THE STORY OF
The network of silk farming is made up of mothers, grandmothers and sons, thereby making cocoon farming a family affair! This is the story of Ravikumar Ram and his family, who have been weaving Tussar silk for the last three generations. They nurture their small dreams in a remote town called Bhagaiya, in Godda district which is around 400 kms from the capital Ranchi, in the state of Jharkhand. “My Grandfather, Dada Ramlal Ram started weaving Tussar silk way back in 1985, after which my father Shivshankar Ram carried forward his legacy. My Papa funded my education up to the twelfth grade with great difficulty, but after that, he needed my support. We come from very poor family backgrounds, and our livelihood depends on our daily wages. So, I had no choice but to quit studies and join my father in our family business. But, today, I have no regrets. My hands were meant to weave just like my ancestors, and I am very proud to be surrounded by more than 700 families who are carrying forward this tradition of rearing and weaving Tussar silk in my village. That is why Bhagaiya is also called ‘Resham nagar’ (Silk town)”.
Rearing of the silkworm is known as sericulture. Silkworm has four stages in its lifecycle; egg, silkworm, pupa and moth. The life cycle of silk moth starts when a female silk moth lays eggs. The caterpillar or larvae hatch from the eggs. These caterpillars now feed on the leaves and grow in size. In the pupa stage, the worm spins a fibre made up of a protein secretion to form a cocoon. In the last stage, the pupa pierces one end of the cocoon to emerge as a beautiful fully grown moth. There are three crops harvested every year, first from June - July, second from July – August and the third final one between September – November. One crop is used just for ‘Grainage’ or reproduction, and the other two for commercial purposes.
An egg is the first stage of the life cycle of a silkworm. The egg, laid by a female moth, is mostly the size of small dots. A female moth lays around 150-250 eggs after being placed in small earthen pots or cardboard boxes for close to 72 hours. The pots are covered on top with another earthen pot to provide a cool and safe nest to the moth to be able to lay eggs. All this is done inside a storage facility that can house around two lakh cocoons. The temperature at this facility is normally 7-8 degree Celsius lower than the outside temperature. There are about 40 storage facilities in Jharkhand alone that are managed by the State Government who monitor the silk rearing. Once the silk moth lays the eggs, it dies in 2-3 days, as the entire life span of the moth is only 10-12 days. The mother moth is then examined. If her eggs are diseased, they are destroyed immediately. The good eggs are collected and disinfected by washing them with lifebuoy soap. The eggs are then placed on blotting paper to dry, after which they stored in small cotton bags, till they are handed over to the Adhivasis (Tribals) for rearing again.
A hairy silkworm arises from the eggs once they crack open. The tiny silkworms are handed over to the Adhivasis (Tribals) in the region to take them to the forest and place them on trees, to feed and grow in size. There are about 32 tribes of rearers in Kharsawan district of Jharkhand, which is considered to be the epicentre, that accounts for more than 40% of total Tussar Silk production in India. Few of them are the ‘Ho’, ‘Munda’, ‘Santhal’, ‘Oraon’, ‘Kharia’, ‘Gond’, ‘Kol’, ‘Kanwar’ and ‘Savar’ tribes that are really active in the rearing process. The worms feed on leaves between 30-50 days depending on the season of the crop. Care has to be taken to protect the worms from predators such as large insects. The cultivators have to regularly move them to fresh trees, ensuring that they do not run out of leaves. The silkworms shed their skin up to four times, or molt, during this period, as they continue to eat and grow to about 12 times their size.
After their final molt, the silkworm now starts to spin the cocoon on the tree on which its feeding. The cocoon is formed over a period of 3 days in which the worm moves around 300,000 times to form a beautiful, strong and durable habitat. Two modified salivary glands on the larva's head produce a protein gum called sericin that binds the silk threads together in the cocoon to give protection, until it turns into a brown pupa. However, the change from pupa to adult moth during metamorphosis takes about 6 -15 days, and they have to be left untouched. The colour of the cocoon depends on what the silkworms eat, ranging from white to golden yellow. Once the cocoons are fully formed, the rearers remove the finished cocoons that are hard and compact, by cutting the stems from the trees and getting them ready for the last stage.
The cocoons are loosely tied to a rope in the form of long garlands, and hung lengthwise across each other, in the same temperature regulated storage facilities. In a few hours, the pupa changes into an adult moth, pierces one end of the cocoon and emerges out. The adult moths (both male and female) then begin to mate, mostly at night, and the process is called ‘coupling’. The female moth lays eggs after mating and thus the life cycle of silkworm begins again. The female moth is a dull yellow in colour and male moths are brown. They have characteristic mirror like circles on their wings.
We spoke to Mr. Uday from ‘The Jharkhand Technical Development Institute’ located in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand to shed some light on the rearing process. 80% of the silk production in India is done by killing the silk worms to preserve the continuity of the filaments. Since the cocoons cannot be boiled during storage, they are placed in ‘hot chambers’ at a temperature of 80-100 degree Celsius for about half an hour. That kills the pupa inside, thus the cocoons are called the ‘Samucha’ (or fully closed) with worms still inside them. They are stored in large gunny bags for six months to a whole year. Every once in a month, they have to be dried under the sun, to remove any extra moisture that forms, due to being packed closely together, explains Uday. The ‘Pokhi’s’ (open ended cocoons), from which the worms have exited, are also packed the same way, but do not need any airing out, as they are empty. Now the ‘Cocoon bank’ is ready to be sold in the market to the ‘Mahajans’ or local traders. Part of the produce, is retained by the State government, to be forwarded to their in-house reeling and weaving centres.
