The Silk Road Part 1: A Short History of Silk

2013 Sep 27 - by Nadya
South Asians love love love silk.  I can't think of a single Desi wedding, birthday party, gharba, or Diwali gala that did not host at least forty aunties in their best kanjivaram.  Basically, Indians and silk go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

In honor of this relationship (which goes back to Vedic times), we've come up with this short series that will tell you everything you could ever want to know (and quite a bit you wish you never heard) about silk:

Part 1: A Short History of Silk

Part 2: The Process

Part 2.5: A Sari Interlude

Part 3: Do No Harm

Part 4: The Sick Side of Silk

India is one of the largest producers and consumers of silk in the entire world.  Some of the earliest evidence of silk fiber crafts were discovered by archeologists when they excavated parts of the Indus River Valley Civilization (shown below).

That's silk dating back to 2450-2000 B.C.E.  Only slightly older are silk artifacts found in ancient China which have been carbon dated back to 2570 B.C.E. and possibly earlier.

The original silk prototypes were exported from China to India and the Mediterranean by the Sassanids.  From the Mediterranean area, silk entered the European markets.  Sericulture, or silkworm husbandry, came to other countries outside of China in the second century C.E.

According to legend, a Chinese princess smuggled the first silkworm cocoons out of the kingdom in her headdress to give to her groom, Khotan, in Central Asia.  A hundred years later, European monks did the same and smuggled out more cocoons to the Byzantine Empire.

These ancient silks were created from the cocoons of wild silkworms rather than the captive silkworms (Bombyx mori) used today.  This method of allowing the moths to escape the cocoon before boiling down the silk is very similar to the Ahimsa silk method used in parts of the world today and supported by Mahatma Gandhi 50 years ago.

New evidence has found that the ancient Indians and Chinese seemed to use similar reeling techniques for extracting and spinning the silk yarn, despite earlier theories that Chinese silk production technology and methods were closely guarded secrets.

Beginning in 206 B.C.E., the Silk Road, which paved through North India, created a constant flow of trade throughout Asia.  Europeans and traders traveled along the Road to get to silk markets in China.

The Silk Road was crucial in fostering the Indian economy at the time and led to technological and cultural growth in North India. Unfortunately it also brought the Black Plague from Europe to parts of Asia.

In 1572 C.E., the Mughal Emperor Akbar is brought the first Gujurati builders and weavers  to the Mughal court to produce silk for the VIPs of the time.  He established workshops at Lahore, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri.  Here craftsmen were able to borrow and share their own diverse textile expertise, and new forms of design began to hit the markets soon after.

Today silk production is centered in various parts of India, with hubs in Kashmir, Jammu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal.  It is an incredibly labor-intensive industry.  The only country to top India in silk production is China (and it's kinda hard to wrest a title from them, so I guess we're sitting pretty in second place).

Sources: Wikipedia - The Silk Route and Silk,  Nature, and About Ancient History

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