Weaving a regional heritage in Dakmanda

How Meghalaya’s Garo tribes have kept age-old costume alive

Culture

January 29, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Weaving a regional heritage in Dakmanda

Traditionally, Dakmandas are woven with yarns from long staple cotton called Khilding

Hidden within the colour, weave and design of the traditional costume of the East Khasi hills’ Garo tribe, is the legend of its origin, survival and how the Garo people have kept it alive through generations.

“The Dakmanda is my identity. It is comfortable and makes for excellent formal wear, especially for my ministerial meetings,” says Eva Marak, Assistant Director with the Border Area Development of Meghalaya. Marak is among several women of the Garo tribe of the north-eastern state, who have retained their connections with history through their clothes. Dakmanda is a short, unstitched cloth worn like a wraparound skirt. It is paired with a matching stole and a blouse in a contrasting or complementing colour. Woven ankle-length wraparound skirts are the mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe among most of the tribes in northeast India, especially the Garos. “What makes the Dakmanda standout is the motifs on it. Garo tribes make sure that they weave a pattern that is part of their belief system,” she adds.

The lower part of the Dakmanda has a border with the traditional concentric diamond motifs woven in. It is known as muikron, which means the eye in Garo and is an auspicious symbol similar to the evil eye. Geometric patterns such as straight and zig-zag lines as well as crosses are unique to the weave.

The evolution

“Earlier, every house had a loin loom and women wore a skimpy loincloth called eking, pronounced ekheing. It was a clever design as the hem was weighed down by ivory beads to ensure it stayed in place. The women wore this without a blouse or top, with just some jewellery around their neck. But, the loincloth slowly disappeared and Dakmandas emerged,” explains Daisy Momin, a terracotta jewellery designer, who inherits a huge collection of Dakmandas from her mother. The gradual refashioning to make the hemlines longer is loosely attributed to Christian missionaries spreading the gospel of ‘conservative dressing’.

Dakmanda has a border with the traditional concentric diamond motifs

Traditionally, Dakmandas are woven with yarns from long-staple cotton called Khilding in Garo. “Our ancestors used natural dyes like indigo, lac and pigments extracted from tree barks. Garo hills once had one of the best long staple kinds of cotton, but it is hard to find now,” rues Momin. She approached some farmers to grow this cotton variety for her personal collection. Cotton Dakmandas are not only comfortable, explains Momin, but the thickness of the yarn ensures that it can be worn without an underskirt.

The late eighties witnessed an influx of acrylics and polyester silk yarn. These were more affordable, eliminated effort and time-intensive processes such as farming and reeling of yarn. They offered greater variety with a plethora of fast colours and floral designs. Marak calls it the ‘revolution of the Dakmanda’. “Those days, there was a trend of having the same motif on the skirt, blouse and stole. They would make a bigger woman like me look like a Christmas tree! I picked mine from my grandmother’s collection which has intricate, woven patterns of small bees and flowers along with the traditional concentric diamond design. I also started pairing my Dakmanda with western formal tops,” says Marak.

The silk route

Over the years, the demand for silk Dakmandas-like Mulberry and Muga (a variety of wild silk) has significantly risen. Vivien A Sangma, founder of VA Silk Industry, is among the few in Meghalaya to have secured the Silk Mark Certification by the Central Silk Board of the Government of India. “We have an abundance of Muga silk in the Garo Hills. In fact, we supply to Assam, because Assamese Muga can be dubious. It is often mixed with Tussar (indigenous silk),” informs Sangma who started her Muga reeling unit in 2003. When her business expanded, she had to look beyond her state to procure talent. Garos are adept with acrylic and cotton yarn on a handloom or loin loom. But, fine silk is unfamiliar territory, she says. She furthers says that she got two skilled Muga silk weavers and a carpenter to build the semi-mechanised handlooms from Sualkuchi, Assam. Slowly, she also started sourcing Eri (another silk fabric) and Mulberry from there.

A group of performers in traditional Dakmanda costume

One of the biggest challenges she faces even now is the lack of skilled weavers. They need consistent training for two-three months to weave with delicate Mulberry and Muga. The weather adds to her woes. “Monsoon is not good for weaving Muga. However, the biggest threat in the future will be shrinking Muga production due to climate change,” she adds.

Sangma’s Dakmanda sets that include a skirt, blouse and stole sell from INR 5000 to INR 13000 a piece. Although expensive, the demand for her products far exceeds supply. A single order for a Muga Dakmanda, requires a six-month waiting period. She does cater to individual orders, but the bulk of her business comes from the Central Silk Board.  “I take customised orders, but ensure that my creations retain the concentric diamond shape, muikron. It is our signature,” she affirms.

Efredena Rangsa Marak, founder of Meliachi Weaving & Handicrafts, a retailer of Dakmandas, stresses on the demand-supply gap in the region. “It is a challenge to find skilled weavers and there’s also a dearth of yarns. Generally, we are unable to meet the demand,” says Marak, who set up her weaving unit with just one handloom in 2009 and has 10 now.

Enter, the government

According to a press release from 2017 of the Sericulture and Weaving Department of Meghalaya, out of 30,000 ‘identified’ weavers, 26,000 are from the Garo hills. Apart from the native tribe, weavers from Hajong and Koch communities are also settled there. In 2017, yarns and looms were distributed in Garo hills under the Income Generation Programme for weavers. It was sanctioned in 2015-2016 to revive this age-old tradition among women. It focuses on providing financial empowerment and bridging the gap between demand-supply.

“The Garo Hills area has a high potential for Eri and Muga production. Presently, in northeast India, Meghalaya holds the second position, after Assam, in silk production. Based on demand, CSB has been supporting the state to conduct a diagnostic study and prepare projects with critical interventions, so that production level of silk can increase enormously,” says Moncy Issac, joint secretary of Central Silk Board (CSB).

Sangma says that rice farming is the main source of livelihood for women here, and they move away from weaving during the harvest season. She gives sales orders to encourage them to weave for additional income. They create Dakmandas and stoles in Eri and cotton. Eri products are sold for INR 8500-9000 and cotton is priced at INR 4000-5000. There are men from the Koch community who weave but women weavers outnumber them.

The resurgence of weaving in rural areas is palpable. Marak say that there is a renewed interest with several government-funded flagship programmes. As part of her job, she has worked with 100 villagers to revive the indigenous tradition of loin loom weaving in the Garo hills. “As many women would have said, weaving Dakmandas is part of our culture. It is what we have inherited from our ancestors and we wish to preserve this art as well as artists at all costs,” she adds.

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