Assam is home to the largest Bodo population in the country. An ethno-linguistic group, the Bodos belong to the Indo-Mongoloid groups of people and their language is derived from the Assamese-Burmese branch of the Tibeto-Burman sub-family. Besides Assam, the Bodos live in several other Indian states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Tripura, and in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. Bodos were formerly known as Kacharis and were one of the earliest settlers of the plains of Assam. Their settlements are mostly in rural areas and their primary occupations include agriculture, animal husbandry, handicrafts, and weaving; with these skills being passed on from one generation to the next.
Bodo culture is rich and multifaceted. Traditional customs and practices lend a distinct identity to their culture and are reflective of the deep bond they share with their natural world, within which they are shaped and moulded. Traditionally, it is the Bodo women who are tasked with weaving all the different garments for the family members such as the dokhona, aronai, jwmgra, fasra, gamsa, maharar, and shima. This is a testimony of their prowess at weaving, highlighted through the intricate designs, patterns, and the quality of the textile.
The traditional attire worn by Bodo women is known as Dokhona, and it is an eminent symbol of their cultural identity. Dokhona is a one-piece clothing measuring around 3.8m long and 1.5m wide, with thick borders running along the length of the chest and legs and secured at the waist. Along with the dokhona, Bodos wear a long and broad scarf called Jwmgra (chadar) which features beautiful designs. There are different varieties of dokhonas but the most popular ones are the Chala Matha and Bidon, which are plain dokhonas mostly woven in yellow and used for domestic wear or as a uniform for female students.
The Dokhona Thaosi is an ornamented garment worn by the bride, and her two bridesmaids, during a Juli (wedding) ceremony. It is primarily made in red, with pigeon eye designs entwined in a plethora of colours. A dokhona may be fabricated in a range of vibrant hues, but the most prominent ones are yellow, red, green, and orange. The yarns used are to a considerable extent made up of cotton, silk and acrylic, however, weavers have slowly been gravitating towards acrylic yarns due to its easier accessibility.
Bodo women like to pair their dokhona with diverse types of falis (long scarves). In the olden days, women did not wear any blouses and instead covered their upper body with a fali called alowan. Aronai is another important Bodo scarf, as earlier, Bodo women would present an aronai to their husbands or loved ones as a token of affection.
The Aronai is a traditional fali worn by both the Bodo men and women. Mostly used as a ceremonial scarf, it symbolises respect as community members use it to welcome guests and for felicitations. An aronai fali’s most commonly featured motif is the hajw agor (hilly landscape). This popular scarf is woven in colourful abundance, as it is in high demand even amongst non-Bodo customers. A recent trend of pairing the traditional gamsa and aronai fali with western clothes has become a way for the Bodo diaspora to stay connected with their roots. Bodo women also exhibit their colourful attires through different dance forms, with the garment being styled in innovative ways to suit the occasion. In winter, the aronai fali is used as a warm muffler, and while dancing it is hung on one shoulder with both the ends wrapped around the waist using a second aronai.
Jwmgra or Fashra is another scarf used by the Bodo women to cover their upper body. Designs used in a jwmgra are slightly larger than those on the dokhona, as it is worn as a stole and has become an accessory today. The most common design is the hajw agor. A jwmgra is almost always paired with a dokhona, completing the full traditional attire of a Bodo lady.
Gamsa is an integral part of the traditional attire of the Bodo men. Green with white borders is the most common colour combination of a typical Bodo gamsa. This multi-purpose garment is mostly utilised as a domestic wear and can be used as a wrapper, loin cloth, handkerchief, or towel. Traditionally, Bodo men did not wear any upper garments and would cover themselves with endi or cotton shawls to keep warm during the winter months. Such clothing trends are rare to come by now, as the tribesmen have adopted western styled clothing. A variety of hand-worked designs, known as agor, adorns the dokhona, fali and aronai. Most commonly featured designs are daothu godo (doves neck), pharou megon (pigeon eye), pahar agor (hilly scenery), and mwider agan (elephant footsteps).
Weaving and sericulture practices have always been an indispensable part of Bodo culture. All the materials required for weaving were gathered by the womenfolk, who turned them into impressive fabrics. These fabrics are usually woven with the help of handlooms and other hand-made tools.
