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Dimasa Textiles: Weaving Techniques and Processes, Terminology and History

People and Practices: An Outline

This article is based on a study of the textile practices of the ‘Dimasa Kachari’, a sub group of the ‘Greater Kachari’ clan, who belong to the Indo-Mongoloid group of peoples. Their main settlements are in Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong, Nowgong and Cachar districts of Assam. This ethnic group is one of the Scheduled Tribes of India, and the Dimasa of Cachar district are placed in the category of ‘Scheduled Tribe (Plains)’.

 

 

Weaving Traditions in Dimasa Society

Weaving is very long-standing practice in Dimasa society. It is considered part of their way of life. The entire process of weaving is woman-centred in the Dimasa community: women do all the groundwork and preparations for weaving by themselves. Weaving is regarded as one of the obligatory duties of womenfolk. Every girl in a Dimasa family starts at a certain age to learn weaving from her mother and grandmother. They can weave both highly artistic cloths with complicated patterns for occasional use as well as simple and plain clothes for everyday use. According to tradition, it is essential for a girl to learn weaving before marriage. This is not merely a custom to observe, but a means of self-dependence for females of the community. Normally the woman supports her partner by earning from weaving, but a number of women earn their entire livelihood by weaving cloths for others.

 

 

The Weaving Process

It is difficult to trace from when Dimasa women started weaving and using cotton yarn and eri yarn for weaving. There is no any written records about these practices among this tribe. Most participants in interview surveys (different family members from different villages) said they had learned to weave cloths and costumes by seeing and practising with their grandmother and mother. But the method now used is much easier, as their ancestors used to dye the yarn before weaving, and the loom was also different from the loom used today.  After a long discussion with them, I have made the hypothesis that the device used by this community for weaving was different from the loin loom or back strap loom. It was a horizontal loom around one foot high from the ground, and the weaver used to sit on one edge to weave. The description of the loom is similar to pit loom. In this region most tribes use the back-strap loom, and exactly how a different type of loom came to be used by this particular tribe is a subject demanding more comprehensive and detailed research. As the participants are talking from their experiences or reminiscence, and there are no references from other sources to such weaving instruments or tools being used by their ancestors, it is very difficult to come to conclusive answers.

 

Eri rearing is an age-old tradition of the Dimasa at which Dimasa women were expert. In their house, a separate room is built for eri rearing, usually of bamboo with a thatched roof and a veranda all around. The room always carefully made and well-ventilated to let free air pass and create an insect-free space. March-April and September-October are the best seasons for eri rearing. Eri silkworms are reared in bamboo trays; nowadays plastic trays are also used. Normally, the silkworm ought to be fed four to five times a day. Eri silk worms eat castor and kesseru leaves. Castor leaves are widely used as it can grow very easily and rapidly in the plains and is found abundantly in this region. It takes around one month to complete a cycle of eri rearing, from egg, larva to cocoon. The eri cocoon has an open mouth. At the right time, the eri moth leaves the cocoon on its own. Eri silk spinning does not involve killing the silkworm as in the cases of other silks. For this reason, eri silk is known as Ahimsa or ‘non-violence’ silk.

 

Before spinning, the eri cocoons are boiled in khari, an alkali mixed with water, for around one hour. The khari used for boiling the eri cocoon is made from the charcoal of the castor stem. It is different from the other khari made from banana-stem ash. After boiling, the cocoons become thin. Four to five cocoons were joined together to make a cake. These cakes are dried in the sun and kept aside for spinning. In their free time women spin using takri, a spindle made of bamboo. The spinner holds the fibre in her left hand and occasionally rotates the spindle in her right hand. They create a fine balance by which the fibre is twisted into yarn and winds onto the spindle. With this yarn, they make balls: one ball weighs around 80 to 90 grams.  When nine or ten balls are made they start the weaving process. Eri yarn needs starch while weaving, which is made from the Biyalam or Thaimodo tree. The main fabric made by eri yarn is shawl called Rhithap.

 

Eri yarn is also important for its use in Dimasa rituals and ceremonies. For this reason, they keep at least one eri ball in their houses. Though nowadays most households are not engaged in rearing eri and spinning yarn, they still collect handspun yarn for rituals. The traditional process of rearing and spinning are known to only the elderly Dimasa, while the new generation hardly knows the preparation and process. Formerly ericulture was an important cottage industry among Dimasa women, but now, the practice is vanishing very rapidly from this region.

 

Cotton was another important yarn used by Dimasa women for weaving. It was largely used in making their fabrics. In earlier days it used to be cultivated in jhum (shifting cultivation by ‘slash-and-burn method’) fields along with other crops. Previously Dimasa women used to do cotton ginning in their home, then spin it on spinning wheels (Hagzer 1974). Now hardly any one does this work. Currently the women uses mill-made yarns of different varieties for weaving. Cotton yarn of 2/40 count, 2/60 count and one ply 40 count are commonly used. The use of acrylic yarn had started around 30 years ago, and its popularity is increasing day by day. Now polyester yarn is also very popular among the weavers. Use of cotton yarn is falling gradually. The most common synthetic yarns available in the market are acrylic yarn of zero ply, one ply and two ply, polyester yarn, polyester pat and barnali pat. Cotton yarn is mostly used for Risha, a towel-like cloth, for daily use by every man and woman. They also make Rihmsau and Rhijhamphai Gufu. A few years back, they used cotton yarn for weaving all the fabrics, but now synthetic yarn is gradually taking its place.

 

Cotton yarns were dyed with wild shrubs. Black, purple, blue and red were the common colours used by Dimasas. They can’t make yellow and green dyes (Hagzer 1974). The practice of making natural dyes is no longer followed. They prefer to buy coloured yarn from market, which offer a variety of shades, whereas natural dye has limited shades. When they started buying coloured yarn is not certain. Coloured cotton yarn was introduced in the market before acrylic yarn.

 

The process of dyeing takes time; it takes around one week to complete the whole process. Two aged women told me that they saw their mother and grandmother colour the yarn with only natural dye, and they did the same when they were young. Both of them know how to dye from natural ingredients.

 

Zenglong and gisim lai are two wild shrubs that are used to extract red and black dyes. The dyeing process would generally be done in winter. Before the yarn is dyed, it has to be kept out in the open at night for about a week. When the yarn becomes completely moist with dew it is ready for dyeing.

 

For preparation of red colour, the roots of zenglong are soaked overnight in lukewarm water, which is kept warm by husk fire. In the morning, the roots are boiled properly. Khari and castor or mustard oil are mixed with the moist yarns for colour fastness. The yarns are dipped into the dye, and are left in it for two or three days, the water being kept lukewarm by husk fire. After three days the yarns are boiled. If the colour does not come out in the expected tone, the yarn is boiled again in the dye and the process is repeated. The preparation of black dye follows the same process, and the leaves of gisim lai are used. Maroon colour was produced by mixing red and black. The preparation of blue and purple was not known to any of the survey participants.

 

In the Dimasa language there are separate names for each weaving tool and piece of equipment. The names are given in the glossary at the end. This rich vocabulary shows the importance and integration of weaving into Dimasa life. In every household, there is a separate space for weaving. This space is called Daophang Kho. The handloom is called Daophang in Dimasa language. The Dimasa women now use throw-shuttle frame looms. The loom and its parts are made of bamboo or the stem of the betel nut tree. These parts are made by women themselves. The fly shuttle loom is rarely used.

 

The process of weaving has been divided into the following stages; cultivation of fibre, spinning and dyeing the yarn, pre-loom activity and weaving. But nowadays as the women procure yarn from the market, the process starts with the winding of yarn onto the bobbin by zenter, the bobbin winding machine. After winding the yarn onto the bobbin, the warping process starts. The length and breadth of the warp depends on the type and number of fabrics to be made. It also depends on the breadth of the loom: as the throw-shuttle looms are not sufficiently wide, very wide cloths cannot be woven on these. Sometimes two cloths are joined to make the cloth wide. The warp is set on the neh (heddle) and rashi (reed). After that the warp is set on the loom with the kun boron (warp beam) and rih boron (cloth beam). After the setting of the loom the weaving starts. The weaver uses the makhu or throw shuttle to weave the cloth.

 

The Dimasa women always do plain weave with one pair of treadles. They insert two threads in one dent of a reed. For this reason their cloths become very thick and more durable. For embellishment of the cloth, they use two techniques, one is extra weft technique in which the warps are specially set at the time of setting up the loom, and are separated by extra bamboo sticks called gong phong. The warps are set according to the requirements of motif and pattern. Thori and Thori Khunthukri, the traditional shuttle and pirn are used for making extra weft motifs. Before creating a motif on the cloth, they try it in gonthai, an instrument for preparing motifs. These days they also use graph paper for motifs and patterns. Once the pre- arrangement for extra weft is done, the motifs are created at the time of weaving.

