles' of the Adi tribes. While the cerise red galles of the Padams and Minyongs of Siang district are quite stunning with no design other than a border running through the middle of the skirt in fine lines in black, the Galong girls wear white galles with black lines. The effect of the solid monochrome skirts is spectacular when the girls are performing a group dance known as the 'punong'.

The shawls of the Digaru Mishmi women of Lohit are an example of a very elaborate design in weaving. The warp is black cotton but the designs are woven in maroon red, deep pink, (with a touch of green sometimes), outlined by a silver thread. The main body of the cloth is patterned with geometric designs, the diamond or rhombus being predominant. As the width achieved on the loin-loom is narrow, three strips are woven separately and joined together to obtain the desired width. Worn with matching bodices, very similar to short cholis, silver ornaments in their hair are piled high on the head in chignons. A long silver hair-pin holds the chignon in place and a long silver smoking pipe complements the ensemble.

Tribal Heritage

In Tirap District of Arunachal, the main tribes are the Nokteys who have no tradition of weaving. But their neighbors, the Wanchoos, who were head-hunters until about four decades ago, carry their memories of head-hunting in their woven artifacts. The wives and daughters of the Chieftains use a miniature loin-loom on which they weave 'lengtis' (loin-cloths) for the men and shoulder bags. On a warp of coarse cotton like fiber, designs in vivid red, orange, yellow, outlined with black are woven in. Stylized human figures stand out while there are also geometrical patterns. These designs are also replicated in the beadwork of this tribe, which is quite outstanding.

Besides the Wanchoos, the Singphos, a Buddhist tribe who migrated into Tirap from the northern parts of Burma, are also skilled weavers who continue their traditions of weaving and design, which they had brought with them. This is corroborated by comparing specimens made across the border by the 'Chingphos' of Burma.

Quite different in character is the style of weaving practiced by the Apatanis of the Ziro plateau in Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. While the women folk wear coarse skirts in a natural colored fiber with borders in blue, the jackets for the men are quite fashionable. On a white cotton warp, black designs are woven in wool. After a few inches, an orange thread runs horizontally through the pattern, which is quite striking. The jacket is woven in a straight piece divided into two halves on the loin-loom itself to make the two fronts. The sides are joined together leaving an opening on either side for the armholes. Incidentally, the Mishmi men also have very smart jackets woven in black with the same designs as the women's shawls and bags-that is diamond patterns in red, pink and silver. Among the Adis, the men wear 'galuks' (short coats generally in green cotton or even in blue).

In Kameng district, neighboring Subansiri, the Monpas and Sherdukpens who live on a higher altitude used horses to traverse from one village to another. Now, with the advent of motor transport the horses are mostly found on the deep rose colored shawls woven in endi silk. The Monpas and Sherdukpens are Buddhists and their entire gamut of handicrafts such as the tankha paintings, the wood carvings and wooden artifacts are reminiscent of the repertoire of the Bhutanese, who follow the same techniques and use the same patterns and colors. In fact, Bhutan's eastern boundary is coterminous with Kameng and it is believed that these designs originated in Bhutan initially. The Monpas and Sherdukpens use shoulder bags extensively and these bags are really masterpieces of the weaver's art. Very elaborate geometrical patterns are skillfully blended and woven in shades of red, black, green, yellow, orange and white.

These examples are only illustrative of the variety and beauty of the many cloths, which emanate from the loin-looms of Arunachal Pradesh. Old designs, which are hereditary, are incorporated with newer patterns. The aeroplane, for instance, a novel sight in the Arunachal skies a few decades ago, was woven into a Mishmi shoulder bag as a stylized motif.

With deft fingers and an elementary appliance, a woman in North- East weaves magic into her hand-woven textiles.