While every fabric created from ancient times has a number of fascinating facts attached to it, few are part of ancient folklore and mythology. The weave of Moirang Phee is one such piece that has found its place in the history of Manipur.
It is widely believed that Moirang Phee was initially woven in a historic village called Moirang, 46 km from Imphal. The beautiful weave is said to have been woven by the villagers to gift the Meiti rulers, the royal family of Manipur.
The Moirang Pheejin design is locally known as “Yarong Phi” - “Ya” meaning tooth and “Rong” meaning long. The design of Moirang Phee is said to represent the thin and pointed teeth of Pakhangba, the pythonic god of Manipur mythology. The iconic motif is arranged in varying steps on the longitudinal border woven during the initial stage, has a sharp edge at the top and is woven sequentially so as to give an aesthetic look. The triangular shaped design elongates on odd numbered steps, parallel to weft threads, and is perfectly structured to suit saris, stoles, sarongs and skirts.
The fiber used to make the yarn is derived from “lashing” (cotton ball) and “labrang” (mulberry silk). It is also extracted from the bark of trees locally known as “santhak”. This local fiber is spun into threads and then dyed using plants and bark. Rice starch is applied for sizing and then stretched across a bamboo rod and wound into a bobbin. The fabric is woven in two stages using a loin loom or a throw shuttle and a fly-shuttle loom, the former being considered the most suitable. No other silk could boast of such an organic process to go from cocoon to cloth.
Technicalities aside, these beauties are a treasure for every handloom enthusiast. As with most other regions in the North East, Moirang Phee is also heavily inspired by the flora and fauna surrounding the region. With the craft so delicate, it makes one wonder about the dexterity of the hands that weave them.
Besides having its own unique style, each design also has its own legend, which is connected with special functions, dances and other ceremonies. Weaves that are based on exclusive motifs are reserved for royalty. Legend has it that every time a weaver sat down to create a royal design, a gun salute would be fired in honor.
In Manipur, traditionally weaving was the responsibility of the lady of the family. Young girls would be trained by their mothers in the art of fine weaving with family secrets being guarded as treasures. This was only in case of garments that were for purely personal use. When it came to large-scale commercial weaving, men took the forefront. Due to this shared duty, there has always been an aura of romance around weaving in Manipur. The craft is woven with the cultural and religious beliefs of the natives of Manipur since time immemorial. Traditionally, a loom was part of a girl’s dowry. It is said that Meiti women grew up weaving and took their tools along with them to their in-law’s house after marriage. Thus, each house in Manipur has at least one loom.
However, this does not mean that weaving was practiced as religiously as it was in the past. The influence of consumer demands and trends have changed the traditional textile weaves in terms of yarn, motifs and design. Nevertheless, the long-established custom requires people to wear their traditional attire during any special occasion and this is still religiously followed by the people in Manipur. They are by nature fiercely proud of their culture and everything that represents it.
With the introduction of power looms, there was a definite step-up in the production of weaves, although modernization did come with its own set of challenges and drawbacks. Many of the local traditionalists opposed the very idea of a power loom and they were not completely wrong. Numerous age-old designs and patterns could not be created with the automated loom. The extra weave of the Ranee Phee, an exquisite version of the Moirang Phee silk sari, could not be done on the power loom. Yet the glaring fact could not be ignored that production costs were cut down by 50% on the power loom, and the direct benefit of this would go to the weavers. All this led to a gradual acceptance and now there are in excess of 300 power looms operating in the state. The local manufacture of these looms have further brought down costs and with regular training and upgradating of standards of weaving and finishing, the economic situation is only looking up.