How Bodo Women Are Keeping This Traditional Handloom Alive

The skilled women of Bodoland not only weave beautiful textiles of cotton and silk for traditional attire for the community but also to improve their lives
Although Bodo women have looms set up in their homes, community centres like these help them earn a steady income.
Although Bodo women have looms set up in their homes, community centres like these help them earn a steady income.

A slow afternoon in Bodoland offers a variety of sounds—the gurgle of a nearby stream, the gentle rustle of leaves stirred by breeze, the clucking of hens, the jangle of cowbells. However one sound that stands out is the rhythmic clacking of the loom. Almost every household has a loom of some sort, and Bodo women, among the finest weavers in the Northeast, manage to weave a bit almost every day.

In the Tamulpur area, an outfit called AGRA (Action Group for Rural Advancement) is doing quite a bit to harness the strength of the collective. Run by Parul Bharali Boro, this is a passionate initiative to help rural women, especially those in difficult circumstances, attain an alternate means of livelihood. One of their training and weaving centres is in the town of Tamulpur. The centre, known as the Mandar Handloom Skill Training and Product Centre, is a spacious and well-lit space with about ten looms set up. It is a busy loft, full of ongoing projects, with the women attentively poring over their work. One is an experimental piece in bright yellow silk nearing completion. Many of the looms are set up for saris, some for "aronais" and dupattas. More than 100 women have benefitted from the training and skill upgradation provided by the centre, which brings them a steady stream of income.

"We have set up three clusters, with each women's group having 30 members," explains Parul Boro, "one in Tamulpur, and one each in Borolia and Suklai Serfang." With each loom costing about Rs 40,000, it requires a great deal of effort, coordination, investment, and government support to set up a cluster. Parul has been exploring various options to find new markets, including online platforms and handloom exhibitions to showcase the products.

Bodo women have traditionally woven the clothes for their community. It is a delight to see the women weave the brightly coloured cotton or silk yarn into beautiful garments with their intricate designs and fine quality. For motifs, the Bodo people go, as they do with anything, to nature. One will find water hyacinths, peacocks, spinach flowers, tortoises, mountains and floral motifs in Bodo weaving. The base colours are bright, from shades of yellow and red, with green or blue for accents. 

At the community loom centre in the village of Karikor, near Kokrajhar, there is much laughter and banter among the women working between cups of tea. The looms are laid out with what appears to be the base for a yellow 'dhokona', the traditional wrap worn by Bodo women. Although each of them has her loom set up in her house, community centres like these help them earn a steady income. Working on bigger jacquard looms, the women can access better market rates as well.

"It is a delight to see the creation of a dokhona. With a width of about 1.5-2 m, it is wider than the pan-Indian sari (which is approximately 1.2-1.5m wide); however, it's not quite as long – it is about 3-3.5 m to the sari's usual 5.5m. The extra width is because the dokhona goes around the bust instead of the waist, covering from chest to ankle. One of the women sportingly demonstrates how the dhokona is worn with friendly nudges and giggles among her friends. It is a complicated drape comprising many tucks, folds and wraparounds. The cloth used for the dokhona is thick cotton. The thread is treated at the pre-weaving stage with a process called sizing, where a lubricated mixture of starches – rice powder, maize or wheat flour – is used to coat the surface of the yarn, giving it strength and a more uniform thickness. "The Bodo people like their textiles thick," says Bidinta Basumatary, a local expert who guides visitors around the Kachugaon area, "they don't take to thin fabrics like chiffons and georgettes."

The other article of clothing woven at the looms is the 'aronai', a beautiful cloth used as a muffler or stole, ubiquitous in its use by both men and women. It comes in a variety of bright colours, with designs of red on blue, green on orange and sometimes in even brighter combinations like green on neon pink. The 'aronai' is also a symbol of respect and is gifted to guests in warm welcome. Then there is the 'fali' or 'fashra', a long piece of cloth used by the woman to cover the bosom. These come in various floral designs and colours to match the dokhona, with the 'Rege regang' being a much-celebrated design. A simpler weave would be the 'gamosa', worn by men as a dhoti for the lower body.

Not only does Bodoland produce fine yarn of Eri Silk, but the weavers also make fine silk fabric. Dr Jogesh Deuri, the Director of Sericulture, Bodoland Territorial Council, says, "More than 10,000 weavers are engaged in Eri weaving in the region." 

In the Parul Boro's Tamulpur office, which also serves as a storeroom, the almirah displays an array of stunning textiles ready for sale. Boro brings out a few gorgeous pieces, among them a subtle yet stunning sari in deep green with a yellow border. A table nearby is laden with 'dokhonas' in pink and blue, with a few stoles and dupattas in the traditional 'rege regang' style. The motifs are typically Bodo, with neat recurring triangles, floral flourishes, and leafy accents. Interestingly, when it comes to simple 'falis' or upper cloths, floral patterns that almost look like embroidery are frequently woven into the fabric on the loom itself.

"We are constantly trying to improve our processes," says Parul. Among the more recent investments is a thread spooler, which speedily accomplishes a cumbersome task, leaving the skilled women to do what they do best weave. The team is also on the lookout for someone with computer skills, who can quickly render their designs into cards for use in the looms. The center has a power loom as well, which quickly churns out reams of fabric that are sold to fund the handloom initiative. 

The government ensures support for similar initiatives that promote Bodo culture and practices. The Bodo Peace Accord, a historic agreement between the Centre, Assam government and Bodo groups ushers in a new era of peace and stability in this region. This not only augurs promotion of traditional crafts and textiles but also gives easy access to the market.

Trying to hold on to the traditional while keeping in step with a rapidly changing market and world—there is no doubt Bodoland will weave a tapestry quintessentially its own.

Visit And Shop 

Mandar Handloom Skill Training and Product Center (HO & PO Tamulpur District, Tamulpur 781367; Contact: Ranjan Swargiyari, Tel: 7002779349, 8812947880) is a wonderful place to not only see weavers in action but also buy some fabulous material. 

Bodoland Silk Park (Adabari, Kokrajhar 783376, Phone 03661-271260); visit Stoles, shawls, saris and garments are available at the stores at the park.

Handloom textiles and garments are also available at Aronai outlets. These are emporiums run by BRAWFED (Bodoland Regional Apex Weavers & Artisans Cooperative Federation Ltd), a cooperative formed in 2008 with an objective to revive, develop and promote handloom and handicrafts of Bodoland. Emporiums are located at Kokrajhar, Gossaigaon, Mushalpur, Barama and Guwahati city. See for more.

To visit the weaving center in Karikor, contact Bidinta Basumatary (7002393875).

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller