Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Ahimsa (Non Violence) Silk

Silk might have been first discovered in China but once it entered the land of Buddha, it took on a new journey and a totally different perspective. Few people know that production of fine silk essentially requires the death of all the moths that form the cocoons which is unraveled for its silk strand. But there is an alternative, the silk can be produced without such violence.
A Kanjivaram sari from my collection
Although it is said that the making of silk was a secret in Chinese court till about 5th Century, there have been archaeological evidence from over 5000 years ago from the exploration at the Harappa Mohenjo-Daro civilization site of the presence of wild silk cocoons and perhaps of their use for making fabrics.

According to Chinese legend, silk was an accidental discovery around circa 2600 BC when XiLingJi, the wife of China's third Emperor also called the "Yellow Emperor", found a silk cocoon in her tea cup. She happened to be enjoying tea under in the garden under the shade of Mulberry when a cocoon fell in her tea and the warmth of the water made it unravel and the silky strands were discovered. The queen had all such cocoons collected from the palace gardens and spun into threads for weaving which were then loomed to make fabric for king’s robe. Silk instantaneously became the symbol of ultimate luxury and a guarded secret in the Chinese court; only the highest of the royal subjects besides the king and queen were allowed to wear it. 

Eventually, the art of sericulture traveled along the silk route and reached the land of Buddha, modern day Bihar. Co-existing and respect for living creatures and the surroundings is one teaching of Buddha that monks and laity followed unquestioningly. So when the weavers who weaved fabrics for Buddha’s disciple took to rearing silk cocoons, instead of killing the caterpillar, they waited till the moth left the cocoon before unraveling and spinning the threads.

This special art of sericulture is tedious and requires a lot of patience and isn’t as profitable as the fast and quality controlled version. A handful of weavers are still pursuing this art form, but largely it’s on the path of slow demise. Since the cocoons are raised in the wild and are matured till the moth leaves the cocoon, the silk made from these strands are not as fine and the quality of final product is not uniform; it is something that can be described with the Japanese word, wabi-sabi.  
Here’s a visual journey of the process…
Raw silk, photo courtesy: Monica Harvey
Isolating stands from cocoons; photo courtesy: Monica Harvey
Spindle Wheel
Charkha for making silk threads
skein of silk; photo courtesy: Monica Harvey
Threads being prepared for the loom
Hand Loom
Here is a small video of the making of threads from the silk strands. This video was shot and shared by my friend, Monica. She is also sharing some of her travel experiences to Nalanda through her blog: Nalanda Journey.

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