The Manipuri traditional costume is quite geography-specific and the Phanek is an integral part of the same. It is largely worn by the women of the Meitei tribe. Mostly handwoven in either silk or cotton and made only with stripes or block colours, the Phanek is usually worn as a partial sari with a blouse, accompanied by an upper cloth. The ones used for casual-wear are block-coloured, frequently in bright colours, while the ones suited for formal occasions, known as Mayek Naibi, are often striped. Considered to be the local equivalent of a sarong, the Phanek can be worn by women of all age groups – on an everyday basis for older women and on special occasions for the younger ones. The motifs on the borders are created using the classic extra weft technique or sometimes it is simply embroidered on the garment. The motifs vary from tribe to tribe. Each tribe has a unique style of border that helps to distinguish one from the other. Each pattern comes with a legend attached to it and transforms into intricate weaving.
The Phanek for Meitei women is a matter of pride. There are stories of these women spending their days and nights on the loom to earn a couple of extra bucks just so they can educate their sons and daughters! These tribal textiles are woven on a loin-loom that is a kind of back-strap loom used by natives of the hilly terrain. Despite the convenience of the fly-shuttle loom, the loin loom is used because it provides a reasonable width and ease of access. The process is simplistic and adapted for a domestic loom where the warp is set to an adequate length and tied to the waist of the weaver with a cloth or a leather belt, and the prepared weft is fastened to a wall. Weaving is a basic skill for a woman of the tribe to possess and the loom is also a part of what she takes to her in-laws’ place after marriage. A lot of times it is practised for personal use by women while for commercial purposes, Phanek weaving is done by men.
To the Manipuri women, the Phanek is not just a garment but also a symbol of power. It is observed that during protests, the women wear their Phanek as it brings out their valor. It is a reflection of their hardworking nature and simplicity.
Due to globalisation and a more open culture, there is a decline in the demand for these traditional tribal weaves. A lot of the artisans are drifting away from the craft and there is a sudden drop in the number of looms. As a revival strategy, the Phanek weaves are being incorporated into modern clothing like shirts, scarves, stoles and waist coats to be used by younger generations.