Silk Since 1846

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Kashmir has seen various ups and downs in managing the silk as an industry and an economy for the state and the people. Here is the official history of these efforts from the days when Jammu and Kashmir state was formed after a Jammu Raja purchased Kashmir from the East India Company

The moth-eaten Filatures in Silk Factory that was closed after a century-long operation, not many years ago. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

After foundations of the state of Jammu and Kashmir were laid, Maharaja Gulab Singh maintained the tempo of progress achieved during the Sikh rule. In 1855, there appeared a horrible silk-worm disease in Europe in which all the worms died. European countries sent delegations to all parts of the world and under this mission, two Italian exporters came to Kashmir and obtained 25000 ounces of silkworm seed. Frenchman Desuignour Kelber, an eminent sericulturist has recorded this event in his book Le Cocon de Sole as follows:

“In April 1860 MM Orio and Consono, Italian Silkworm seed producers, embark for India. In May, they arrived at Calcutta, where through the good offices of the British Government, they are able to go to Kashmir and get from a very important grainage 25000 ounces of seed. This seed is packed in thick wooden boxes for transport and is aerated only during the night. It reached Italy towards the end of November in a very good condition.”
Under Gulab Singh’s rule silk became an important article of trade and was exported to other parts of India in large quantities. The Government derived an income of one lakh rupees in tax from silk trade alone during the early years of his rule.

In Ranbir Singh Era

Maharaja Ranbir Singh paid great attention towards the development of the industrial sector in the state. He took a bold step and made silk industry a state monopoly. The Maharaja set apart 30000-pound sterlings for the development of the silk industry. He got 127 rearing houses built in all parts of the valley for the specific purpose of rearing silkworms.

Maharaja kept the operations of the industry under control and supervision of Babu Nilamber Mukerji, the Chief Judge of Kashmir, who took great pains to make himself acquainted with the breeding of the silk-worms and spinning off their cocoons as pursued in other sericultural countries. The famous shawl industry of Kashmir which had provided means of livelihood to a sizeable section of the population had started to decline. In order to compensate this decline, the Maharaja took several measures for development of the silk industry. He imported reeling appliances and machinery from Europe, as a result, Kashmir became familiar with the techniques of reeling prevalent in Europe.

In order to induce more people to sericultural operations, rearers were exempted from begar. The quality of raw silk greatly improved and experts of Europe spoke highly about the quality of fibre.

WH Bellow (1873) noted in Kashmir and Kashghar: “The monotony of our last days at Naseem Bagh was agreeably interrupted on 25th of August by a visit to Maharaja’s silk filature. It is an extensive establishment in the vicinity of Sherghari and gives employment to 400 men, though, as we were informed, there is work enough for four times the number”.

By 1878, Kiram Kashas had become a privileged class of the society as they were exempted from begar. They could use houses of other villagers for the purpose of breeding silkworms and they were also allowed to keep watch over mulberry trees.

A major setback to the growth of the industry in the state was a disease of the silkworms, the Pebrin which started in other parts of India in 1875 and reached Kashmir by 1878, due to which silk industry was almost wiped out. Out of 127 rearing houses built in 1869, only two survived, one at Raghunathpura (Srinagar) and other at Sherpura (Anantnag).

The oldest employees are sorting the cocoons which is art that requires transfer to new generation.

In 1881, the government thought of reviving the silk industry and fresh eggs were imported from Japan, but again the worms died. After such a heavy loss it was thought unwise to give a new start to the industry without proper planning.

In 1889, the government came to the conclusion that revival of the industry could be of great economic benefit to the state, as the shawl industry had by now declined completely. This was due to the defeat of France in the Franco-German war of 1870, which was the chief buyer of Kashmir shawls at that time. The labour was thrown out of employment followed by the severe famine of 1877, which dashed the hopes of a revival of shawl industry. The government thought of re-organizing silk industry which began in 1890 when Sir Thomas Wardle of Leek (England) involved himself with the silk industry in Kashmir.

Thomas Wardle an eminent sericulturist and President of Silk Association of Great Britain and Ireland entered into correspondence with the British Resident. In a letter dated 6lh January, addressed to Kashmir Resident, Wardle suggested to him to make an inquiry in silk producing capabilities of Kashmir and a possibility of establishing such sericulture institutions as those present at Paud and Montpellier.

As a result of the efforts of Sir Thomas Wardle, Sericulture Development Department was established in Kashmir in 1892, and operations of the industry were kept under the charge of BR Mukerji. The services of a trained professional were secured for microscopic examination of seed and the department was successful in producing disease-free local seed. BR Mukerji’s connection with the silk-industry ended at the beginning of 1894 and WR Lawrence was appointed as in charge of the operations.

