Facing a washout

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Washing shawls is a specialised art, and for centuries, washermen on the banks of Jhelum in Srinagar have been engaged in the profession. Many still do, but see the prospects declining.  Ikhlaq Qadri reports.

Washing shawls, carpets and costly clothes has always been a specialist job. And Kashmir has had its washermen for centuries, mostly concentrated in the localities near river banks. Besides shawls and carpets they also washed ordinary laundry.

In Aali Kadal area of Srinagar city a significant number of households are associated with the occupation. The people associated with the trade say that it thrived during Dogra rule but was gradually dying.

The washermen leave their homes at around 7:30 am in the biting winter cold to work at the river banks. While some get shawls and other clothes directly from customers others mostly work as labourers .

Ghulam Ahmad Wani of Arizaal Beerwah left his home in childhood and came to Srinagar to earn a living. A friend took him to Aali Kadal and since then he has been working as a washerman.

“I think from last 35 years I am here doing all this,” said Wani while carrying a huge bundle of Shawls.

There are different washermen who usually wash a particular type of apparel, like some only wash shawls or carpets or normal clothes.

Washing shawls is a delicate process, as most of the shawls that come to these washermen are very expensive and need special attention.

First shawls are put in lukewarm water to which a soft detergent has already been added. Then after a gentle rubbing the washermen checks it for any stains. A paste of bleaching powder and other chemicals is applied to the stained spot and the shawl is again put in the tub.

After some time the shawl is taken out and whipped against a large stone before washing the detergent off in the river water.

Then the shawls are put in a locally made dryer, called the Hydro, to squeeze these dry. Hydro is made by blacksmiths and works similarly as a dryer in the washing machine.

Semi-dry shawl taken out of the Hydro are then sun dried to remove the residual moisture. Then the shawls are ironed with about six-feet-long rolling steam iron, which builds steam and is then rolled on the shawls.

The iron as per the owner is worth 12 lakhs and only three households in the washerman locality own these.  Other washermen, get the shawls ironed from them against a premium. There are around 20 households at Aali Kadal associated with the trade. They employed significant number of labours mostly from rural areas.

Over the years many people have quit the trade and opted for other occupations as, they say, the returns have diminished drastically.

They charge Rs. 20 for washing a shawl and the leading household gets around 80 shawls in a day for washing.  The labourers associated with the trade say they are living in a bad condition.

“What we get is too meagre to suffice our own needs; our families back home are at Allah’s mercy,” said Ghulam Mohiuddin Bhat of Hamchipora Khag, Budgam who has been working as a washerman for the last seven years.

The employer class is not satisfied either. They complain about various issues left unattended by the government. They allege that the shawl of Amritsar is breaking bone of Kashmiri Shawl and in turn their work is suffering.

“Amritsar ruined us in all ways,” said Ghulam Jeelani Shahani.

Recalling the instance when a senior minister visited the area, Tariq Ahmad, a science graduate who is also in the same profession said, “I requested the minister to get me employed and the reply astonished me, ‘your seven generations were doing all this, why you are ashamed. Continue the same and don’t ask for anything.”

The banks on which they wash clothes are in a terrible shape and they revealed that most of times they maintain it out of their pocket. “You see yourself the condition of this side, government does not bother to care. They come only to seek votes,” said Showkat Ahmad, another washerman.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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