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Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2016-01-08

Tied to traditions

A peek at the carpet-making craft of Arunachal Pradesh


The colours, the motifs and the sizes of carpets may make you marvel at the variety found in different parts of India. But zoom a bit closer to the practice of carpet making in the country, and what you get are only two strong influences in the craft form. While one is linked to Tibetan Buddhism, the other has influences of Persian traditions, brought to the country by the Mughals.

Here, one shall focus only on the former, the kind you come across in parts of the Indian Himalayas, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh. As per Buddhist literature, the art of carpet-making goes back to 500 BC. Among the North Eastern States,only Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim have a long tradition of this craft. 

Like the tradition continues in present-day Sikkim, so it does in Arunachal Pradesh. Carpet weaving is an important occupation and tradition of the State, particularly in Tawang, West Kameng, Changlang and the Upper Siang districts. Buddhist Tribes likes the Monpa, Kalaktang Memba, Tutsa ,Chegpaand Sherdukpen, and also the Tibetan refugees residing in the State,practice carpet weaving. The rich tradition of Buddhism is reflected in their traditional designs, like that of dragons, mandalas, etc. It is noteworthy that many of the designs in these carpets tell a story from the Jatakamala of Buddhism besides picking strains from Arunachali folk tales. Through a story in his book “A Philosophy for NEFA” (1959), Verrier Elwin points out this aspect of the craft as an expression of tribal legends and beliefs. Elwinparticularly mentions a legend among Sherdukpens, a tribe in West Kameng, which talks of “a girl (who) fell in love with a snake, who was actually a handsome youth in disguise. In his snakeform, he coiled himself on her lap as she wove; she copied the markings on her lover’s body and soon made the most beautiful cloth that was ever seen”.

The carpets of Arunachal also portray the opulent nature and biodiversity of the region in their colour combinations and designs, such as the variety in flower motifs.

The basic raw material of carpet-making is wool, extracted both from the sheep and the yak. In the olden times, people reared sheep for this purpose. The wool is typically extracted by cutting the fur of the sheep with the help of traditional scissors called Chaksit. The extracted wool is then smeared with an iron comb-like brush called Yoker and boiled and washed with charcoal before spreading it under the sun to dry.

After drying, the wool is made into fine threads by thrashing it with locally made wooden sticks and fangs to make it two-ply for ease of weaving. The yarns are then bound into balls. In Arunachal, sheep wool is known as Thirko among the Monpas. The ready yarns are finally fixed into the looms called Thasang (by the Monpas), which are tied around the weaver’s waist for easy maneuvering.The traditional looms are made by the weavers themselves. The Monpas use a spinning wheel called Rhunsung and a bobbin called Tumb. The comb is locally called Nei Shew. Two levers – Lemenshaw and Dishing -- are used in weaving.

The wool extracted from yaks is mostly used to weave course textiles like blankets, jackets, traditional head gear, caps, etc. Traditional tools like the Chakshit and Yokerare used to extract the wool from yaks too.

Interestingly, the Monpas classify the carpets as per their use and the status of the user in the society, expressed through different designs. They have three major categories of carpets --Khatan,Thrisu-tanand Maksu-maktan. The Khatan variety of carpetis used as a seat. These are designed and named according to the status of the user, such as Singy-norbu, Khangoon-ma,Meesering, etc. The Singy-Norbucarpet comes with a combination of colours and is designed with the figure of an imaginary snow lion with pearls, meant for the well-to-do. The Khangoon-ma appears in a flower-like design called Kholo, woven in a yellow background and is meant for the lamas,who otherwise never seat on a carpet with motifs of animals, birds, etc. The Meesering variety, which comes with apanoramic view of a lama, tree, deer, bird, mountain and spring, has a splash of colours on a maroon oryellow background.

The Thrisu-tan variety is named after motifs such as Cha-sung, Mupcha-khaptaktan, Druk-khap-tanand so on.The Cha-sungcontainsa figure of animaginary bird in flying posewith a border of Koikhuti,azigzag design.The Mupchasportray a pair of peacocks. The Khaptak-tancarpet comes witha border of either cross design (Indulucky) or zigzag (Koikhuti). The Druk-Khaptak consists of a picture of four dragonsfacing each other in the middle with the Khochuri designon the border.

The Maksu-maktan carpet is specially designed for horseback. The carpethas two wings and looks likea butterfly, called Gyagamaktanwhen wings are ofirregular pattern, and Wapi-maktanwhen wings are rectangularin shape. A separate rectangular piece of carpet with floral design called Khasuis a part of Maksu-maktan, placed on the middle of thewings. The carpet is fastenedon a horseback in honour of lamas and gaonburas (village heads).

All these signify that the designs in Arunachali carpets not only portray their beliefs, ethos and ethics but also indicate their utility and that of their users.

Interestingly, colours in Buddhism indicate different symbols. For example, white means delusion of ignorance becoming wisdom of reality; Yellow means delusion of pride becoming wisdom of sameness; Red, delusion of attachment becoming wisdom of discernment; Green, delusion of envy becoming wisdom accomplishment and Blue means delusion of anger becoming mirror-like wisdom. These colours are, therefore, commonly used in carpet weaving.

The carpet weavers of Arunachal, like many ethnic practitioners of the craft across the world, employ indigenous dying practices. For example, yellow is extracted from the dried bark of a plant locally called Tagapapa. The small pieces of the bark are boiled in a pan and the wool isimmersed into it.Dark redis taken from the Marchu plant. The wool is immersed in boiling water with dried small piecesof the plantalong with a small quantity of Surka -- a yellowish soil,to get the distinct colour.

Light redis extracted from the powder of the seeds of Gyachu / Sungkan plant. The weavers boil the powder with the woolto get the right hue.Yet another shade of red is obtained from Lani, a creeper. Small pieces of the dried creeper are mixed with Surka and are boiled toyield the colour. Black is extracted by boiling Pachang, a herb, and also mixed with little quantity of Surka.  These altogether create a unique component of the Arunachali carpet craft.

Carpet weaving is mainly practiced by women in Arunachal. Apart from their domestic use, these carpets have a commercial demand too; but with time, the craft is facing challenges from the easy-to-procure and cost-effective synthetic fibre-based floor and wall mattresses. To realise their full commercial potential, the craft is in need of systematic interventions. An even more important need is documentation of these practices with scientific validation for Geographical Indicator Registration.

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

(Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and  he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM.)





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