Directorate Established

In 1897, Directorate of Sericulture was established under C W Walton, who had vast experience in sericulture. Improved variety of silk seed imported from Italy was distributed free of cost to rearers and cocoons produced were sent to England for reeling and weaving.

In 1898 two filatures were erected at Rambagh Srinagar and additions were made from time to time. By 1907, eight filatures had been set-up which were providing direct employment to around 5000 people.

In 1907, a small filature was established in Jammu. In 1909, a separate sericulture department was established at Jammu and one more filature was established on Raulki plateau. The jurisdiction of the Kashmir Silk Protection Act of Samvat 1963 (1906-07) was extended to Jammu province also.

The plan for a weaving factory was prepared by Kershaw of Macclesfield, an acknowledged manufacturer of woven silks in England. The plan was for one and two hundred looms and subsidiary space for winding and wrapping. Consequently, in the early 20th century, a weaving section was established at Rambagh filatures as a separate wing of the factory and looms installed were all hand-driven.

In 1905-06, eleven looms worked and during the latter part of the year, 70 additional looms were brought into work. 109 pieces were manufactured and out of these 87 were sold in England. Sale proceeds amounted to Rs 2348 and working expenses were at Rs 18828. This was because the working expenses included the amount incurred on the installation of looms.

During 1906-07, a total of 200 looms were installed. However, only 123 were put into operation. 538 pieces were manufactured and sale receipts amounted to Rs 62779 of which Rs 36316 were working expenses. Thus the factory, during this year earned a profit of Rs 26463.

In 1907, out of the 200 looms fixed, 114 were making perfect cloth. Cloth sold in London amounted to Rs 7702 and local sales amounted to Rs 11103 having working expenses of Rs 36211, thus the total loss amounted to Rs 17406. This was because of high prices for raw silk. Due to the lack of raw material, owing to the fire of 1907 in Srinagar silk factory, weavers were not working continuously. Further, the cloth manufactured was 2 4 and 28 denier neither degummed nor thrown because no throwing plant existed it Kashmir during that period.

In 1908, 3034 pieces were manufactured and loss to the factory amounted to Rs 44109. In 1909, the total loss amounted to Rs 21447 of which Rs 10026 was on account of depreciation. Since there were no facilities for dyeing and finishing, Kashmir woven silks suffered greatly for want of demand for light white silk and hence weaving was closed in 1910.

A factory with 200 looms was capable of producing 1200 yards a day, but the absence of dyeing, finishing facilities and the throwing plant badly affected the quality of fibre, which had hardly any demand in the market.

On July 31, 1913, a disastrous fire in Srinagar filatures practically destroyed the whole factory (six double storied buildings) and the whole stock of cocoons. Out of 2072 basins, 1272 were destroyed and the total loss was calculated to be Rs 15.14 lakhs of which about Rs 12.0 lakhs was compensated by the insurance company.

Later, filatures were built again and by 1918 there were five filatures containing 1520 basins in Government Silk Factory. However, since 1911, the rearing output in Kashmir had begun to decrease whereas other sericultural countries of Europe, where various developments had taken place in the techniques of rearing and reeling branches, were making steady progress.

Revival And Riots

In order to establish the industry on a more sound footing, the government deputed senior sericulture assistant Pt T C Wazir to Europe in 1921 to study the state of practical sericulture and make recommendations for the development of the industry. On his return, he submitted a report recommending modernizing the listing machinery and improvements in various processes of production. Other recommendations included reorganization of the Sericulture Department with a view to introducing a vigorous policy for the preservation of existing and propagation of new mulberry trees, development of techniques of incubation and installation of European machinery etc.

These recommendations received little attention owing to stiff opposition from the labour force and interesting sections. These developments led to riots in the silk factory on July 20, 1924.

The economic depression of 1929-30 severely restricted European sales, and as a result, all exports to Europe were stopped from Kashmir. In European markets, Kashmir silk met cutthroat competition from China and Japan. The economic depression continued till 1933-34 and Kashmir sericulture was greatly affected.

The European markets were lost and the home market was flooded with cheap Chinese and Japanese products.

