Conserve the Forests to Preserve the Cultural Heritage of Assam

By Nabasmita Malakar

Forest of Persea bobycina (Som plant) in Gurmow, Baksa district, B.T.A.D (Assam)

Photo: Nipu kumar Das

The link between human and nature have been intimate right from our very origins even though it might be difficult to observe them today, particularly in our city areas. I belong to a place where even today nature is worshipped and celebrated during all our festivals. Yes, I am talking about the state of India which lies in the south of the eastern Himalayas, Assam. Bihu, the most important cultural festival for the Assamese people, is also the name of our traditional dance. It signifies the coming together of humans and nature beautifully, not only in its rituals, but also in the dance movements, food and adornments of the performers and worshippers. I clearly remember, when I was in the 2nd standard of elementary education, I did my first Bihu performance in a competition held at my school. That was the first time I wore Mekhela-chador (traditional dress of Assam) made of Muga (Muga is an Assamese word which means the colour brown) silk, that Assamese people wear during Bihu dance or festival. I found the dress extremely heavy and asked mom the reason for it. She explained to me with a smile that because of the silk, motifs and fabrics, Muga cloths are always heavy. Since that age, this silk has been connected to my memories and pride of belonging. Though I have been wearing it from a very teen age, way before my research life about Laurel plants of India started, I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the facts behind this silk.

Now, you might be thinking that how Muga silk and my research are connected? Well, for research, my interest was inclined towards the family Lauraceae as the ecological, economical and evolutionary characters made it an interesting plant group. So, I read publications related to laurel plants and to my pleasant surprise I found one interesting article about Muga silk moth and their host plants i.e. Lauraceae plants. I was so excited to know that the silk I was wrapped right from my childhood as a Bihu Nasoni (Assamese phrase of a dancer), has a direct link with my research interest. Is it just a coincidence that the plant family I chose to study includes the main host plants of the most important fabric of Assam and its culture?

If we look back the history, then we will find that from a very ancient period, Assam is known for sericulture industry as it produced three different types of indigenous Silk- golden Muga, White pat and Eri silk. History of sericulture traced back to 2640 BC in China. First weavable silk fiber was discovered by Chinese ruler Xi Lingshi. Silk culture and weaving technology were kept secret for 2500 years from the rest of the world as silk was a valuable commodity for China and they traded to various places of the world. Among all other silk, muga silk is the most expensive silk in the world, compared to being as expensive as gold. Exact time of origin of Muga silk culture in Assam is not clear due to the lack of authentic historical account. It was believed that knowledge of Muga silk culture has come from China and it is flourished in Assam during the period of Ahom dynasty. Ahom regime (1228-1828) is considered as golden era of Muga silk culture in Assam. Earlier it was only confined to royal families but