High Tide for the Silkworms of Assam

Magnus Lidén is a plant taxonomist from Uppsala, Sweden. Pankaj Bharali, currently a PhD student in botany at Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh, comes from the Lakhimpur district in Assam, and has long-standing experience in small-scale cultivation of muga silk.

By Magnus Lidén and Pankaj Bharali

In Assam, northeast India, two kinds of silk are produced with qualities and cultivation procedures different from the common mulberry silk. Eri is quite widespread, whereas the golden and expensive muga is restricted to Assam. Muga silk is particularly imperiled, but more on this shortly.

The eri silkworm (Samia cynthia), which feeds on a diversity of plants, produces what is known as the “silk of peace” and has found a market among Hindus and vegans of various persuasions, as the larva is not killed in the process. The fully developed moth is allowed to escape from the cocoon before harvest; hence, the silk fiber is not just one long thread, as in common silk, and has different qualities and uses.

Precious muga silk, on the other hand, is only farmed on the Assam plain, with the largest production in the Lakhimpur district by the regularly flooded flatland surrounding the mighty Brahmaputra River. The beautiful emerald-green muga larva (Antheraea assamensis) feeds in “semi-wild” conditions on som trees (Machilus bombycina and Litsaea polyantha).

However, the golden, durable and pure muga silk, which was awarded a GI (Geographical Indication) registration in 2007, is severely threatened—not only by poor return due to adulterations and mixing with less-expensive Tassar silk from other regions, but by irregular flooding, leading to stagnant water killing the host trees. Heavy floods have increased in number and severity, possibly due to increased logging in the mountains or to climate change.

As if this weren’t enough, there is another, more immediate threat: tea plantations. In the last decade, growers have witnessed larvae dying on the trees and they blame (with good reason) the massive use of pesticides in neighboring tea gardens. These include lindane and many other chemicals which are forbidden in much of the world but where India has, as with antibiotics, gone completely mad. This only adds to the old problems of “natural” enemies like cats, squirrels and birds putting pressure on the worms. With innovative solutions, increasing awareness of India’s overarching environmental problems and a little hope, the golden muga silk might still be saved, economically and ecologically.

Read More by Magnus Lidén

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Meet the Author
Since 2005 senior scientific curator at Uppsala Botanic Garden (50%) and researcher at Evolutionary Biology Center, Uppsala University (50%). Travels a lot, not least hunting plants in Himalaya in my research. Lately, mostly NE India, SW China and Iran.