 

The other technique is tapestry. In this, differently coloured weft threads are interlaced with warp thread. This process is done at the time of weaving. No pre-loom process is required. Thori, Thori Khunthukri and throw shuttle are used for tapestry. This technique is a time-consuming one and calls for patience.

 

A Dimasa woman weaves during her free time, as it is not routine work, and therefore it is very difficult to determine precisely the actual time taken to weave a particular fabric. Roughly speaking, a plain risha of five by two feet can be prepared in one day, while a decorated risha needs additional time.

 

 

Rituals and Legends Associated with Weaving

The Dimasa people consider Goddess Lairebdi the goddess of knowledge. No particular god or goddess is associated with weaving.

 

Holy Cloth or Shield

When the Dimasa kingdom was at Dimapur, presently in the state of Nagaland, and was at war with the Ahoms of Assam, a young warrior named Halodao was able to kill most of his opponents, supposedly because he wore the holy shield or khaodam made out of khun gathar or holy thread. The shield was up of thick strong padded cotton, with criss-cross stitching over it. There are strict rules to follow when making the holy shield or Khaodam. Traditionally all Dimasa women are expert in weaving, but all are not able to make the shield (Barman 2013).

 

Rituals related to birth

The birth of a child in Dimasa society, whether boy or girl, is a happy occasion. A formal ritual is performed after the umbilical cord of the child falls off. The parents invite relatives and villagers to see the baby, and organize a grand feast to accompany the birth ceremony. Customarily a boy child is covered by a new Rihmsau cloth and girl child is covered by a new Rijhamphai Gufu cloth. The naming of the child is also done the same day.

 

Rituals related to marriage

In Dimasa society, it is a ritual that the boy’s family will first approach the girl’s family with a proposal of marriage. However the agreement of both the boy and the girl to be life partners, will always be taken into consideration. The parents do not act against the will of the boy or the girl. It is a custom to offer bride price, or Kalti (Hagzer 1974), so the boy’s family has to pay some amount to the girl’s family. Gradually this custom is disappearing. As the Dimasas of Cachar district follow Hinduism and live in a Bengali neighbourhood, they have also show some influence of Bengali Hindu marriage rituals.

 

Traditionally the girl has to prepare all the dresses for her marriage. Rigu, Rijhamphai Beren and Rikausa are the traditional attire of Dimasa women that they use on every occasion. For weddings, they use bright colored cloths with heavy weaving patterns in the fabric. The bridegroom wears Risha Galauba Mudo, Risha Ramai Mudo and head-gear made specially for the occasion. Rihmsau is the essential ritual cloth on the groom’s side.

 

Rituals related to death

In Dimasa society, it is their custom to cremate the dead. Before the dead body is taken to the cremation ground, it is bathed properly and after that they perform some ceremonies, and new cloths are draped on the deceased. A male is covered with Rihmsau and a female with Rhijhamphai Gufu. If a married woman of dies at a young age, she is dressed in a colourful Rhijhamphai Beren. When the dead body is carried to the cremation ground, a woman continuously throws paddy and cotton on the left side of the road.  Another woman trails handspun eri thread along the road leading to the cremation ground. The Dimasas believe that the deceased will be reborn in his or her own house or in the house of a close relative. Throwing the paddy, cotton and drawing out the line with eri thread makes it easy for the soul to find the path leading to his or her home and village (Hagzer 1974).

 

 

Conclusion

Dimasa weaving is changing gradually from past practices. But whether these transformations are worthwhile or not, the members of the community have to see and decide. A self-sufficient cottage industry of weaving is gradually becoming dependent on external forces to source tools and materials. The use of eri yarn has become just a ritual for the sake of weaving.  Cotton yarns have become limited to very few products used for weaving. It also has affected the eri rearer and cotton cultivators.

 

The new generation doesn’t know how to dye yarn. They don’t even recognize the plants which are used for yarn dyeing. The young generation shows little interest in weaving, and the girls especially, despite knowing the methods are also not as expert in weaving as would be expected from the community practices.

