Traditional dress of Assam: The Mekhela Chador
Assam silk is the indigenous silk of Assam comprising of Muga, Paat and Eri silk. The traditional dress of Assam, the Mekhela Chador is mostly woven out of these three silk and is naturally the pride of the Assamese people. The mekhela chador is a three piece attire consisting of the blouse, the lower skirt called mekhela and the chador which is draped around the waist and bosom. In addition the reeha is also worn occasionally by the women folk, mainly by married women. The men wear a suria or dhoti which is an unstitched cloth worn around the waist and goes down to the knee and below, and a sula or shirt. A gamucha is the most integral part of the Assamese attire.
The Ahom dynasty and Class division:
Assam is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state and as such the dresses differ with each community or group. The Ahoms are an ethnic community of Assam who ruled Assam from 1228 to 1826 maintaining their sovereignty for nearly 600 years. The Ahom dynasty was established by Sukapha, a Shan prince of Mong Mao who came to Assam after crossing the Patkai mountains. During their reign they successfully resisted the Mughal expansion of North-east India but subsequently fell to the repeated Burmese invasions of Assam. In 1826 the control of the kingdom passed into the East India Company after the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo.
The Ahom kingdom was ruled by a king called Swargadeo ( Chao-Pha) who had to be a direct descendant of Sukapha, the first king. Sukapha had two great Gohains to aid him in administration – Burhagohain and Borgohain and much later in the 16th century Borpatragohain was added in administration. Then there were the royal officers and the council of ministers. Simply speaking the Ahoms also consisted of the royalty and the common subject. Based on this class division the attire of the Ahoms also differed a lot.
The Ahom dress:
In the early years of the Ahom rule they were seen to wear black clothes which was only later shifted to white clothes. Particular dresses and jewellery was assigned to every class of the people which was distinctive of their social status. The dresses worn by the royalty and higher officials were not worn by the common subject. The fabric used to weave the clothes of the royals and the higher officials were of Assam silk– either Muga, Paat or Eri silk. Mejankari and Sopapotia kapur are also certain types of clothes which were worn by them.
In my previous post on Choklong marriage, the unique marriage system of the Ahoms have been discussed in detail. In that post the wedding dress of the Ahom bride and groom have also been discussed. There’s not much difference of the wedding dress from that of the normal dress of the Ahoms.
The dress of an Ahom women is basically a three piece attire consisting of the suti sula , the mekhela and the reeha. The suti sula is the blouse, the mekhela is like the skirt and the reeha is draped around the waist and the shoulder. Another distinctive part of their attire was the turban or paguri worn on the head, and the cheleng chador worn like a scarf. This was mainly worn by kings, princes, princesses as well as higher officials.
The men wore the sapkon which is like a short shirt and is tied at the waist with Basual tongali, a kind of belt type strap. The suria is the lower garment wrapped around the waist and extended to the knee or below it. The length of the suria defined the social class of the people to a great extent. The cheleng chador is worn as a scarf and the paguri is worn on the head. The Hengdang is the pride and identity of an Ahom male which is a sword carried by them. These clothes were again distinctive of the royals and the higher officials. The Ahom king Swargadeo Rudra Singha was the first to introduce the shirt in Assam. The Ahom kings started wearing the sapkon in the Mughal style made by kingkhap, mejankari and gomseng silk yarn.
The paguri and cheleng chador were not meant for the common subjects of the Ahom kingdom. Theirs was a more simple dress which was restricted to a kopahi kapur or cotton. The basic difference was in the material or fabric used to weave the clothes of the Ahom royals and the subjects. In fact it was during the Ahom rule that the Assam silk of Sualkuchi was given royal patronage. Mejankari, spun with silvery white thread was the pride of the Ahom monarchs, a symbol of their status.
The traditional Ahom dress has over the years changed into the mekhela chador and sula suria. It is only occasionally that the Ahoms prefer wearing their traditional dress like in their Choklong marriage and other ceremonies of the community. The Ahom dress is, in fact, very royal, elaborate and unique as the Ahoms themselves.