In order to survive, the British Indian sericulture industry clamoured for protection. The tariff board after a thorough review of the matter recommended levying of high protective duties on imports of raw silk, cocoons, seed, spun and artificial silk and silken fabrics. The government thus came to the rescue of the industry by according protection in shape of tariff duties first for five years up to 1933 and then again from 1938 onwards till the outbreak of World War II. So far as the production of basic raw material for silk was concerned, the progress made in the early years was phenomenal in Kashmir. The yield of cocoons from silk-worm rearing and the output of silk filatures multiplied enormously.

In order to provide a fillip to weaving, the government decided to establish a separate weaving factory at Rajbagh Srinagar in 1937. World War II gave great impetus to the silk industry in the state and government reorganized the industry with the introduction of a fairly up to date plant and technical supervision was introduced from outside the state. A throwing plant formed a part of the new equipment. The requirements of the war proved a boon for both private and state-controlled sections of the weaving industry. While the bulk of private weaving industry mainly confined itself to handlooms, power looms of Government weaving factory manufactured fine silk fabrics, such as crepes, georgettes, chiffons etc., and parachute cloth for meeting the demands of Military Department of Government of India, during the World War II.

In Jammu region, a few manufacturers involved themselves in the manufacture of Darvavi and Gulbadan, which was produced on handlooms of a rudimentary kind. In the entire local weaving industry, sixty to seventy thousand pounds of raw silk were consumed towards the end of 1945-46.

By the dawn of independence, the industry had again flourished with the production of raw silk reaching around one lakh kgs providing full/part-time employment to about 50,000 persons.

Post-1947

During 1958 Central Silkworm Seed Station at Pampore (Kashmir) was established wherein existing silkworm races were transferred for maintaining them scientifically. Mulberry plantation was undertaken on a large scale and several races were introduced and maintained at Basic Seed Station Mirgund and Sialsalan Udhampur. Production of cocoons which had decreased to 7.59 lakh kgs in 1951-52 increased to 9.69 lakh kgs and raw silk production also increased from 58,300 kgs to 75,000 kgs.

After 1960-61 the industry again showed signs of depression mainly due to the development of fruit industry, an adverse situation due to Indo Pak conflict, poor quality of seed and low prices for cocoon, the creation of too many administrative heads and engagement of unskilled staff.

Many of the rearers left the profession and as a result, cocoon production decreased to 4.19 lakhs in 1969-70. Correspondingly the production of raw silk also decreased to 30,000 kgs.

The board listing the heads of Kashmir’s famed Sericulture department in the administrative block of the Silk Factory Solina. The old building is a fascinating place that deserves immediate protection.

In 1974, the government focused on sericulture industry and an expert committee under the chairmanship of Dr G Rangaswami, was set up with the assistance of Central Silk Board which submitted its report in the year 1976. The State government accepted the main recommendations and cocoon production in the valley again went up to 8.04 lakh kgs in 1978-79. Correspondingly production of raw silk also increased to 57138 kgs and mulberry plantation also showed a marked increase.

However during 1980’s production levels decreased significantly mainly due to the continued monopolistic control, insufficient mulberry leaves, denial of suitable prices to cocoon rearers. With stoppage of foreign seed distribution in 1984, made rearers reluctant to go in for large-scale cocoon production. Many rearers gave up the trade and cocoon production decreased to 4.23 lakh kgs in 1989-90. Consequently, raw silk production decreased by 72.02 per cent to 16000 kgs between 1977-78 and 1989-90. The renditta performance increased from 11.49 kgs in 1980- 81 to 17.94 kgs in 1989-90, registering an increase of 56.14 per cent. In order to arrest further decay, the silk industry in Jammu and Kashmir was de-monopolised in 1988.

During the year 1989-90, only two filatures at Rambagh with 384 basins remained, out of which only 288 were in working order. Since Kashmir and Jammu filatures had to procure cocoon from the open market they were not able to compete with prices offered in the open market and hence reeling activity suffered.

By 1990-91, production of raw silk was 18 MT, making renewal of efforts on all fronts. Right now, sericulture industry is distributed across 20 districts of the state.

Presently there are about 7 lakh mulberry trees – 53 per cent (370,000) are in Jammu and 47 per cent in Kashmir. There are 2800 villages and 33000 households in which sericulture is generating an income of Rs 2026 lakh annually and 3.5 lakh man days activities are associated with this profession. Sericulture department now has 173 nurseries spread over an area of 963 acres, and 374 mulberry blocks over an area of 2215 acres across the state. Out of these, 1500 villages are situated in Kashmir and the remaining 1300 villages in Jammu.

(This essay was excerpted from a publication of Jammu and Kashmir Industries Ltd named Reliving and Reviving Jammu Kashmir Silk, published in 2018).

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