The gamchha mask, used by Prime Minister Modi in his appearances and addresses has been inspired by the traditional Manipuri handwoven stole called the Leirum Phi. The standout white, black and red woven cloth is a leitmotif of the Metei tribe among others in Manipur.

The humble gamchha and its many variants, dot pockets of northeastern India in various avatars. The simple cotton ones in red and white checks are seen in abundance in Bihar and Bengal, and as we progress further into the Northeast, we see it getting more elaborate and festive. There are many stories as to the origin and evolution of this weave. “But it started as a traditional coarse cloth, which had a lot of ceremonial importance. It was an indispensable item that was imparted by the parents to the daughter on her wedding day,” shares L Monoranjan Singh, CEO, KB Philanthropy. He runs many weaving initiatives in the state, working with both handlooms and power looms.

The gamchha is called gamosa in Assamese and is an integral part of the state’s traditional culture. “It basically means ‘to wipe’ in Assamese. And it’s something that one should carry one’s person always. Taking a lesson from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, where he emphasised that one should never go anywhere in space without a towel. Same with the Assamese Gamosa,” says Prayaag Barooah, who with his father run FabricPlus, a weaving initiative which works with about 1,00,000 rural silk farmers and weavers to manufacturer ahimsa silk.

“The gamchha, gamosa, etc, they are all part of a larger identity of the northeast. The differences between a Naga gamchha, or the Manipuri one, all stem from the different flora and fauna that surrounds them. The Karbi villages near the Kaziranga area, there the gamosas have a lot of rhinos embroidered on them, and as you go further to the China border, in Arunachal Pradesh, the gamchhas will have a lot of symbols of love, birds etc. There, many gamchhas are woven for the people who have passed away, and are kept with the body in the coffins, very much like the Egyptians pharaohs. The Nagas use more of animals, like the bison, the yak and of course the snake motif,” adds Barooah.

While scarves and other material were all woven by hand earlier, in cotton or silk, they have been replaced by polyester and the embroidery and motifs are reduced to being on just one side. “The idea of a gamchha was to be used. Now they are often related to ceremonial tokens and placed at the bottom of a cupboard,” says Barooah.