Growing up in the early 80s, a piece of white rectangular cloth with crimson border and flowery designs on the edge was a quintessential part of my Assamese household. Today whenever I use a Gamusa, it feels like yesterday, when the softness of Gamusa wiped me up after a bath, the crisp and sweet smell of new Gamusa presented in special occasion.
Whether it is a festivity, or special occasion or mundane task, one thing is for sure, in every Assamese household, you will find Gamusa. Ga means body and Musa mean a wipe, so it is technically a towel, but Gamusa has a deeper place in Assamese culture and a greater place in every Assamese heart. You can’t imagine any Assamese cultural celebration without Gamusa.
Gamusa in traditionally woven in cotton threads with red borders in all the four sides in a rectangular shape and motifs or designs on one side but sometimes could be found on either side as well. Nowadays silk Gamusas are available and people use them on special occasions.
Unlike any Assamese weave, weavers perk up aesthetic and artistic sensibility in Gamusa. Gamesa's motifs, designs are predominantly inspired by flowers, birds, Assamese festivities especially Bihu, musical instruments, Assamese hat (japi) etc.
Mundane to special, Gamesa's use in Assamese culture and society is magnificent. Another name of Gamusa is Bihuwan, the word is associated with Assamese festival Bihu. During the festive bihu season, presenting handwoven Gamusa to your beloved is a matter of pride and joy. During a festival or wedding presenting and taking blessings from an elder is a tradition. Honoring and facilitating guests with a Gamusa whether at home or public place is a quintessential scene in Assam.
Placing a Gamusa on your shoulder while praying or greeting guests gives a sense of respect and gratitude towards others and one who wears it.
Prayer halls and altars in religious occasion are always covered with Gamusa. It is a folk belief that you have to cover it with gamusa and can't leave it bare.
It is fun to watch Bihu dancers tie Gamusa on their forehead and waist. In fact, you can see musical instruments found wrapped around by Gamusa as well.
With the changing times, the industrial practices have brought threats to the existence of traditional Gamusa. Markets today are full of powerloom Gamusa and have tried to replace the traditional handloom Gamusa.
Other than traditional use, designers and artisans are taking it forward by creating decorative items, umbrella, mekhela chadar, and shirts inspired by Gamusa design.
Hope new generations will admire and understand the value of Gamusa in years to come.
If you happen to visit Assam next time, do not forget to bring home the pride of Assam called Gamusa.