Silkworms near Bangalore

One of the things I love about India is how much life is lived in the open. It’s as though you can see under a skin of the world that in other places covers up the processes of living.

I was recently on a road trip outside Bangalore with friends. On the way back, I saw some woven rush mats with interesting spiral patterns standing in roadside villages. They looked elegant, in a minimalist sort of way. “Those are for silkworms,” said Pratima, noticing my interest.

Really? So we stopped at one of the villages to look. Pratima speaks Kannada, and the villagers were happy to respond to her interest.

For people unfamiliar with how silk is made: It’s unwound from the pupae of the silkworm moth, which is killed in the pupal stage (usually by immersing it in boiling water). Breeders keep a stock of moths, and collect the eggs they lay. The larvae go through five instars (stages of growth) before they form their cocoons. They eat mainly mulberry leaves, and so South India has mulberry plantations for sericulture.

pix7 094 silkworm larvae before pupating
Late stage silkworms getting ready to pupate

Sericulture in the state of Karnataka is a cottage industry, providing flexible employment without need for serious capital investment. What we saw in the village were the late-stage silkworms, and the cocoons. I’m not sure whether they sourced the silkworms as larvae from a breeder, or whether they purchased the eggs and hatched them. We did see sheaves of mulberry leaves being brought in, but since it’s the late-stage larvae that are the most voracious, that didn’t indicate very much. I think they harvest the cocoons and sell them to other processors who actually unwind the silk.

pix7 103 silkworm mats stacked horizontally
The silkworm mats are stored horizontally with spaces between.
pix7 105 silkworm mat lowered to show cocoons
They lowered one mat to show us the cocoons
pix7 090 silk worm cocoons in mats propped up
During the day, they may be taken out and propped up in the air and sunlight
pix7 093 silk worm mats
Silkworm frames with cocoons
pix7 096 cocoons
Closer view of cocoons

The village itself was a delight. The houses were painted in bright colors, and vegetables grew randomly here and there, probably volunteers escaped from kitchen gardens. A hen with half-grown chicks wandered around, with no apparent attempt to contain them. A bunch of curious kids gathered around us, listening to their elders explain how they cultivated silkworms. Pratima asked why they weren’t in school. They were still on holiday, they explained. They had another 2 days off. We smiled our goodbyes, thanked them, and left.

pix7 104 village doorwaypix7 097 bicycle and chickenspix7 102 village near Bangalore

(Edited to Add: Incidentally, the swastika symbol in the picture above? It’s the auspicious symbol, not the Nazi one that Hitler stole. Talk about cultural misappropriation.)

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