The process of weaving a single dokhona can be completed within 3-4 days. Ginning is the first pre-weaving process where the cotton balls are dried, cleaned and the cotton fibres are extracted. It is followed by the Khundung Thunai or spinning process, where cotton strands are twisted together to produce yarn. During Maidi Hwnai (sizing), a coating of lubricants like rice powder or wheat flour is generously applied on the surfaces of the yarn to increase its tensile strength. Ji Swngnai (warping) involves transferring of yarn from different tubes onto a gandwi (warp beam). Ji Phannai (beaming) involves a round bamboo stick, with the strands of yarn passing through the reeds and sheet of threads placed in the groove of the beam and secured with a rope.
Looming consists of drafting, denting and heald knitting for proper installation of the warp onto the beam, finalising all the arrangements needed to start weaving. Nw Khonnai (drafting) is a process in which the beam is horizontally placed on the floor against two vertical posts fixed with two temporary bamboo posts. This is done to ensure that the yarn remains parallel, so that the drafting process is seamless. Then, a baleb (flat bamboo rod) is used as a lease rod and kept slightly raised, creating a slight opening ensuring that the yarn does not get tangled. Khainai (denting) is a process that comes after drafting, where the warped threads are drawn through the reed with the help of a hook and the yarn is placed on a round bamboo stick. Heald knitting is the processing of the yarn with the help of shedding to control the movement of the warp yarn.
Weaving has always been considered as a dignified work among the Bodos. Traditionally, the Bodo women have used a Throw-shuttle loom, where the loom is fastened on the four wooden posts fixed on the ground. The full process of weaving broadly involves repeated shedding, picking, and beating motions. The weaver sits on a low stool in front of the loom, keeping both the legs on the footrest, and the warp is kept tight by a strap which is secured to the back bar of the loom. Then the process of shedding is started where the warp threads are separated by raising and lowering the heald frames, forming a clear space for the shuttle to pass through, and the weft is then pushed up against the cloth in a beating motion. This is the traditional weaving technique employed by the Bodos.
Bodo women hand-make their dyes using a variety of natural ingredients:
red colour - mangosteen plant, sapphire berry
orange colour - yellow mangosteen, coral jasmine
green colour - lima bean leaves, bark of grape tree
yellow colour - turmeric, sunflower
blue colour - star fruit.
All of these natural ingredients are ground into powder and the yarn is then soaked in boiling water mixed with the ingredients, in order to produce complex and lasting colour textures.
Modern Bodo women prefer to wear the complete traditional attire, i.e., dokhona along with aronai and jwmgra, only during special occasions like festivals, ceremonies, and while performing the traditional Bodo dance, Bagurumba. Changing trends of Bodo womenswear is also reflected in the changing choice of textile and motifs. Although the traditional style of ornaments like thakanshri (coin necklace), aasan mutha (metal bracelet), and muthi aasan (silver bangles) have not lost their appeal, Bodo women tend to accessorise with the more affordable and newer jewellery such as pendants, earrings, plastic bangles, and anklets. However, western influence is more evident in Bodo menswear, as the traditional gamsa and aronai have largely been replaced by shirts and pants.
Over the years the traditional weaving methods have been substituted with newer technology to achieve faster and cheaper costs of production. In order to preserve the traditional knowledge, many handloom training centres have been set up by the local government. This push has also opened up newer entrepreneurial avenues, which are mostly undertaken by women. Today, many traditional Bodo garments like aronai fali, indishi, dokhona, gamsa and muga paat are promoted by the locals at an international level. In collaboration with local and national organisations, Bodos now export traditional handloom textile beyond the continental boundaries, giving an immense boost to the local economy.
The art of Bodo weaving has always been passed on from mothers to daughters, but there is a decreasing inclination towards continuing this ethnic legacy. The traditional method of weaving is also getting replaced with modern machines, causing several hindrances in attempts to safeguard the Bodo heritage. Hence, concerted attempts at synergising technology and skills, with academic linkages and global outreach, are imperative in order to ensure the continuity of this traditional knowledge.