Kashmir’s Shawl-making has a rich tapestry of resilience and survival. Kashmir researcher Peer Faizan Bashir writes about the highs and lows of the heritage craft across diverse control systems

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The earliest information about woollen fabrics comes from the Vedas. Certain sheep wool was used for spinning; therefore, the sheep was called Urnavati and wool Avika. The valley of Sindh has been called Suvasa Urnavati for its wool abundance. Dursa, from which the Dussa (rough woollen Chadar from the Punjab and Kashmir) probably occurs for the first time in the Atharvaveda.

The shawls in Kashmir appear to have been made as early as the second or third centuries CE. Very few scholars have traced the origins of the shawl, but Moti Chandra, in his Kashmir Shawls, traced the few references to woollen items that could be shawls to the Vedic Age (1500-500 BCE), recognising all the while that any inference from this early literature is pure speculation.

Shawl and Sultanate

In Rajtarangini, Kalhana mentions the weaving of wool clothes in the reign of Shakarvarman. Sericulture is reported to have been known in ancient Kashmir. Kshemendra (an 11th-century Sanskrit poet) mentions in Narmamala about wool spinning and wooden needles (Tujjis). In Narmamala, Paryanta-Lusaka was perhaps referred to as an inferior shawl, with borders. Once, Kshemendra observes that the teacher employed in the Kayatha’s house to teach the children of the house instead of carrying out his duty while away his time, in spinning, drawing out the patterns, and weaving the patterns with strips (Tujjis) or eyeless wooden needles (The arts of Kashmir, Prata Pradityapal.)

Kashmiri legend goes that Mir Sayid Ali Hamdani and Zain-ul-Abidin, the Budshah, laid the foundation of the Shawl industry. Budshah, historians have recorded invited the artisans from Andijan, Kirman, Khorasan, and parts of Turkey to improve the skill base of his kingdom’s now-famous craftsmen and offered generous patronage to them. They were given incentives in the form of land grants and cash stipends

Whosoever used to come to Kashmir was inquired if he knew any art. If he happened to know any, one or two wise countrymen were sent to him for learning that art. According to Shrivara, Bushah’s courtier and historian, the Sultan made Pashmina quality wool available to the shawl weavers.

Besides, the comb-like brush was introduced in Kashmir during after being brought from Central Asia. It is used for cleaning off the fluff from the threads of the loom.

Irwin, in his article on the Kashmiri shawl, has stated the shawl-weavers were possibly immigrants, as the style of the Shawl-making seemed to be different to India: likely from Persia and Central Asia, nowhere found in the Indian subcontinent. The technique seemed to have been twill-tapestry, in which the wefts are inserted using floating wooden bobbins (Tujjis) on a simple loom without the use of a shuttle. The weft threads alone form the patterns.

The Mughal Patronage

Come Mughals, and patronising of Shawls touched skies; in fact, trade occurred with Punjab, even Punjab was known to be the centre of shawl making then.  Akbar was fond of the Kashmiri shawl, developing it and introducing new dyes, and dying techniques. He set up the rules governing their production patterns and the organisational framework of the workshops.

The quality and fitness improved to such an extent that when these shawls were pressed, it could pass through a finger-ring. Emperor Akbar named the fine quality of the shawl Param-Narm, which means a feather touch.

Court historian Abul Fazal mentions the type of Shawl which was thrown over the shoulder sans folding it. Akbar is believed to have worn two shawls (Dochalla) of Kani type with floral decoration.  Gulistan of Saadi – a manuscript – shows two artists seated on a carpet. The older person is draped in a shawl, Muhammad Husain Kashmiri, and the other person is a pupil, Manohar, the artist of Akbar, responsible for painting, according to The Arts of Kashmir by Prata Pradityapal.

Jahangir described the great fame of the Kashmir shawl production. He stated that the wool for the shawls came from a goat, which is peculiar to Tibet. “In Kashmir, they weave the Pattu shawl from wool and sewing two shawls together they smooth them into a kind of Saqarlat (broad-cloth) which is not bad for a raincoat.” There was a royal monopoly of the Tus shawls. He valued the shawls and often presented one as a personal mark of honour to those favoured in his court.

Under Aurangzeb, the industry and its popularity didn’t diminish. French Traveller Francois Bernier, who accompanied the Emperor to Kashmir in 1665 AD, writes: “What may be considered peculiar to Kashmir, and the stable commodity which particularly promotes the trade of the country and fills it with wealth, is the prodigious quality of shawls which they manufacture and which gives occupation even to little children”. Shawls were exported to other countries, mostly by independent merchants including the East India Company.

Credit for investing in the plain shawl with beautiful colours goes to Naghz Beg, the cook of Mirza Haider Dughlat who came from Khuqand, the capital of Fergana (Central Asia), Babur’s homeland, which was also famous for textiles. This intelligent man witnessed drops of blood falling on a Pashmina piece from the bleeding nose of the weaver, who had been slapped, and this inspired him with the idea of colouring plain Pashminas which was successful. (The Other Side of Terrestrial Paradise: Kashmir and its Shawl Industry (c. 1420-1846), Shiraz Ahmad Dar.)

