Many of us raised vegetarian from birth still have no qualms about leather or silk in our everyday life. We try to rationalize our guilt trip justifying, our belt or purse is ethical leather. We can’t be without dairy either which is far more horrific than even leather industry or meat processing where the cattle/sheep die a single death.
Is it time to move away from our phony vegetarian values and adopt a sustainable, humanitarian lifestyle.
Try as I may, I am unable to grow out of my obsession with silk living so close to Kanjivaram (Kanchipuram) geographically. Traditionally too, ours is a silk weaving community, mostly hailing from Kanchi and Arni, although our folks have almost completely weaned themselves out of our native occupation in recent times. I do still have a few relatives left out who have installed ‘thari’ or handlooms in their ‘thazhvarams’ and ‘mithams’ (front yard, courtyard, backyard etc., in traditional tiled ‘ottu’ veedu or house typical of Tamil Nadu that are fast disappearing even from our villages – that are big and airy and impressive) and keep weaving as family: daughter-in-law to mother-in-law to son and daughter – as they did their chores like cooking, cleaning etc., side by side. One lady told me they wove this way one or two handspun Kanchi silks watching our tv soaps in the evenings as dinner was served! The men tended to the marketing/business part.
In fact, our family tree grew along this silk road to success! Arni is my father-in-law’s hometown. Even now there stands his ancestral home with 4 grand entrances in 4 streets, with a family temple close to one gate (where outsiders were not allowed up until very recently), a second one dedicated to business deeds with big enormous ‘thinnais’ that served like modern day showrooms in the bygone era…, one entrance reserved for women alone and one for servants. Erected in late 1800s, the colossal palatial edifice stands today as a testimony to the family heirloom and wealth that was spun out of Kanchi/Arni silk business by our forefathers. Silk is therefore much more than a simple attire to us. Silk meant food and livelihood for centuries.
Senguntha Mudaliars built their fortunes with silk industry which was patronized by the royals, the British and the temples all at the same time. Very conservative and pious community, they diversified soon to become successful doctors and engineers by the turn of the century. Now very few families stick to the traditional profession. Astonishingly, the business has been taken over by Naidus and Reddys of Chennai! Sengunthas started owning huge estates with money made from silk business and donated heavily to upkeep of Hindu temples around world war times. I know because my grandfather gave away dozens of houses within Chennai city limits to various temples as my family signed on the dotted line without asking a single question. My in laws families too gave up. We are blessed not to have an iota of regret for what we have given up. All the silk money is gone and with it we lost our native occupation as well to new ventures that are doing extremely well. Times change. Life changes. A 2000 year old familial knowledge and heritage and customary practice is now not in our hands.
Markandeya is believed to be the sage who gifted the art of weaving to Sengunthas as we believe, hence mostly Markandeya gotra. Pazhaiyana azhidhalum, pudhiyana pugalum. Absolutely no regrets about the modern day transformation.
My mom who taught until the last day of her life deaf and dumb middle school girls, had a severe aversion for silk. All her life, she wore silk only on 2 occasions: on her wedding day and for our house grihapravesham. A true vegetarian.
However, I have never been able to resist the temptation of silk, any silk for that matter. Give me anything be it Benaras or Tussar or Mysore or Maheshwari or Assamese or Chanderi or Patola or Bandhni or Uppada or Gadwal or Jamdani or Kota or Kashmiri … hahaha I will take it without a second thought!!! Of course, my reigning queen in Kanchi Silk !!! Not only because we have an emotional familial bond with Kanchi silk that bred my ancestors, but also because, from experience of traveling and shopping (even if not much) a little bit I can tell you, Kanchi is No.1 silk in the world that women and designers and fashionistas outside India are dying to lay their hands on! Undisputable No.1. To think that my forefathers perfected this Kanchi silk weaving art and robed the Gods and Goddesses and Kings and Queens, makes me proud kind of.
So Vegan silk always raises for me these uncomfortable questions. Profound shaivites who thronged temples, Sengunthas still wove silk out of the silkworms drowning cocoons in boiling steaming water. Every single traditional vegetarian family in south still draped this sinful silk most importantly on auspicious occasions like family weddings and pujas and other celebrations, and to temples. Why this self-contradiction.
I have heard of Ahimsa silk which I believe is only partially less evil. In regular silk, the silk worms in cocoons are boiled in a cauldron. For Ahimsa silk, the silk worm is let out and the cocoon is separated for silk yarn. Tragedy is, prematurely ejected from the cocoon, the silkworms die a torturous death after a few hours of miserable life on earth, before being brushed enmasse onto garbage. In what way is Ahimsa silk better than regular silk.