 

Another major problem is the influence of external and imported market products. The Dimasa people can’t exclude themselves from the lucrative fashionable products of the market. They either use the products directly for themselves or copy patterns from external sources in their weaving. In this process they are diluting their own tradition.

 

The weaving instruments they are using are largely unchanged from 30 or 40 years ago. Even the fly-shuttle loom is far out of the villagers’ reach. The throw-shuttle loom has both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect is that if the fly shuttle loom is adopted, the weaver may not weave the intricate patterns which are possible with the throw shuttle loom and those patterns will become extinct very soon. The negative aspect is that with the throw-shuttle loom the weaving process is very cumbersome and time-consuming. As the women don’t take up the practice professionally and the transaction of woven cloths is confined to the community, the practice is going on, but they would not be able to earn a respectable amount as profit.

 

With some basic modification to the weaving instruments their productiveness can be increased. If someone then wished to take up weaving as a serious occupation and viable trade, it could make for a handsome profit and substantial source of sustainable productivity for the local economy.

 

 

Glossary of Dimasa words related to weaving

Tools and parts of loom

English name                                          Dimasa name

  • Handloom                                           Dawphang

  • Traditional shuttle                               Thori

  • Throw shuttle or fly shuttle                 Makhu

  • Hook                                                   Midichu

  • Bobbin                                                Gedeba Khunthukri

  • Pirn                                                     Khunthukri

  • Warping instrument (traditional)         Halai

  • Warping board/frame                          Halai

  • Tool for preparing heddle                   Nehphonto

  • Instrument for preparing motifs          Gonthai

  • Winding instrument (small)                Khunding Khaseba

  • Winding instrument (big)                    Khunding Gedeba (a Khunding has three parts, Deobogrong, Gonsa and Khunding Buthong)

  • Pirn and bobbin winding machine      Zenter

  • Sticks used for extra weft                   Gong phong

  • Pick-up stick                                       Samphor

  • Harnesses                                          Gonsai (Small Stick), Nehphong (Big Stick)

  • Heddle                                                Neh

  • Warping stick                                      Rih song gong

  • Stretcher or temple                             Soogoor

  • Reed                                                   Rashi

  • Bamboo Reed                                    Wani Rashi

  • Dent                                                    Khaisengba

  • Warp beam                                         Kun Boron

  • Cloth  beam                                        Rih Boron

  • Comb                                                  Khojong

  • Treadle set                                          Neh Gakhlaiaba

  • Head roller                                          Neh Khakuiaba

  • Frame of the loom                               Dawphang Thak

  • Spindle                                                Takri

 

 

Types of yarn and dye staff

English name                                                 Dimasa name

  • Eri                                                       Yungmatip

  • Cotton                                                 Karpash

  • Yarn                                                    Khun

  • Yarn ball                                             Khun Ton

  • Warp                                                   Daophang gosang sengyaba

  • Weft                                                    Gebeng dao sengyaba

  • Upper and lower warp yarn                Khondautu khonba (pick up and pick down)

  • Shed of upper and lower warp yarn   Biyang

  • Castor plant                                        Radau Fang

 

Dimasa names for stages of weaving

English name                         Dimasa name

  • Bobbin winding          Daophang chengmani khuntukri gedeba

  • Pirn winding               Thukriba

  • Warping                     Boniyahona daophang chengba khondawtu khonma nangdu

  • Denting                      Khunke rashiha khaisingba

  • Beaming                    Daophang panda

  • Combing                    Bathab jiayaba

  • Warping into beam    Boronha rih khuntonba

  • Drafting                      Neh khonba

  • Weaving                     Rih daoiba

  • Motif making              Rikhu daoiba

 

 

Sources

The research for this article was done by visiting Kanakpur, Khashpur and Thaligram village. The methods of Dimasa weaving were observed and discussions held with Jharna Barman, Krishna Barman, Ruma Rani Barman, Dinali Barman, Lili Barman, Rebati Bala Barman, Sajita Barman, Hemali Barman and the Dishru Self Help Group of Kanakpur.

 

 

References

Barman, Biswayoti. 2013. Dimasa Vir Kingbadanti Purush Sambhudhan Phonglo: Uttar Purbanchaler Ekti Anyatama Jagoron. Silchar: Dimasa Sahitya Sabha.

 

Hagzer, Nirupama. 1974. Dimasa: A Study on the Dimasa Tribe of Assam. Jorhat: Assam Sahitya Sabha.