The Assamese traditional jewellery in essence shows the rich cultural legacy of Assam. Drawing inspiration from little things which appears mundane, the early craftsmen created beautiful pieces of art with sheer skill and imagination. The flora and fauna of the region has also been a source of inspiration to these craftsmen.
Brief History of Assamese Traditional Jewellery
During the reign of Swargadeo Pratap Singha in 1611 a lot of people were held captives by Bir Chilarai, the General of the Koch King Nar Narayan. Among them were goldsmiths, blacksmiths and other artisans who were sent to Cooch-Behar. There they learnt new art and craft which they implemented in their work on return to their homeland. King Pratap Singha’s grandson Rudra Singha also brought many artisans from outside the state and established them in his territory. These people adapted and merged with the Assamese people and society and gradually evolved the traditional Assamese jewellery.
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The Ahom kings and queens wore ornaments of different styles and it was under the royal patronage that Assamese traditional jewellery saw a tremendous growth. During the Ahom rule ornaments were worn only by the royalty which was made of gold. Subansiri, a tributary of the river Brahmaputra was abundant with gold dust and became a primary source for the goldsmiths. Jorhat, Sonari, Nagaon and Barpeta became the major manufacturing hubs of Assamese traditional jewellery over the ages.
Designs and Jewellery Making Process
Assamese traditional jewellery can be made of either pure gold ( 24 carat), silver with gold leaf work, silver with gold polish or even silver. However, the base for all jewellery making is extracted from trees and is called ‘lac’. Mina work is done on these jewellery and the most common colors are red and green. Even ruby, pearls and diamonds are used for making these jewellery. The main jewellery piece is then attached to a beaded string in the form of a neck piece. These beads are either small or of medium size and are called bakharua moni, balmoni, desimoni etc.
There are roughly three variations to the manufacturing process, particularly the frame of these ornaments. In the first variety the frame is made with gold and the filling is that of silver or lac. This type is called kesa sonar gohona or paat sunor gohona. The second variety contains silver or lac as base metal and the filling is done with gold foils. In the third variety the frame and filling both is of silver finished with a coat of gold polish. In Barpeta the jewellery is made with silver as the base with gold coating which makes it lighter and cheaper. Ranthali, a village in Nagaon district is another hub of jewellery making. The process used here is the second one where gold leaf work is done over silver base.
The designs that have been continuing since generations are lokaparo ( twin pigeon) and senpotia ( eagle), inspired from birds. Thuria and dugdugi are inspired from the flora; dhol, japi, mridong inspired from local musical instruments.
Assamese traditional jewellery includes earrings called thuria, keru, lokaparo, jangfai etc. Necklaces include golpota, satsori, junbiri, bena, gejera, dholbiri, dugdugi, birimoni, mukutamoni, poalmoni, silikhamoni and magardana etc. The gamkharu, which is kind of a bangle has the most royal presence when worn with the traditional muga Mekhela Sador.
Modernization and Evolution
There had been certain issues faced by the craftsmen of traditional Assamese jewellery like lack of raw materials, lack of finance and market. But with the intervention of a few talented entrepreneurs in the recent years, Assamese traditional jewellery has seen unprecedented popularity globally. These entrepreneurs invested their creativity, money and time, generated employment and empowered the skilled craftsmen. Today we see several new designs which are creative and modern yet essentially traditional. Further, these new jewellery designers create unique stylish ornaments suited to the taste of the young generation which are easily affordable in a variety of range and trendy too. The popularity has therefore increased manifolds as women of all ages prefer adorning themselves with these jewellery on all occasions, and even on a daily basis.
Earlier there were no showrooms or boutiques for Assamese traditional jewellery. You either had to purchase or order at the sonar based on the designs that are available. Much later came the small outlets which displayed the ornaments for customers to choose from. This was convenient and fast. And then came the online boutiques, the modern concept of marketing. This made Assamese traditional jewellery popular worldwide. Popular online sites like Amazon also features Assamese jewellery.
Significance and Popularity
The Ahom royalty, both men and women used to adorn themselves with these traditional ornaments. Over the ages women adorned these ornaments on special occasions like weddings and especially Rongali Bihu. In fact, it is still customary to present the bride-to-be with a traditional Assamese jewellery set in her Juron ceremony as a part of the wedding trousseau. During bihu celebration the young girls dressed in the traditional attire Mekhela Sador adorn the traditional jewellery too and gracefully dance to the rhythm of the dhol. Young girls and women nowadays gracefully wear these ornaments for casual outings, corporate parties and any special occasion as designers these days create quirky wearable designs out of the traditional ones.
Assamese traditional ornaments is gradually getting popular among men too. Though the variety and use is not much but men too can style themselves by wearing these traditional ornaments. There are few designs made specifically for men like madol etc. Designers have modified the available ones to give it a modern quirky style. These modified versions are a style statement in themselves.
Assamese traditional jewellery has come a long way, from being restricted to a certain class of people to being accessible to all. The craft had experienced a major setback a few years back because of the lack of a proper market place. The popularity was gradually declining even among Assamese people. Then came the experimentation with designs and colors, contemporary styles were followed to keep with the updated taste of consumers. Carrying forward the legacy, Assamese traditional jewellery today has been able to achieve much popularity, not only in Assam or India, but internationally too.