Woven Identity: The Colourful World of the Bodo Textiles

Lady on a bicycle. Manas National Park (Assam), November 2019. Photograph: Sushmit.
Lady on a bicycle. Manas National Park (Assam), November 2019. Photograph: Sushmit.

The Bodos belong to a wide ethno-linguistic group known as the Bodo Kacharis. They are mostly concentrated in the plains of Assam in the districts along the Eastern Dooars, namely Kokrajhar and Goalpara spilling over to the neighbouring districts of Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. They are also found comparatively in smaller numbers in Sonitpur, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts of Assam. The Mechh community inhabiting the northern most part of West Bengal, known as Western Dooars, also belong to the same ethno-linguistic family of Bodo-Kacharis. Their journey started long ago, from a distant land supposedly somewhere between the uppers waters of the two great rivers of China, the Yangtse and the Yellow river Hwang He[i]and arrived in the plains of Assam through Tibet. With many other tribes who trace their origin to this group of people, it is believed that the Bodo Kacharis were among the first stocks of people who migrated to the plains of Assam and thus, considered her original inhabitants.

It will not be incorrect to say that every Bodo household has a loom. The symphony of the sounds from these looms that fills the air of a rather lazy afternoon is a magical experience for anyone who visits their villages. Bodo women are gifted weavers, making textiles not just for themselves but for the entire family. After finishing their daily chores, women sit on their looms to weave textiles primarily for domestic use and sometimes for sale to earn an extra income. Cotton forms the base for all textiles and in the olden days it was grown locally and spun at home. Today, cotton yarns are sourced from the market where it is readily available in various colours. Fortunately, unlike other tribes of Assam, commercial yarns such as acrylic and metallic lurex threads, have not yet made inroads into Bodo textiles although not completely absent. Sericulture revolves mainly around endi or eri, a wild woolly silk, which is reared and spun extensively. It is believed that the Bodos introduced the knowledge of silk rearing to the plains of Assam, bringing it with them when they migrated from the regions near China.

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Handwoven dokhonas in traditional design and pattern.
Handwoven dokhonas in traditional design and pattern.

The dokhona forms the main part of the attire of a Bodo woman. It is a woven cotton textile, generally 3.25 metres in length to 1.4 metres in width (a size that can vary from loom to loom) and is draped tightly covering the breasts and the length reaching the ankles (shown in figure below). There are two types of traditional dokhonas, in both, the bright yellow forms the base colour of the field. In one style, there are stripes in hues of orange, red and green that run across the entire length of the textile and the other has intricate floral motifs arranged in a similar linear format. The linking of a floral motif to form a repeat is sometimes done in a way that the chain resembles a crab, which is called the khangkhrai or simply a crab motif. Apart from the traditional yellow, colours such as green and puce are popular, but with availability of mill dyed yarns today, the possibilities are infinite. Shades of deep maroon, blue and sea green are becoming common which were earlier not used and it will not be surprising to see shades like wine red and night blue. The dokhona is generally draped over a blouse but the younger generation can be seen experimenting with tight fitted knit (hosiery) or lace tops with various neck-lines.

Steps of draping a dokhona.
Steps of draping a dokhona.
A jomgro and dhokana ensemble
A jomgra and dokhona ensemble

While going out of the house for running errands or for a social call, a woman would gently drape a narrow stole like textile around her shoulders over the dokhona. This is known as jomgra. The jomgra is a delicate textile compared to the dokhona and is very intricately woven with motifs depicting ferns, flowers and rolling hills. Bright blood red, bottle green and night blue are the preferred colours and for daily use a white cotton jomgra with small motifs is preferred. These days, to meet the market demands, a lot of them are mass produced through power-looms using acrylic and polyester yarns. These are cheaper and readily available. During the bagurumba dance, the main folk dance of the Bodos, the jomgra is fanned out to the sides to resemble a beautiful fluttering butterfly.

A flat representation of a Bodo man's ensemble comprising a white shirt, fali (lower drape) and a arnai (scarf). Traditionally for a formal occasion, a dhoti or angrachi is worn below.
A flat representation of a Bodo man’s ensemble comprising a white shirt, fali (lower drape) and an arnai (scarf). Traditionally for a formal occasion, a dhoti or gangrachi is worn below.

