Saving Turtles and a Culture, One Thread at a Time

 By Arpita Dutta and Jordan Gray

The Brahmaputra Floodplain of Northeast India represents one of the most important regions for turtle diversity on Earth. Here, waters originating from the Tibetan Himalayas flow through various ecoregions, bringing vital nutrients, and carving a path that shapes the environment and its inhabitants, both animal and human. As unique as the flora and fauna that live here is its culture.

The Brahmaputra River is home to the only known wild population of critically endangered Black Softshell Turtles (Nilssonia nigricans) in India. Here, Black Softshell Turtles feed on pellets at the Nagshankar Temple in Assam.

Along the Brahmputra River in Assam, India’s easternmost state, Assamese culture is intrinsically tied to the environment the river creates. From agriculture, to fishing, to its artistic textiles, the river provides the main artery for which subsistence and culture are derived. Here, too, the age-old art of gamocha weaving finds its lifeblood.

Gamocha is the most respected piece of cloth in Assamese culture. The intricately woven cloth is an art form, one that expresses emotion, respect, and values for the Assamese. For those who weave it, every design tells a story, and in their own words, “Every thread is like a timeline of their own life.” Without gamocha, traditional or cultural functions cannot be performed here.

Members of KASO SKAKHI (Friends of the Turtles) pose with hand-woven gamocha featuring a turtle motif in front of our Nature Discovery Centre in Biswanath Ghat, Assam.

Prior to industrialization, every woman in Assamese culture once weaved this cloth for their families, passing the specialized skill, and the stories they tell, from generation to generation. Now, textile machines of an industrialized world have taken the place of traditional weaving. As a result, the efficiency of which the gamochas are produced has not only decreased the price of this art form resulting in lower compensation for those who produce it, but degraded its cultural significance.

Mass production and reduced market price has impacted the economics for those who use the traditional hand woven technique. Industrial machines can produce nearly 15 gamocha pieces in 12 hours, whereas one weaver can produce 1 piece per day without rest. Furthermore, no traditional skills are required in creating machine made gamochas, meaning virtually anyone can make them. Simply put, the traditional weavers are losing their market and way of life.

Gamocha weaving is a labor intensive art form whose technique is passed down by women from generation to generation.

To this end, our TSA-India Program is collaborating with traditional weavers in the village of Bishwanath Ghat on the Brahmaputra River to create gamochas that will benefit both the weavers and wildlife, including turtles. With high hopes, this collaboration will help restore their livelihood, culture, and an appreciation for nature.

To uplift the economic condition for the weavers, help them continue their traditional art form, maintain their identity, and provide an avenue for turtle conservation awareness, we have formed the self-help group “KASO SAKHI,” which means “Friends of the Turtles.” This program and group identity aims to aid the weavers financially as an alternative source of income, decrease the dependency of subsistence fishing and agriculture along the Brahmaputra, and help to conserve the riverine ecosystem for turtles, dolphins, and other native wildlife. With an emotional attachment to this art form, and with many untold stories to tell, KASO SKAHKI will not only produce gamochas, but also stoles, shirts, handkerchiefs, jackets, bed-covers, and dress material for women.

Villagers of Biswanath Ghat and the weavers of KASO SKAHKI show off the 36 beautiful turtle-themed gamochas they produced.

For our initial trial, seven women stepped up to the challenging work of creating 36 turtle-themed gamochas in 25 days. While the turtle motif is new to them, they have given their full effort, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to produce a product for income, but also pursue a noble endeavor in the name of conservation. The resultant works are beautiful and culturally signifcant pieces of art.

Here, in this rural community, the opportunity to work with us has changed the belief that only an educated person can work for conservation. Now, the weavers see the great potential their art form has for the pursuit of conservation in the Brahmputra Floodplain, and the pursuit of an alternative livelihood.

Biswanath Ghat weaver Lily Das performs the intricate process of producing a gamocha.

Story of Pranali Das (one of the weavers who has weaved 10 pieces of gamocha for us) Pranali Das used to assist her mother in weaving from a very young age, however, she never got a full opportunity to learn its intricacies with expertise. Following her father’s passing, she had to find work in another villager’s house to support her family. At the young age of 16, she married a man from the fishing community who, at the time, earned a healthy living. Squandering all the income on enjoyment and gradually becoming an alcoholic, the man drove the family finances into the ground. As a result, Pranali was forced to take up the responsibility of providing for her family. Her only option was to learn the art of weaving. With dedication, she was able to provide an income for the family and take care of the costs for her children’s education. As slowly as the gamosha is woven, her husband’s mind and focus was changed as well. Now, he too is a weaver, and the art has become the sole means of income for the family.

Pranali Das not only became the breadwinner for her family, but inspired her husband to also weave for their income.

The TSA would like to thank the Disney Conservation Fund, Kaziranga National Park's Biswanath Wildlife Division, and Assam Tourism Development Corporation for their support in this endeavor.