Shawl Stratification

Over the centuries, the Shawl making in Kashmir has emerged as such an important exercise that the people associated with the diverse processes are still known by their jobs. Saroj Koul identifies the division of labour that the Shawl making industry exhibited during the Sikh and Dogra rule. Some of these professions no longer exist but a few were retained as the caste and identities

A map shawl of Srinagar is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum London.

The division of labour in the manufacture of shawls and shawl goods was wall-knit. There were, at least, nineteen specialists and traders engaged in this industry. The description of these becomes essential here:

A herd of Pashmina goats in Ladakh. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Pashm Farosh: The Baqal or merchant importer disposed of his wool to the Pasham Farosh or wool retailer (also called Baqal-i-Tibet) through a Mokyem (the commission broker) who received a commission of three annas per trak. In addition to this, the broker charged weighing charges in the form of wool. This amounted to two and a half manwatta (a local measure of the weight of two and a half seers) per horse load. The retailer made the payment immediately or sometimes credit was also advanced for a month or two. The retailer paid two or three per cent as interest on the amount transacted.

A woman shows pure Pashmina wool in Srinagar on Monday, March 8, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Spinners: The retailer sold the wool to spinners who were generally women. A pal (a unit of weight equal to 3.43 of Mahmood Shahi Rupee, an old rupee minted in Kashmir with the name of the Mughal Kings of Delhi) of white wool was sold for six tangas. The profit of the retailer in this deal was about 12 per cent. The wool brought from the retailer was mixed. The first task of the spinner was to separate the inferior and pure wool of which fleece consisted. This wool was cleaned with cold rice water. Husked rice was soaked in clean cold water for two or three days till this rice was soft. It was then grounded into flour. Thin layers of this and of picked wool were laid alternately and squeezed with hand until they were completely intermixed.

A group of women working on the spinning wheel on Monday, March 8, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

After keeping in this condition for about an hour, the flour was shaken out, the wool opened and torn into pieces chiefly by means of the hand and made into square thin elastic pads called, Tambu. The inferior wool was called Phiri or second class wool.

The fine wool was spun into the length of 700 yards on a spinning wheel of simple construction. Women started their work in the early hours of the morning and continued till late at the night. The maximum earning of industrious labour was only one rupee and annas eight a month. The workers employed in this industry were a hundred thousand females.

Spun Pashmina ready for use. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Puiwoen (Yarn-seller): Yarn seller kept a shop for the purchase of yarn from the spinners to be delivered to the shawl weavers. The yarn was sold to the weaver by the yarn seller at a profit of one pice to a taka in a rupee. The smuggling of the yarn was forbidden. Any contravention was punished with a fine and imprisonment. Even then the yarn was clandestinely exported to the Punjab where the expatriated weavers had settled and practised this profession.

Rangrez or Dyers preparing fabrics for dyeing.

Rangrez (Dyer): The profession of Rangrez was hereditary. In 1823, a dyer was able to give sixty-four tints, but, in 1835, a dyer could dye forty different colours. Almost all the dyes were imported except the yellow and black. The yellow dye was produced from Carthamus and saffron. The black colour was obtained from the iron filling. After this process of dyeing was over the wrap maker would start his job.

Yet another process for the spun Pashmina before using it. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Warp-maker (Nakatu): His job was to adjust the yarn for the warp and for the weft. The yarn for warp was double and was cut into the lengths of three gaz and a half. Anything short of this measure was deemed fraudulent. The Nakatu received the yarn in hanks but returned it in the form of balls. In 1823 the number of warp makers was about sixty.

Manzoor Ahmad is working on his loom, a routine for most of his life. KL Image: Farzana Nisar

Pennakam Guru (Warp Dresser): The job of Pennakam Guru was to starch warp. The yarn was stretched and lengthened by means of sticks into a band of which the threads were slightly separated. The starch was prepared by boiling rice in water. They were paid 4 pice for a single thread and 8 pice for a double thread.

A professional working with the Pashmian thread. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Beeram Goor (Warp threads): The job of drawing or of passing the yarns on warp through the needles was done by the warp threader. The warp could be sewn in a day for which the Beeram Goor received settled wages of 5 paise a day.

Naqash (Pattern Drawer): The work of the pattern drawer started when the warp was fixed in the loom. He brought the drawing of the pattern in black and white. Generally, Naqash received 3 to 8 annas a day according to the nature of the pattern.

