The Sanskrit word ‘Ahimsa’ when literally translated means ‘Non-violence’. It’s the same philosophy of ‘live and let live’ that made Mahatma Gandhi an inimitable world leader. Well, all good there – but how does it apply to a fabric? We rarely think of clothes as violent or threatening. Then, how could something so gorgeous as silk be violent, or for that matter, non-violent? Believe it or not, but Ahimsa Silk – or Peace Silk exists. Many also commonly hold Eri Silk – extracted from silkworm Philosamia ricini – same as Ahimsa Silk. Are they same? Get all the answers in this blog -
Silk is a natural animal-source fiber. Produced from silk-worms, bred/ reared for silk production, it is extracted by a process called as sericulture. Most lustrous silk we know of - is made from the species Bombyx Mori – domesticated silkworms, fed on Mulberry leaves. Silkworm larvae spin protective oval nests (cocoons – as in the image) around themselves. These threads of cocoons are ‘silk’ – which are at their highest quality, before an adult moth breaks out.
To ensure quality, in traditional extraction techniques – silkworm pupae are mass killed, as cocoons are boiled or passed through blast steam to get secreted silk filament. Without going further into the details – let’s summarize that silk production is a meticulous process – that, without doubt, involves killing of living organisms – the reason it is termed as ‘violent’.
Bridging Boundaries… Spreading Awareness
I came to know of Ahimsa silk – from a famed social media group, led by entrepreneur, communications honcho and ardent saree connoisseur Ms. Sunita Budhiraja. Extremely popular, her group ‘Six Yards and 365 Days’ is a leading saree bastion. Its members – and of other such groups - post their pictures in sarees, sharing insights, info-nuggets and unique anecdotes. Devoted to Indian handlooms and sustainable textiles, Six Yards is an interesting channel to learn about and flaunt sarees – and also make real friends with shared interests - through social media.
What is Ahimsa Silk?
On one such post on Ahimsa Silk (by Ms. Budhiraja herself in a gorgeous sari) – I read about it all. Then, I read more, going through a range of feelings - from confusion to fascination – to skepticism. For starters, Ahimsa silk is extracted – by a process claimed to being ‘Ahmisak’ or non-violent. This process doesn’t involve mass boiling/ steaming of silk worm cocoons.
Originally started in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh by Kusuma Rajaiah, this is a gentler method, where silk worm pupae are moved out of their cocoons, before silk yarn (Ahmisa silk) spinning. This is done in two ways –
1.The pupa may be allowed to hatch naturally, wherein the moth emerges, boring a hole, leaving behind the fibrous shell – which are collected for further processing. However, this reduces the fiber quality (owing to an enzymatic reaction) – and contaminates the shell. The wait time (for pupae maturation) is pretty long too.
2.Alternatively, the cocoons are manually cut open, so the pupa emerges out – and the leftover shells are processed further. Used largely by the chief proponent of this silk, Rajaiah, this method shortens the filament – thus, produced fibers are shorter than traditional silk. This makes it slightly less durable.
Wrinkle free and all-weather, this silk has its own benefits, along with being environmentalists’ dream. However, it lacks the sheen and luster of traditionally produced silk. Ahimsa Peace Silk was commercialized in the year 2001. Sarees, scarves, dress/ salwar suit materials and other Indian ethnic outfits are made from it.
We interacted with Ms. Sunita Budhiraja, who loves the raw appeal of these silks and owns quite a few of them, for some fresh inputs on Ahimsa Silk -
• It takes more time and labor to produce it than traditional silk varieties. So, is it more expensive? We asked the inspiring Six Yards leader, and she quipped, “Definitely, these sarees are sold at a premium – as Ahimsa silk itself is expensive.”
• She added, “Production takes a plenty of time. Plus, the transportation cost of the yarn and the cocoons – that come in from states like Assam and Nagaland – to Andhra Pradesh/ Telangana, other Southern States – and Odhisa – adds heavily to the overall production cost.”
We asked her – What is her reason to wear and advocate these Sarees?
Saree connoisseur answered quite frankly, “I still wear traditional silks – have been doing so, since last four decades – will continue to in the foreseeable future, as the cause of Indian handlooms and weavers is very close to my heart. That’s our main motto in the group too.”
She added, “So, no, I am not a true blue Ahimsa Silk convert. Yet, I am quite drawn to the philosophy – inarguably, one of the chief reasons that intrigued me. Inspired by this soulful cause, I have picked up quite a few Ahimsa Silk Sarees. However, unless I shift away completely from the regular silks – I can’t claim to be an Ahimsak!”
Characteristic Features of Ahimsa Silk
Here, Six Yards’ head honcho Sunita ji perfectly delineates unique qualities of Ahmisa Silk and the sarees made from it –
• The look and feel of Ahimsa Silk Saris is quite different from the regular silk ones.
• They are soft, but NOT as smooth, lustrous or stiff. However, they fall really well, so the drape is very elegant.
• Ahmisa Silk fabric is like the palest, softest tussar (incidentally much of the tussar is also Ahimsa silk – as it is produced from wild silkworms, cocoons of which are collected after the moths leave the shell). It is an all–weather fabric that retains coolness as well as warmth – so it can be worn in both seasons.
• These sarees are, undoubtedly, good – with a beautiful personality and texture - but they are not opulent like Banarasi Sarees or Kanjivaram Sarees. Ahmisa Sarees have a sublime quality – much on the lines of Khadi and Linen Sarees – and only people with fine tastes and an eye to ‘see’ beauty can enjoy them.
Despite good intentions at its heart, the cause of Ahmisa Silk has its share of controversies or ‘possible’ downsides and loopholes. A devout set holds that there is nothing like non-violent silk – that doesn’t kill the moths/ silk worms – presenting some strong references and points. Researchers of this faith assert that even Ahimsa Silk production leads to silkworm moths or eggs dying. Since the production of silk by this unconventional method requires almost double the number of cocoons than the conventional technique – they assert that overall eggs, embryos, pupae or moths killed in extraction may be higher. Well, the line is extremely thin – and the verdict is still not out – yet the believers of both sides firmly hold onto their views.
Ms. Sunita Budhiraja, when we asked her the same question – was quite positive - and discerning. Refusing to get drawn into the controversy - or buying into the anti-wave, she held that a lot of definite and sincere effort goes into making something new, innovative and unconventional – and attempts to make silks Ahmisak, thus, should not be derided. “These silks are also helping weavers and handlooms sector flourish.”, adds Ms. Budhiraja.
The Original Peace Silk
We still don’t know what’s right or wrong, yet it is important that we clear a major myth. As aforementioned, at the beginning of this blog story – many believe Eri Silk is same as the Ahimsa Silk.
Although, Eri has always been an eco-friendly/ life-friendly silk, most of the commercialized Ahimsa Silk produced today is from the domesticated species of Bombyx Mori. So, it is NOT same as the Eri Silk – which is produced from a wild silkworm species.
Eri Silk is made in the North Eastern belt of India – in the tiniest of the villages in Nagaland and Assam – and in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and also in the Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh belt. It is also made in Thailand.
Also known as Endi or Eranndi silk – the name coming from the Castor (Arandi/ Errandi colloquially) leaves, on which the wild silkworm feeds that yields the splendid wool-like whitish Eri. Coarse, fine and dense, Eri is prized for its cottony feel – and for the fact that silkworms are not killed to extract it.
Popular among Buddhist monks and sages, thanks to its non-violent origins, Eri was always the Peace Silk we had in our backyard! More on this gorgeous silk in another blog story…
Thank You Ms. Sunita Budhiraja ji for you invaluable contribution and pictures.