In Afghan Era

 Afghans widened the scope of its foreign trade by making the presents of the shawls to the foreign countries. The most important notable development of this period was that French traders began to appear in Kashmir and exported shawls of various designs to France.

By the 1790s, France was already experiencing a fascination for the shawls. Napoleon and his officers brought shawls to their wives after the Egyptian campaign. Napoleon’s first wife Josephine fell for them and collected them. Josephine owned 60 shawls, costing an exorbitant amount. From flowery during the Mughal times to Boteh (cone-shaped) came about naturally.  Khatraaz, stripped moon style, emerged as well during Afghan rule.

However, the condition of the shawl weavers was miserable. The Afghan administration commenced to put its stamp on the shawls and one rupee per stamp was charged as tax. This led to the foundation of the Dagh-shawl department. The main function of this department was to collect the taxes imposed on shawl manufacturers and their employees. The Dagh-shawl was placed in charge of a person called Darogha. It had broken the back of 12000 poor shawl weavers of Srinagar.

“The shawl produced on the loom was taken by the state and the price of Shali, together with the amount of duty leviable on the shawl, was recovered from the price of the shawl,” Pandit Anand Koul has recorded.  Haji Karim, whose regime is considered the darkest period in the history of Kashmir, raised thirteen lakh rupees entirely from the shawl industry as annual income. Mir Izzatullah who visited Kashmir in 1812-13 found: “The shawl weavers are in a most poverty-stricken condition, and receive only two to four Paisa daily as wages; their employers on the other hand, who find them in wool and silk, paying their daily wages, are very wealthy”.

The Sikh Era

Under the Sikh rule, the condition of the shawl industry improved. William Moorcroft, who visited Kashmir in 1822, saw it flourishing and estimated the value of shawl goods manufactured in Kashmir at thirty-five lakhs rupees per annum.

Ranjit Singh was a great admirer of shawls and owned a vast collection himself. The Shawl industry flourished therefore and captured the attention of Europeans, especially France. Alexis Stoltykoff (Russian painter and traveller) stated that they walked on Kashmiri shawls, alleys, streets, and ceilings. Sikh elites possessed shawls. During the Sikh rule, the Shawl industry didn’t decline but went on at an unprecedented pace; it was simply another style, the Indo-French style, fuelled by the designs of the French.

This industry during the first quarter of the 19th century employed one hundred and twenty thousand persons. The factory owners who assumed massive fortunes turned so ostentatious and luxurious that “they poured milk instead of water in their Hubble bubbles”.

Baron Schonberg, who visited Kashmir after Ranjit Singh’s death, remarked that the daily wages of each weaver were four Annas (16 Annas to the rupee), of which he paid two Annas to the Sikh Governors of Kashmir. The administration remained extremely feudal and the punishments severe. The shawl weaver was not in a position to support his family without the supplementary earnings of his wife and children. That is why the children of the weaver were sent to work almost as soon as they were able to do so.

The workers were taxed at every stage. The shawl-Bafs (weavers) were under the complete control of the Dagh-Shal department. The department affixed the price of a shawl and realised a certain percentage as state tax.

“As soon as the shawl is made, notice is given to the inspector, and none can be cut from the loom but in his presence,” GT Vigne, who visited Kashmir in autumn wrote. “It is then taken to the customs house and stamped, a price is put upon it by the proper officer, and 25 per cent of the price is demanded.”

The Pashmina

Pashmina is derived from the Farsi word Pashm, meaning the soft fleece that grows under the hairy coat of animals, especially goats, which helps them to survive freezing temperatures. The shawl has been woven in a double interlock tapestry twill technique which is unique to Kashmir. Once the warp is in place, bobbins or Kani of red, peach, black and light indigo are worked into the weft using the tapestry technique.  This kind of production by one to three weavers at the same loom could produce a shawl in a year to three years.

The process starts first by de-hairing the fleece, removing impurities, spinning, dyeing, making the warp, weaving, and embroidering. Once the wool is collected, it is washed and cleaned to remove impurities. This process is done using natural soaps and water to preserve the delicate fibres of the wool. After cleaning, the wool is then dried in the sun to remove any excess moisture. After the wool is cleaned and prepared, it is spun into yarn using a spinning wheel or spindle (Yander). The yarn is then woven into the fabric using a handloom or a traditional wooden shuttle loom. The weaving process is a delicate one and requires great skill and patience to create the intricate patterns and designs that are characteristic of Pashmina.

The process is labour-intensive and requires great skill and patience. Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal have been important places in Kashmir making Shawls.

Various types of embroidery are in vogue. Zardozi shawls are embroidered with gold wire or silk thread. In Tilla shawls limitless delicate and diverse patterns are created.

However, Kanni and Sozni shawls are the twin time-consuming shawls. Kani Shawls are made via a twill-tapestry technique and are time-consuming and costly. Kanihama in Budgam has been remarkable for making Kani Shawls. Artisans weave a Kani Shawl like a carpet.

Sozni Shawls are exceptionally fine, delicate, and artistic forms of needlework. This Shawl begins with the selection of high-quality fabric and then the artisan carefully selects the design and pattern, marking the pattern onto the fabric, ending up in the artisan working on it, filling it with differently coloured threads with the help of needles.

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