Tarah Guru (Colour Caller): The tarah guru after well comprehending the pattern of Naqash started his work from the bottom of the pattern. He called out the colour, the number of threads to which the colour was to extend and the colour by which it was to follow and so in succession till the whole pattern was described.

Talim Guru (Pattern Master): The work of Talimguru was to write down the particulars of the pattern in shorthand for the guidance of shawl weavers.

Pashmina yarn is kept in a particular length. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Tabgar (Silk warp maker): For bordering the shawl the silk was twisted by Tabgar. The warp differed in breadth. The narrowest border consisted, of twenty threads and the broadest was of a hundred threads. By using silk, the darker colours of wool dyes were more prominently depicted than in a warp of yarn.

Allaqaband (Border-maker): From Tabgar the silk was handed over to the Allaqaband who recalled and cut it into proper lengths.

Shawlbaf (Shawl Weaver): According to Moorcroft the weavers constituted the most numerous class of artificers. The weavers worked under the supervision of an Ustad who had three to four hundred persons in his establishment. In one shop about 150 weavers worked together. The earning of a weaver was about one anna a day in 1823. But in 1835, it was increased to two annas a day. The condition of the weavers was very bad.

Rafugar (Fine darner): Shawls were not woven in one piece but sometimes in small parts simultaneously on various looms and afterwards sewn together by the fine darner with such neatness as the union could be scarcely detected. They were paid according to skill, varying from 5 paisa to 12 paisa a day.

Purazgar (Shawl cleaner): When the shawl was completed it was handed over to Purazgar whose work was to remove from the shawl the discoloured hairs, or yarn and remove ends or knots on the surface of the shawl.

The purchaser took the unwashed shawl and got these washed by a washer-man or Dhobi. At this stage, the shawls were given to merchants for holes and imperfections which he could get darned from Rafugar at the expense of the seller.

The shawls after cleaning were kept under the wooden cylinder and these were kept in this manner for three to four days. Then these were un-wrapped and packed. The shawls were of various types viz plain, embroidered in the loom or by needle and coloured ones. The standard size of the shawl was three gaz, a half in length and one and a half gaz (yard) in breadth. The shawls embroidered with needles were cheaper than the shawls made in the looms.

The Pashmina cloth was generally of two kinds, one plain or of two threads, and the other twilled or of four threads. The plain or two threaded were relatively in great demand. The standard measure of twilled cloth in 1823 was from 5 to 12 Girhas (3/4 th of a yard) or knots wide. According to Moorcroft, the total value of the shawl goods prior to 1823 was estimated at Rs35/- lakhs per annum i.e, £300,000). But during 1823 the total value would not exceed half of the above sum.

A foreign buyer looking at a silken carpet specimen in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Mokeem or broker: Mokeem was a person of great importance in the Kashmir shawl industry. He had his agents in most of the cities of Hindustan who forwarded him every information, regarding their trade. It is interesting to observe that no sooner had the merchant started from his home town than the Mokeem was informed about the merchant’s departure. He extended every kind of facility to the merchant in the form of food and shelter during his journey in Kashmir. The merchant was requested by him (Mokeem) to become his guest. GT Vigne thus describes the civility of the Mokeem: “When the merchant, half dead with fatigue and cold, stands at length as the snowy summit of Pir Panjal, or either of the other mountains passes, he is suddenly amazed by finding there a servant of the broker, who has kindled a fire for his reception, hands him a hot cup of tea, and a kebab, and delicious Kaliaum, and a note containing a fresh and still more pressing invitation from his master. Such well-timed civility is irresistible, his heart and his boots thaw together, and he at once accepts the hospitality of the Mokeem, who it may be, is awaiting the traveller, with a friendly hug, at the bottom of the pass, two or three days journey from the city to which he obsequiously conducts him.”

Vigne says that the shawl manufacturer displayed his shawls to the merchant in the evening. His purpose was to show the brilliance of colours that those shawls had. The starting rays of the setting sun imparted superior brilliance to their tints. An experienced merchant always ensured that a piece of the shawl was shown to him by many persons. After the deal was struck, shawls were purchased by the merchant.

The Mokeem then paid him the compliments of seeing him off at Chattabal.

(Excerpted from the doctoral thesis titled Life and Conditions of the People of Kashmir During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century of Saroj Koul.)

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