(Our 2008 visit to Assam in search of three types of silk.)
We are strangers in Assam. So our first official obligation once we have driven off with Chandan (our contact) is to visit the local constabulary. The ritual of the host is very important in India. It is just as important (or maybe more so) at the police headquarters. We are given tea and biscuits and asked about our "program." We are welcomed, then left alone in a room while calls are made. Eventually we are permitted to continue with an armed escort of two officers. News of the morning's events in Guwahati has travelled quickly. We are told to keep a low profile and not to visit any public markets.
The first stop is to see some tussar moths. We leave the road and walk through a family compound. Entering a brick building through a screen door we are met with the humid damp air one usually finds in greenhouses. Rich and slightly cloying. On a table of cut branches, large tussar caterpillars are happily munching away at the green leaves. They are a bright green and slightly translucent. They are always either eating or resting. That is the life of a caterpillar.
In the back of the first room is a line of spun cocoons.
And in a second room are the adults. The moths rest on an egg stick. The females wear a harness of thread that keeps them from flying away. The males are free to visit the females and if they do, it is referred to as "pairing". The moths are tended constantly and in our photo you can see the cot which has been set up under a protective sheet. The pairing takes place by the end of abdomen.
Perhaps tussar can be domesticated. We didn't witness egg hatching or the earlier instars of the insect, but it seemed that it might possible to fully manage a brood inside. Reports that tussar cannot be domesticated go back quite far. In 1796, Michael Atkinson, stationed in Bengal, wrote a letter that became part of Dr. William Roxburgh's 1802 presentation to the Linnean Society. The letter reads:
"This species cannot be domesticated. I am informed that the natives cannot even retain any of it for seed. The hill people say that they go into jungles, and under the Byer and Asseen trees they find the excrement of the insect; on which they examine the tree, and, on discovering the small worms, they cut off branches of the tree sufficient for their purpose, with the young brood on the branches; these they carry to convenient situations near their houses, and distribute the branches on the Asseen tree in proportion to the size thereof, but they put none on the Byer tree. The Parieahs, or hill people, guard the insects night and day while in the worm state, to preserve them from crows and other birds by day, and from bats by night.
" I myself have seen them thus watching the brood. This species cannot be confined, for so soon as the moth pierces the cocoon it gets away; and the people add, that it is impossible to keep it, by any precaution whatever."
It may be that this one observation has been quoted many times. Dr. John Feltwell (mentioned in the previous post) cites it. Once we learned more about the life of the moth, the last paragraph seemed somewhat dubious. For two reasons: firstly, the adult moths emerge from the cocoon with wings like wet tissue paper. It takes time, sometimes hours, for the insect to pump fluid into the wings to fully expand them. Secondly, the sheer size of these moths would make them easily kept by even rudimentary netting. They are such a beautiful moth that it would be an honour to be a tussar keeper.