The ‘Mahajans’ or the middle men collect lakhs of cocoons in both varieties (‘Samucha’ and ‘Pokhi’s’) from the Adhivasis and bring them down to the village for selling. All the weavers gather up to stock their supply for six months, as the harvest is bi-annual. Each ‘Khari’ or bag contains 1280 cocoons, that is sold anywhere between INR 4500 – INR 5000. The cocoons are graded as A, B, or C depending on the quality. The better the harvest, the more expensive the ‘khari’. The best cocoons are from Chattisgarh, called the ‘Reli’s’, where a bag of 2500 pieces can cost anywhere between INR 7500 - INR 8000 plus transportation charges of 50 paise per cocoon. The price fluctuates depending on the yield, hence silk prices are no lesser than gold in India.
The Ram brothers together buy around 2 - 3 lakh cocoons from the Mahajans with all their savings every year. The weavers in Bhagaiya produce both ethical and unethical silks depending on the demand, says Ravi. Part of the process to rear conventional silk, involves the ‘Samucha’ cocoons being hurled into boiling water to preserve the integrity of the long silk filament fibres. This method clearly kills the silkworm, breaking the chain of ethical processing. However, at aeshaane, our Tussar Gicha silk is made from the empty ‘Pokhi’ cocoons after the moth takes flight. Tussar silk reared by this method is known as Peace or cruelty-free silk. Aeshaane is proud to have set our eyes on these oblong beauties with an exit hole more than a decade ago.
Now starts the arduous task of stocking, cleansing, processing, weaving and selling. Ravi’s aged mother Shivrani Devi, starts her day early by helping with the boiling of the raw ‘Pokhi’ cocoons. Yes, you heard that right, confirms Ravi. “Even though the worms have exited their home, these cocoons are still raw and we need to boil them to be able to extract any silk fibre at all”. About 400 empty cocoons are put in a huge vessel along with 8-9 litres of water and soap powder and heated for about three hours. Once they are soft, it’s easier to reel the broken fibre.
Earlier, reeling involved drawing 5 to 6 filaments from the cocoons by placing them on the thighs and twisting it with the left hand with a pinch of ash powder, oil and starch. These fibres are delicately rolled together to produce a strong but soft silk. ‘Thigh silk reeling’ however is a traditional method, involving high manual labour. The method is not just slow, but an average woman involved in this is able to earn only INR 125 per day. To change the practice of thigh silk reeling, Central Silk Research Institute created a machine that would help the tribal women raise their profitability significantly. A woman using the ‘Samruddhi Reeling Machine’ can produce 200 gms of silk yarn per day, increasing her income up to INR 350. The machine can be powered by solar electricity or used manually. Ravi says that his Mom still prefers reeling silk the old fashioned way, however, his wife Pooja has taken to the changing tide with gusto and reels the yarn on her machine. She joins her mom-in-law after finishing her routine chores. These are women on a mission, who have seamlessly woven the Ahimsa into their daily lives, long before ‘WFH’ (work from home) became the new normal.
The wet filaments are put out to dry, and eighty year old Dadi (Grandmother), gets bustling around the house the next morning. She meticulously churns an old ‘Natai’, a traditional kite flying equipment, with her hand to slowly gather the loose yarn, so her son can loop this onto his ‘Charkha’ for spinning. Soon, Shani kumar, Ravi’s younger brother takes over and continues the long and cumbersome process. He now mounts the ‘Natai’ onto the Charkha or the spinning wheel. The time-honoured Charkha was the physical embodiment and symbol of the Gandhian philosophy representing self-sufficiency and independence. Typically, the wheel is turned with one hand as the other hand drafts the yarn that is spun off the tip of a sharp spindle shaft. Due to the high speed of twist insertion, the Charkha is considered ideal for spinning very short-staple fibres such as the Tussar Gicha or Eri silks.
Now to the most treasured part, where Ravi and his father breathe life into the yarn by hand weaving the fabric using traditional wooden looms. One of the first things you notice in a heritage loom workshop is the rhythmic clacking sound, that comes when the weavers move the threads on the wooden frames. The looms are entirely human-powered, which is a rare sight in this day and age. The process is extremely special since the cloth is engineered from scratch. Setting up the loom is usually the hardest part, as each thread (the warp) is aligned onto the loom. It can take several people to help complete the setup.
From seeing how the weavers move the shuttles holding the rich natural silk, to the aroma of the masala chai that emanates from the kitchen, to the sprig of blossom worn in Pooja’s hair, there’s beauty and purpose everywhere. In this age of fast fashion, watching the painstaking process of making fabric from the empty cocoons is almost meditative. Due to the slow nature of the process, the weavers are happy to sit patiently and go at the pace determined by the raw materials. Spending time with my artisans, listening to the looms and watching them work is truly a humbling and sensory experience. Now the proud father of daughter Ananya Kumari, Ravi wants only the best for her. His dream is to send her to a college abroad for higher studies.