Fali is a textile which can be equivalent to a towel, napkin or a handkerchief. In most communities across India, such textiles can be multi-functional, used as a shoulder cloth, a head-dress for protection against the sun or even as a loin cloth. In olden days, fali formed an important part of the Bodo man’s attire and different sizes had specific functions. Today, a plain green cotton fali with white narrow border also popularly called a gamusa, is used by most Bodo men as a loin cloth. They are generally woven in a size of 1.80 metres in length and 0.70 metres in width with variations of chequered designs in green. For a more formal occasion, the elders would wear a dhoti like drape called a gangrachi. It is a simple white cotton textile with contrasting colour forming the narrow borders.

Variations of the multipurpose fali .
Variations of the multipurpose fali .

A white shirt is worn for a formal occasion and a narrow shoulder cloth is draped around the neck called a golaban. Today, it is widely referred to as arnai. The arnai can also be put under the same umbrella umbrella as fali.[ii] Traditionally yellow and green were the preferred colours, although they are available in red and blue as well. The arnai has become the symbol of Bodo identity and are often gifted to friends, elders and dignitaries on an event as a token of respect and honour.

A variation of the hajw motif. Inspiration for the motifs are drawn from nature resembling the mountains, flowers, butterflies, and ferns. There are certain motifs that are especially woven in an arnai for success and health.
A variation of the hajw motif. Inspiration for the motifs are drawn from nature resembling the mountains, flowers, butterflies, and ferns. There are certain motifs that are especially woven in an arnai for success and health.

For keeping warm, a shawl like textile called endichi is worn. As indicated by the name, the endichi is woven using hand-spun eri yarns. Endichis can be coarse, a characteristic feature of hand-spun eri which lends the beauty to the textile. The woman’s endichi has bold floral motifs in bright green and red and the ones taken by men are devoid of any decoration.

Jomgra reproduced by machine.
Machine reproduction of the traditional jomgra.

There are other textiles too that are a part of the culture but this entry is only based on what was seen and learnt from the locals during a short visit to Manas National Park. It was evident that the designs and the structure of the textiles still remains the same, as they are dictated by a certain rule of maintaining an identity. But there are definitely new innovations and experimentation which have seeped in. This can be seen in the introduction of a new colour palette which was a result of easy access to dyed yarns from the market. New products which were earlier not a part of the traditional repertoire like waistcoats, bags, etc, are also being made today for selling them to outsiders.  With the young generation moving to far off cities for education and employment, these are also taken as souvenirs for gifting or wearing on a more cultural occasion while being away from home. Innovations are also made to make certain traditional products more universal such as a jomgra for example, when made for an urban clientele who could use it as a stole for office or a day out; is created using eri and muga spun threads. The switch from the traditional bright colours to the muted breed colour of the silk automatically makes it neutral with more marketability options. It was also recorded that many products were referred by archaic names that were not originally used for those products. Such as the jomgra was pointed by the ladies who were selling them as ‘fali’. Although it is not an error, as fali can encompass a wide range of products under its name. Another example is the green fali also called gamusa which is used as a loin cloth by men referred to as ‘Bodoland’ with a shy smile, which can be a playful local construct. Yet, it is not a complete surprise, because this humble green lower drape over the years has become an identity for young Bodo men.  A lower garment which was earlier only worn during daily activities is now elevated to the main attire of the Bodos. All of these, point out to the fact that living traditions are constantly evolving and maybe in the future, certain products will be known with a different name altogether. Still there is not a single doubt in mind that they will never cease to impress as long as these traditions are alive.

Waistcoat and bag stitched out of traditional textiles generally used for dokhona.
Waistcoat and bag stitched out of traditional textile generally used for dokhona.

My heartfelt gratitude to the beautiful friendly aunties living near Manas National Park, who sold us these wonderful textiles and explaining us the importance and meaning behind each of them. I am also thankful for the step by step demonstration of draping a dokhona. Your smiles will always be remembered through these textiles!

[i] Labanya Mazumdar, Textile Tradition of Assam: An empirical study. (Guwahati: Bhabani Books, 2013), 5.

[ii] Ibid, 38

Other references:

Saikia, Mandira Borthakur. Studies in North-East India: Assamese Textiles. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2013.

Sarma, Krishna, Savitha Suri and Shaheen Desai. Assam: A Journey through its Textiles. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2019.

Woven Identity: The Colourful World of the Bodo Textiles

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