The village that weaves the king’s clothes

Raul Dias | Updated on April 19, 2019 Published on April 19, 2019

Pattern of life Ban Tha Sawang, in the Isan province, is one of the many artisanal hamlets in the region known for their silk weaving prowess   -  ISTOCK.COM

Artisans in Thailand’s Ban Tha Sawang are busy readying bales of exquisite brocade for a royal coronation

My favourite pad thai hawker in Bangkok is Pimjai Suttirat. She is a tiny, ever-smiling woman from whose food cart along soi 4 in the Sukhumvit area I’ve often sought post-bar-hopping sustenance over the years. For the last two months, she tells me, she’s only worn clothes in hues of yellow — the King of Thailand’s official royal colour.

Suttirat is looking forward to May 5. That is when King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun will formally be crowned at the Phutthaisawan Prasat Throne Hall in Bangkok’s Grand Palace and be hailed as King Rama X of the Chakri Dynasty. It was on this very day, 69 years ago, that his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was coronated.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn will be crowned Rama X of the Chakri dynasty on May 5   -  REUTERS/ ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA

Bangkok is buzzing with all sorts of activity ahead of the coronation. The army is out in full force practising their march-past routines, roads are being re-tarred and pavements repaired, and gardens get a floral manicure. A lot of the repair and renovation takes place under the forgiving cover of darkness, when some sort of normalcy is restored to the otherwise turbid Thai capital.

But far from Bangkok in the North East of Thailand, an entirely different ‘yarn’ is being unspooled...

Royal threads

The village of Ban Tha Sawang, 8 km west of the city of Surin along Route 4026, is one of the many artisanal hamlets known for their silk weaving prowess. In this belt of the Isan province, almost every family is involved in the silk producing business — that ranges from silk thread spinning and ikat pattern making to extracting silk dyes. The red comes from lac, blue from indigo and the Thai people’s favourite yellow from turmeric tree barks.

But Ban Tha Sawang is different from the rest — and I’m not just referring to the village’s entry arch which consists of two plump, kissing fibreglass silkworms. What makes it special is that it holds the royal warrant for producing fine silk brocades — called pah yok torng — for all royal occasions. Bales of the brocade have already been sent to royal costumers in Bangkok for the coronation, and more are being readied.

I visit Baan Chansoma, a family-run business that’s spread over several Isan-style wooden workhouses, surrounded by a garden and enveloped by the sweet smell of frangipani. As the largest of all the silk-weaving houses in Ban Tha Sawang, Baan Chansoma is believed to be making the most important of all the ceremonial fabrics. This is being done in a specially cordoned off section of the complex, away from prying eyes.

All I’m allowed to see is one of the giant handlooms with over 1,400 intricately laid out heddles being handled by four women working on a non-royal green-blue silk stole that they had started on a week earlier. The work, 56-year-old weaver Samraug Sang Tabtib says, will carry on for another six weeks. “We can weave only around 4-5 centimetres of the fabric per day, as this particular pattern is very intricate and requires a lot of concentration and nimble finger work,” she says.

“Like most of the villagers of Ban Tha Sawang, my mother too is a master weaver and I’ve been helping her weave ever since I was 10. But it was only when I turned 16 did she let me weave an entire fabric piece my own,” she adds.

Weight in gold

I’m not surprised when I’m told by Nirandra Sailektim, a member of Baan Chansoma — and a disciple of its founder and the resident royal artisan Weeratham Taragoonngernthai — that each piece of cloth takes anywhere from six months to three years to finish, and can cost upwards of 50,000 baht (₹1.10 lakh approx.) a metre. “This is because we never repeat a pattern and take orders only for commissioned pieces. We have no retail business as such, so as to maintain our exclusivity to our VIP patrons,” he adds.

He will not talk about the work being done for the coronation. “All I can confirm is that, yes, we are a big part of the coronation ceremony,” he says.

In the early 2000s, new life was infused into the dying art of handloom silk weaving, which was threatened by power looms. Behind its revival was the King’s mother, Queen Sirikit’s Promotion of the Supplementary Occupations and Related Techniques (SUPPORT) Foundation. Locals point out that it was all thanks to the Queen’s personal funds that Ban Tha Sawang’s villagers got the means and facilities to continue producing the exquisite fabric — which will be a veritable part of the new Emperor’s coronation.

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • There are daily direct flights from most major Indian cities to Bangkok. Trains, buses and minivans link Bangkok with Surin, Isan’s largest city, in under six hours. Travel within Isan is both easy and cheap. The easy-to-procure Thai visa on arrival costs ₹4,500 (approx.).
  • Stay
  • Surin and neighbouring Buriram have an excellent selection of hotels to choose from to suit all budgets and tastes. Two options are Surin Majestic Hotel (₹2,500 for two without breakfast; surinmajestic.com) and the brand new Cresco Hotel Buriram (₹4,300 for two with breakfast; crescoburiram.com).
  • BLink Tip
  • Drop in at Tew Pai Ped Yang in Pimai for its special Isan-style charcoal grilled duck dish.
  • Make sure to visit the nearby Muang Tum temple complex in Buriram. This 1,000-year-old Hindu temple lies at the base of an extinct volcano.

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Published on April 19, 2019
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