Ahimsa Silk project in Odisha: Silk that does not kill

They slowly transform into moths and once they fly out of the cocoons, the silk making begins.
Butterfly that hatched from Eri silk moth
Butterfly that hatched from Eri silk moth

BHUBANESWAR: Odisha has successfully piloted the Ahimsa Silk project which is an eco-friendly, cruelty-free alternative to the conventional fabric being used by silk connoisseurs. From 700 farmers across five districts last year, the department plans to rope in 3,000 farmers this year to grow it

Workers stock yarn
produced after spinning |
|Special arrangement

Close to 30,000 silkworms are boiled alive to weave a Pata or silk saree. But Odisha has decided to end the killing. A pilot project called ‘Ahimsa Silk’ initiated by the department of Handlooms, Textiles & Handicrafts, ensures that silkworms are not killed to make silk, unlike the traditional method under which it is extracted after boiling the cocoons with live worms inside. For this purpose, the department has adopted castor-based Ericulture.

Ahimsa silk - also called peace, vegan or cruelty-free silk - is a gentle, non-violent method of making silk from Eri silkworms. It follows a process under which silkworms grow and feed on castor leaves for 18 to 20 days till they reach their final size. The worms then start to create their cocoon which takes another 9 to 10 days. They slowly transform into moths and once they fly out of the cocoons, the silk-making begins.

Non-violent Method

Each Eri silk cocoon has a continuous filament that has a usable length of 900 metres to 1 km that is freed by softening the sericin (a protein that binds the filament) and then unwinding the strands. These extremely delicate and thin silk strands are twisted together to form yarn. “We adopted the worsted spinning method on the ruptured filaments and bypassed the reeling method to produce the yarn. Because the reeling method involves the mass killing of silkworms in hot boiling water,” said an officer of the department associated with the project. 

Khandua Pata being woven at Routpada
Khandua Pata being woven at Routpada

The Ahimsa Silk project was piloted in October last year in five districts - Keonjhar, Athagarh, Khurda, Nayagarh and Sundargarh. The department procured 30,000 Eri silk eggs from the Central Sericultural Germplasm Resources Centre at Hosur and roped in 700 farmers in the districts, primarily women who were beedi workers in the past. While the target was to grow 50 quintals of cocoons with worms, the five districts produced 82 quintals. From this stock, 12.8 quintals of empty cocoons were generated which were brought to the Eri unit of the department at Sikharchandi. From there, they were sent to a spinning mill outside Odisha to produce the yarn. Around 40 per cent of yarn was recovered from the total stock.

Dedicated to Srimandir

The first batch of yarn generated was used this year to weave the Geeta Govinda Khandua Pata for Lord Jagannath and His divine siblings at the Shree Jagannath temple in Puri. In fact, Srimandir servitors use 88 metres of Khandua Pata which has lyrics of poet Jayadev’s epic Geeta Govinda woven into it, to dress up the Holy Trinity and other deities - Sridevi, Bhudevi, Sudarsan and Madhav - every day. This translates to killing 4 to 6 lakhs of silkworms.

The peace silk shuns the violence. “Non-violence is one of the most important tenets of Hinduism. If one questions whether Lord Jagannath would love to wear clothes that are woven by killing innocent silkworms, the answer would be no. Hence, we decided to dedicate the Ahimsa silk to the Holy Trinity,” said the official. 

The Khandua Pata was woven by Gopinath Das of Routapada, a small village in the Khurda district that regularly supplies cotton and silk garments for the Trinity at Puri. Gopinath and his family members have been weaving clothes for the deities for over the last two decades. “Although Ahimsa silk is a difficult medium to work with as far as tie and dye is concerned, it is of superior quality when compared to the conventional mulberry silk that is being used in the temple traditionally,” said Das. He has supplied two sets of Khandua Pata to Srimandir, one for Khalilagi Ekadasi and another for Chitau Amabasya. 

The department has planned to provide Geeta Govinda Khandua Pata prepared from Ahimsa silk for the Trinity during special occasions for the time being as the production is yet to stabilise. Three more sets are ready at Das’ workshop to be provided for the upcoming festivals at Srimandir - Gamha Purnima, Janmashtami and Radhastami.

Not just the yarn but the department also did commercial cropping of Eri silk eggs in five cycles during the months of November, December, January, February and March. 

Niche Product

From 700 farmers last year, the department has planned to rope in 3,000 farmers this year to grow Ahimsa silk. The number would go up to 12,000 next year. “The Handlooms, Textiles & Handicrafts department wishes to promote Ahimsa silk as a niche product from our state. As we are attempting to make Khandua Pata of Mahaprabhu Shree Jagannatha from Ahimsa silk, we feel extremely excited. We are going to launch a special project on this unique initiative that will also help promote the livelihood of weavers and establish a new brand of Odisha’s traditional handwoven fabrics,” said secretary of the department Arabinda Kumar Padhee. 

After achieving success with Eri Silk, the department is now planning to replicate the model with Tassar. It is also facilitating an Ahimsa silk set for Baldevjew temple at Kendrapara which is being woven by weavers of Nuapatna in Cuttack district.

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