Talking to someone who shunned silks and leather entirely in last few years, I was disturbed to learn how the tearful vibes of the millions of silkworms that sacrifice their lives in most crushing cruelest manner get spun into the silk robe you drape. Same holds true for leather. Every leather accessory we may use still may moan quietly with the tragic vibes of the animal (cow or sheep or goat or buffalo) whose life was violently snuffed out by skinner-butcher. At least a fraction of such a bad vibe can get transformed into our soul and influence our own aura. This can have a lasting effect on our spirituality and even perception of things, life. There is therefore a compulsive need to grow out of silk and leather. It asks for greater mental strength to rise about these materialistic temptations, but I guess I could be ready.
Vegan silk I believe is a great alternative because it is mostly made from plant cellulose. In specific cases, microfibers may be woven into the vegan fabric/textile upon request or as situation/design demanded. For the first time ever, I am going for Vegan silk that is completely animal abuse-free. I can have a clear conscience donning the silk. I am trying to stop silk shopping completely now and switch over 100% to vegan silks. Because vegan or whatever, my fascination for silk continues! At the same time at the back of my mind I recall that this Kanchi silk is what fed my ancestors for generations and generations. I am here because of Kanchi silk to say NO to Kanchi silk! What an irony. But this is something that has to be done without sentiment or prejudice. Sooner or later….
Vegan leather too similarly is mostly made from plant cellulose that is bio-degradable. Great alternative to leather. Leather industry with its toxic chemical dyes for effluents also is a great pollutant of our rivers and other water sources. All the more a good reason to say a big NO to leather, ethical or whatever. By the way, what is ethical leather. The hides and skins used by ethical leather units reportedly are procured from meat industry through regular channels. Does that make leather ethical by any means?
I also have always owned leather purses, handbags, belts etc up until now. Somewhere we must make a beginning. Stopping forthwith, leather shopping.
What is very testy is, giving up dairy. I gave up coffee for 10 months but it was torturous. Then I decided that no Mother Goddess wanted me to give up coffee!!! So saying ‘excuse me, i am starting coffee Ma 😀 ‘ to Her one fine morning, I restarted my coffee routine! Similarly living without milk or panneer or curd or buttermilk seems next to impossible! As a vegetarian I find dairy to be my greatest comfort food! Can’t just do with Almond milk or Soya milk – which I have tried in futility in Doha.
As for eggs and meat, many are switching over to organic eggs and organic poultry as well. The poultry industry breeds caged broiler chicken that are pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones. Something our younger generation must keep away from, because this can be very damaging. And to think about what the poultry birds have to go through! Meat consumption has gone up in India only in recent years. Earlier when I was a kid, meat was a luxury reserved to very rich few. Others saw meat once or twice an year only. Biriyani is the greatest health hazard to our youngsters. Unhealthy with spicy content that can cause heartburn and bathed in oil, this foreign food needs regulation. I am that rare vegetarian who can turn out the best mutton and chicken biriyani from my kitchen (as certified by guests) without ever knowing how it tastes, but I only use organic meat. Seafood is better than river fish as river fish swallows a lot of toxins.
Size of fish in Doha and size of fish in India raise another important question. My husband favours Shankara (red snapper) fish which is of 6 inch plate size end to end by length in Middle East, caught from the Arabian Gulf seas. In India the same fish is much, much smaller in size almost only half in size, which indicates we are overfishing. Very soon our oceans could be running dry of fish. Scary.
So back to basics, finally…
I will post updates on this one, as to how well I am doing with my Vegan silk and Vegan leather. As for my existing silk and leather, I am keeping them because I have invested heavily in them over years. But no more fresh buy where it concerns silk and leather. I would like to spread the message.
Let us think of a Vegan silk India and Vegan leather India. My only request to vegan businesses is that, please don’t go easy on polyurethane or other such micro fibers in vegan leather or silk, in which case original silk and leather will look like top-of-the-line always. We are all for eco-friendly and sustainable lifestyle but we will not give up silk and leather for microfibers and plastics instead. Make sure, the vegan leather and silk are one hundred percent plant based. Reforest/afforest the deforested ranges that your industry derives raw material from. This is a very important angle we have to look into.
Always after silk, cotton is my immediate next choice. Sustainable, bio-degradable and suiting Indian climatic conditions, and 100% desi, Indian cotton is one more No.1 in the world. Absolute class when it comes to the yarns and weaves we have from different states of India. In foreign residence, climate may require me to go for manmade fibres but given a choice, my vote is always for pure silk/cotton. However from now on, it will be Vegan silk and Vegan leather. Let’s see.