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Sunday, December 2, 2001
'Art and Soul

The mysteries of silk
B.N. Goswamy

I do not know how many people know this, but apparently silk — that smooth, seductive fabric that is so much a part of our lives — has a history that is not only long, but is also wrapped in romance and mystery. I was only vaguely aware of this myself, but little did I know when I picked up an antique-looking, brittle volume the other day, titled Silk in Burma — written close to a hundred years ago by an ICS officer, J.P. Hardiman — that I was going to be drawn into the subject, step by wondering step. The book itself is rather technical, since it mostly records the processes that go into the making of various kinds of silk in Burma — which was once a part of British India — but there were enough hints in the text to send me off on a trail, go looking for clues and historical strands in other places. This, briefly, is what I found out.

The transfer of raw silk thread to the reel (Northeastern India; coloured lithograph; c. 1900)
The transfer of raw silk thread to the reel (Northeastern India; coloured lithograph; c. 1900)

Great antiquity has been claimed from time to time for the presence of silk in India, but most accounts agree that the culture of silk began in China. When exactly is, however, the question. The third millennium BC is what some records point to, although, traditionally, the Chinese ascribe the discovery of silk and the invention of the silk reel to Hsi-ling-chi, the 14-year-old wife of the mythological Emperor, Huang-ti. The accidental fall of a cocoon in a cup of tea, leading to countless fine filaments of silk coming off it is a part of this story. One thing is certain: silk was considered not only an expensive, but also exclusive, fabric. For centuries together, wearing it was regarded as the privilege of the royal houses and the Chinese nobility alone, and knowledge of sericulture was kept a very closely guarded secret. The outside world knew very little about it, but what was silk in the Chinese language — szu — became known in other tongues by words that are philologically related: thus, sericon in Greek, sericum in Latin, soie in French, and, of course, silk, in English.

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Samples of Chinese silk started reaching the West in the course of time — one can imagine the excitement the fabric, with its luxuriant feel and texture, must have caused when first brought in — but trade in silk is said to have begun only when its export was authorised in the times of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). It was carried over caravan routes — hence the celebrated name, the Silk Route — extending from China through Central Asia to Baghdad and Damascus. From there, and from Persia, silk was re-exported to Mediterranean Europe where demand for it always outstripped the supply. Locally, a weaving and dyeing industry grew up in different countries, but supplies of raw silk still came from China. Until of course the source of the fabric was revealed.

On that revelation — was it industrial espionage? — Theophanes of Byzantium, Constantinople in other words, had this to say in the 6th century: "Now, in the reign of Pasturian a certain Persian exhibited in Byzantium the mode in which (silk) worms are hatched, a thing which the Romans had never known before: this Persian on coming away from the country of the Seres (i.e. China) had taken with him the eggs of these worms concealed in a walking stick, and succeeded in bringing them safely to Byzantium". Accounts vary a little on this point, and some other sources speak of two Persian monks who had spent long years in China being responsible for this, bringing with them secretly not only silk-worm eggs but also mulberry seeds, for it was only on mulberry leaves that those worms could feed. Very soon afterwards, Constantinople became a major center of raw silk production for the Occident, and silk, still rare, began to be used for ceremonial garments and ecclesiastical vestments in Christian Europe. Syria and the Arab world, Spain and Sicily, all became centers of humming activity in silk manufacture. One knows that in the 12th century, it was Italy that had become the silk capital of the West.

There are other stories connected with silk that are laced with romance and secret goings-on. Thus, a Chinese princess who married a prince of Khotan around 140 BC, is said to have smuggled with her, in her elaborate hairdo, silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds, so that she might have silk in her new home. From Khotan then, via Kashmir, Chinese silk reached India, and, across the Pamir steppes, went into Western Asia and Europe. How the secrets of Chinese silk travelled to other countries in the east — Japan and Korea, for instance, or Thailand and Vietnam — is a theme that one comes upon in the histories of each of those lands. Into Burma, one reads, silk culture came through Assam with which the Burmese were often at war: it was in fact "the Muneepoorians", or Manipuris, of both sexes, taken as prisoners of war into Burma, the kingdom of Ava, who were made to use their skills for weaving silk for the royal family of the kingdom. Woven into all these histories, and with the development of silk culture, are of course accounts of the elaborate processes of rearing silkworms, the propagation of various shrubs and trees on the leaves of which they feed, the harvesting of cocoons, the reeling of silk threads, the secrets of combing, dyeing, weaving, finishing, and so on. Nothing is simple, certainly not in the history of silk, which, by all accounts, is "unique among that of textiles".

The Indian context

Whether the culture of silk was native to India, and thus independent of China — tussur, eri and muga are the silks that one clearly knows to be Indian — will always remain a question: the arguments for and against are too complex to go into here, even in outline. But one Sanskrit word for silk that we commonly come upon in early literature is of interest: it is kausheya, from kosha, which stands, among a number of other things, for a sheath, a pod, a receptacle, a membrane covering an egg, and, more specifically, for the cocoon of a silk-worm. The Smritis of Yajnavalkya and Manu speak of kausheya and kosha, as does the Mahabharata. In the last-mentioned, in fact, there is a passage that is often cited in the context of the history of silk in India. When Yudhishthira established his kingdom, this passage states: "The Cheenas and the Hunas from the mountains brought tribute to Yudhishthira, silk and silkworms."

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