Three legendary women behind Karbi attires
The Karbi people needed the help of a goddess to grow cotton. Three creative women helped them produce exquisite drapes from the white fluffy flowers the plant yielded.
The Karbi community inhabits the hill Karbi Anglong district as well as the plains of adjoining areas of Assam. Legend has it that they covered their bodies with barks of trees until Goddess Sintu gifted them cotton seeds she brought from heaven.
The people understood the plant was valuable when a woman named Selangdi discovered the art of spinning yarn from the cotton flowers. Another woman named Rimsipi discovered how the yarn could be woven into cloth. A third woman, Dihun, used extracts of flowers, roots and seeds to dye the yarn in beautiful colours and created patterns and motifs.
Selangdi and Rimsipi are believed to have laid the foundation of the Karbi style of weaving. But Dihun gave it the golden edge to become the patron of the weavers. She is thus immortalised as Serdihun, where ‘ser’ means gold. Weavers today perform a ritual and pray for Serdihun’s blessings to be rid of aches from long hours on the loom.
This legendary trio has arguably ensured the timeless appeal of traditional Karbi attire. Modern designs and cuts have added a new dimension to the cottage industry, but the traditional colours and designs refuse to get out of fashion. Many people still prefer the exclusivity of traditional loom products over those churned out by modern power looms. The market for both, though, is growing.
Karbi women still use takiri, a hand spindle, to spin yarn. They also swear by natural dyes produced from shrubs, herbs, barks, roots, flowers, plants, seeds and insect secretions. A plant called Sibu is specially cultivated in every household for dyes.
The Karbi loom, known as kachivur-atherang, is a back strap loom that may have originated from the art of basketry and mat-making credited to Saibisai Jang-re. It is a simple implement consisting of the following parts basically made from bamboo: Therang (loom bar), Thening (shed rod), Thepun (measuring rope), Uvek (bobbin), Thelangpong (heddle rod), Barlim (pattern sticks), Ingthi (reed/comp), Hi-i (Heddle), Harpi (batten), Honthari langpong (bobbin), Thehu (back strap), Dang (tightening stick), and Lang vet (sponging stick).
Using this traditional loom, the weavers make intricate designs inspired by nature, birds, fishes, flowers, trees. New objects also appear in their creations, aeroplane (rot ahem) being one of them.
A notable aspect of Karbi traditional attire is that the different designs and colours of the clothes are meant for particular age, sex and social status of the people using them.
The traditional attire of women consists of the following:
Pini: It is basically black, worn around the waist and tied with a belt. It can be of different designs called pini jangre, pini santok, pini honki ranchom, marbong homkri, ahi cherop, chamburukso apini and pini mekserek. They are still produced in the traditional loom.
Pekok: It is a square piece of cloth tied at the right shoulder. It can be of different colours and designs such as pe seleng, pe duphirso, pe khonjari, pe luru, pe jangphong and pe sarpi. Pe sarpi was generally for older women, pe sleng, pe jangphong for middle aged women and pe duphirso for young women. But this is not followed any longer. Pekok is now produced largely by power looms outside Karbi Anglong though the quality is not as good as those produced by traditional weavers.
Vamkok: It is the belt used to tie the pini tight at the waist. It has colourful fringes at both length ends and can be found in designs such as amekpi, amekso, abermung, suve arvo thoithesuri angphar and phonglong angsu. This is still produced on the traditional loom.
Jiso: It was the long black cloth with designs and decorated fringes at the length ends. It was used by women in ancient time to tie around the bust but now it’s replaced by short blouse for comfort and modern look.
The male attire consists of the following:
Choi: This is a jacket. They can be found in different types called choi hongthor, choi ik, choi ang and choi miri. Choi hongthor a ki-ik, choi hongthor ake-lok were meant for young men while Choi ang, choi miri were for middle aged and aged men.
Poho: It is worn around the head or used as muffler. But only the chiefs can wear the long white poho measuring 12 and half cubits. The different kinds of poho are simple long white poho, poho ke-er and poho kelok with various designs.
Rikong: This loin cloth worn in ancient times during work is rarely used today. The two types were rikong jongjong with colourful designs and the simple white rikong bamon.
Sator: It is a white piece of cloth worn around the waist as the dhoti covering the whole length of the legs. A long pe seleng is also used as sator with colourful designs all over and borders at both the length ends which covers up to the knee.
(The author teaches English at Rangsina Junior College, Donkamokam. She co-edited Karbi Studies Vol. 4 with Dharamsing Teron)