Art N Soul: The Silk Route to Burma via India

in Article
Published on: 11 February 2020

B.N. Goswamy

Professor B.N. Goswamy, distinguished art historian, and recipient of many honours including the Padma Bhushan, is currently Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Panjab University, Chandigarh. A leading authority on Indian art, he is best known for his scholarship on Indian painting, with special focus trained on the work of painters active in the Pahari region.

Two books on the life and times of Burma in the early 20th century talk about Burmese silk having been 'introduced from Assam and China at an early date along the Irrawaddy Valley'. Prof. B.N. Goswamy talks about how 'hundreds of these Muneepoorian captives were put to weaving' in Burma in the 1900s. (Photo courtesy: Thomas Schoch [CC BY-SA])

This article appeared originally in The Tribune, Chandigarh, under the title ‘Silk Route to Burma’ and is reproduced here with permission.

According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 240 B.C., Princess Si Ling-chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup. When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid. She handed the loose end to her maidservant and told her to walk. The servant went out of the princess’s chamber, and into the palace courtyard, and through the palace gates, and out of the Forbidden City, and into the countryside a half mile away before the cocoon ran out. [The legend in some versions dates to 2602 B.C.]

 — Jeffrey Eugenides

Even though Burma—now Myanmar—was a province of British India till as late as 1937, it has, for most people, always been another land, another place. Personally, however, I find reading about that country—its history and its culture—of great interest. There was that delightful book, The Burman, His Life and Notions, which Sir George C. Scott, journalist and eventual administrator of Burma, wrote as long ago as 1882 under the pseudonym “Shway Yoe”, and his highly informative Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. But, more recently, I chanced upon a book that I must have picked up somewhere and then forgotten all about it: Silk in Burma. It was by a scholarly civil servant, J.P. Hardiman, who had worked earlier with Sir George Scotton on the Gazetteer volumes. The book was published from Rangoon in 1901; it disappeared then for a long time, but has recently been reprised, having been selected by scholars as being ‘culturally important’, and as ‘a part of the knowledge base of civilisation as we know it’.


Silk in Burma book - Silkworm and cocoon, Photo Courtesy: Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain]
Fig. 1. Silk in Burma by J.P. Hardiman (left); and illustrations of a silkworm and cocoon (Courtesy: Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain])
Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, Courtesy: Amazon
Fig. 2. Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States (Courtesy: Amazon)

The book [as I read it from my copy which because of the acidity in the paper on which it was originally printed, kept crumbling or breaking in my hands] opens with a simple statement: “There is no mention in authentic historical record or local legend” it says, “of the source from which the silk industry was brought into Burma, of the channel it followed, or of the manner or date of its introduction”. But follows this up, in terse paragraphs, with all the argument about where the first silk was made, veering to the view that China’s claims in this regard are the most credible. As far as Burma was concerned, in his view, it was ‘introduced from Assam and China at an early date along the Irrawaddy Valley’. In ‘Assam’, he picks on the ‘Muneepoorians’ as the people who knew most about silk and its manufacture: a fact that really stands out in our own context. There is an absorbing reference to how the ‘Muneepoorians’—from today’s Manipur—landed in Burma. “Many years ago in the wars which were waged between the kings of Burma and the rajahs of Assam”, it is recorded, “victory generally crowned the arms of the rulers of Ava (in Burma). In those wars, the . . . Muneepoorians, whose territories lie on the borders of Assam, suffered greatly . . . (They) were taken prisoners and led into a condition of captivity at the Burmese capital. These people early turned their attention to different branches of industry, and among them was that of weaving the silks for the use of the royal family of the kingdom. The king, queen, and all members of the royal household dress invariably in silk garments.” And then, one reads: “Hundreds of these Muneepoorian captives were put to weaving. All the ingenuity, skill, and tact of which the people are capable were developed in the prosecution of the art of weaving, the art of dyeing, and the blending and arrangement of colours.” This is followed by some figures. Over the whole of Burma, we learn there were silkworm rearers and cocoon gatherers, 3,229; silk carders and spinners, 9,724; silk-weavers and dyers, 11,660; and silk-printers and dyers, 386. In all, a total population engaged in processes dependent on silk was of 24,999 persons. This was in 1901: clearly, silk seems to have been everywhere.


Bamboo spiral around which the silkworms begin to spin_, Courtesy: The Tribune
Fig. 3. Bamboo spiral around which the silkworms begin to spin (Courtesy: The Tribune)

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Hardiman’s documentation, which relies in part on earlier reports, is rich in technical detail, and goes into the economic dimension of silk production and that of marketing. To add to this, his publishers, the Government Press of Rangoon, also brought in some illustrators to show the various processes and samples of work being produced. All this makes for absorbing, if occasionally dense, reading. But every now and then, one comes upon passages as informative as diverting. He seems to have been very keen on following the evanescent life-span of the silkworm. Enormous detail of this he shares with his readers. Consider this: “. . . the insect spins once a year in its natural state, though in domestication it will spin twice or even three times: once at the commencement of the rains, once during the rains and again at the close of the rains, the best cocoons being those formed towards the beginning of the cold weather. The cycle of its existence is from eighty-one days to eight or nine months. The female moth is very sluggish and seldom flies; the male, which has a powerful flight, usually seeking her out and fertilising her as she clings to the cocoon from which she has emerged; for this purpose the male is furnished with some sense, probably of smell, which enables him to find the female unerringly, however thick the foliage in which she is concealed. After fertilisation the female lays about three hundred eggs . . . They hatch about a week after being laid, and the caterpillars which emerge are generally indolent and solitary in their habits, seldom wandering to any distance from their birthplace, unless driven by scarcity of food.”

There is breathless narrative here even if it is a small part. As I said, the book makes for absorbing reading.

This article has been republished as part of an ongoing series Art N Soul from The Tribune.