Waghoo is Out

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With polythene foam taking over as new matting material in Kashmir, handmade Waghoo is losing both appeal and market. Shakir Mir reports the plight of those associated with its making

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KL Images: Bilal Bahadur

Sixty-nine-year old Fatimah is still a riot in the old age. She doesn’t speak but thunder the words out her mouth prompting neighbors to trickle out from their homes and watch her yell with both delight and curiosity.

Decades ago, younger Fatimah would chafe her hands during the warm afternoons. She would settle a bundle of Reed grass on the ground and then pull one out, to begin with. With skillful finger-flicking, she interlaced the strands, braiding together a mat nearly impenetrable for light.

The production of Reed mat or Waghoo used to be an integral part of her socio-occupational life until few years ago. “Once we became mothers, Waghoo weaving became not only a means of sustenance but feeding our new-borns as well,” she says, deep wrinkles creasing the skin around her eyes.

Ashraf Mohallah of Saidakadal, her address, is one of the dozen Waghoo production nerve centers in North Srinagar. A Waghoo is a traditional Reed mat usually spread underneath the sitting rugs. Its purpose is to ensure that the rug perseveres onto the floor and doesn’t fold.

Waghoos have been indispensable to the Kashmiri cottage industry, sustaining as many as 30,000 lives. Currently, a meager 300 individuals are associated with the production as the demand diminished over the years in wake of increased preference for Polyethylene foam – a resilient, water-proof material used commonly as an insulator.

“Right from Rainawari to Matta Mohalla in Dal, over 500 households had been weaving Waghoos since time immemorial,” says Fatimah. “Women folks were mostly involved in this industry. We would wake up in morning and start weaving; so engrossed in the work that we couldn’t realize that it was nearing dusk.”

Fatimah and her ilk would purchase bundle of Reed grass for Rs 100 and the leftover grass from Rice harvest. “It would take us one day to weave a Waghoo of 10×3 dimensions,” says Mehra, of Kani Keach mohalla. “Our palm muscles would strain twining the Reed ropes. From one bundle of grass we wove one and a half Waghoo”

These women immersed the dried Reed grass in the steaming water and let it moisten and turn flaccid until it became suitable for plaiting.

The woven mats were then trimmed and spruced up. Hawkers, men mostly, let them dangle onto their heads while roaming across Old City in search of buyers. The yesteryear’s Waghoo-walas were a commonplace to see. But over the years, they stopped showing up, taking the part of glory off the idiosyncratic Old city life.

“I sold some 4-5 Waghoos a day,” says Amin Hussain, 78, of Ching Mohalla, who abandoned the job after Waghoo manufacturing took hit. Hawkers like him make at least Rs 250 per day. But ever since the business slumped, they withdrew into oblivion. Some of them rowed boats until recently.

The women manufactured as many as 300 Waghoos annually. “We produced them throughout the year,” Mehra says. But the diminishing returns forced the women to slowly abandon the work.  “Many of them forayed into Papier-mâché and tailoring,” says Mohammad Ashraf, a resident. “Even men used to benefit. When we were away for work, womenfolk would earn a living and helped us financially.”

Nearly every woman of this locality has a history of Waghoo weaving. Every next woman you meet recalls with apparent nostalgia the days they have spent weaving Waghoo.

The advent of Polyethylene foam slowly squeezed out the Waghoo from commercial space. An estimated 2.5 lakh meters of foam sheets are sold annually in Kashmir valley alone. Increased reliance on foam naturally translated into closing down of employment avenues for women like Fatimah.

Foams are durable, lasting to the extent that Waghoos aren’t. But they have their own downsides, experts say. It is a non-biodegradable substance. Waghoo, on the other hand, replenish back to the nature once discarded.

“It goes without saying how deleterious plastics or any other derivate of it is for the overall ecology,” says Shakil Romshoo, Earth Scientist at Kashmir University.

“They are non-biodegradable and can stay in the environment for a longer period. Unfortunately there has been no research or assessment as to how badly it has affected us.”

Romshoo cites the example of Japan to illustrate the novelty of appropriating Reed as part of eco-friendly cottage industry. “In Japan, Reed mats are permanent feature of household furnishing,” he says. “They are called Tatami and over 90 percent of homes have these.”

Many see a departure from the Waghoo utilization as tragic given that it had accelerated the consumption of ecologically destabilizing alternatives. Besides, it has also decimated a centuries old tradition which had been one of the many hallmarks of Kashmiri culture.

“With a Waghoo underneath the sheets, people never complained about ortho ailments,” Ashraf says. With a remarkable water-retention capacity, Waghoos acted as a strong deterrent against humidification of rooms. “It didn’t let bugs-infestation develop,” he says.

It is not just the aesthetics that Waghoo’s commercial decline has affected. Ecology too has been. Reed straw, the key ingredient that goes into manufacturing a Waghoo, grows in marshes. The Waghoo makers in Saida Kadal used to get unfettered access of Reed from marshes such as in Mirgund in Pattan where sprawling wetlands grew them in incalculable amount over vast tracts of land mass.

Declining demand for Waghoo has had a cascading effect. “Lots of Waghoo makers would skim across the wetlands and cut down the Reed to cart it away for the purpose,” says a security officer at Shalbug wetland reserve in Ganderbal district. “But with the production taking hit, they have stopped coming. As a result Reed vegetation spreading over acres of prized wetland area has picked up pace resulting in declining open water spaces.”

The shrinking wetland poses an immeasurable ecological risk, says Imtiyaz Lone, Wildlife Warden, Wetlands.

“Normally weeding out Reed would have had been an easy task but with the Waghoo-makers gone, it would take huge sum of money to get rid of it,” an official told Kashmir Life.

It doesn’t end there. Dried Reed is highly inflammable. A mere spark can set vast expanse of land on fire triggering alarming situation. Last month, a similar incident took place near Baba Demb marsh in Srinagar when Reed spreading over kanals of area caught fire. The blaze reached dangerously close to the Sewage Treatment Plant located nearby but was doused on time.

Back at the Saida Kadal, Ashraf stubs a cigarette with a foot. His twenty-something daughter hands him a cup of tea. “I have never touched a Waghoo, much less weave it,” she says. “The craft is gone forever among the newer generation.”

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