The vanishing Koshier toep

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It is one of those unique unmistakably Kashmir symbols but as Majid Maqbool finds traditional Kashmiri cap is disappearing for want to takers.

The once popular handmade Kashmiri cap, generally referred to  Chukhantel is fast disappearing from Kashmir. The Koshier toep – called Chukhantel, because of its four triangular pieces joined together in a perforated cone by a special thread – was once a popular headgear of Kashmiris.
But rising labour costs, less demand, and import of cheaper caps from other countries over the years has slowly pushed it to peripheries. And its artisans faced with dwindling demands are shifting to other trades.
The Kashmiri cap sales are limited to a few shops few shops in Kokerbazer and some roadside vendors in Lal Chowk. Trades say the caps are disappearing from the market as they find no takers now.
Fayaz Ahmad Dar has a few Kashmiri caps lying unattended in one dusty corner of his shop in Koker  Bazar. Stocked in larger quantities are what he mostly sells – caps from other countries that are in demand.
“Only some old people and some tourists come and ask for the original Kashmiri caps,” he says. “New generation is not interested. They don’t like to wear it.”
The few sellers of the handmade Kashmiri caps buy them from fewer wholesalers for the caps, mainly in Naidkadal area, who in turn buy the caps directly from the few left artisans who make these caps.
The wholesalers say, unlike in the past, only a few artisans approach them now to sell their hand made Kashmiri caps. As the demand of Kashmiri caps went down, the wholesalers started stocking caps from countries like Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. Basharat Ahmad, a wholesaler in Naidkadal, mostly has stocks of caps from other countries. His business can’t sustain on Kashmiri caps alone. “Caps from other countries are more in demand in the market. People mostly buy these caps now as they get them at cheaper rates,” he said.
Handmade Kashmiri caps are costly very little in demand. “There is no one to buy them now. New generation is not interested in wearing these caps,” he said.
Mohammad Khaleel, 70, another wholesaler, gets only a few customers who ask for original Kashmiri caps. Some decades back he sold these caps in large numbers to different shops in the city. His family was in the business for decades and his shops shop was a major wholesale point for the handmade Kashmiri caps.
Artisans would directly come to his shop to sell their handmade caps. Khalil is witness of the decline of the business over the years. “Now only some three old artisans come to us to sell their hand made Kashmiri caps,” he said.  
Now he is forced to stock other items including foreign caps to sustain his business.
The origin of Kashmiri cap dates back to the period of Hazrat Shah Hamdan (RA).  “Shah Hamdam (RA) made the original Kashmiri cap with his own hands, which was called Fatele kaej,” he said. At times of ablution, when people would prepare for the prayers, he says, the handmade cap would remain balanced on the knee. “It was very popular in early times of Kashmir. And everyone would wear it in all seasons,” he said.
Khaleel says some 10,000 people were associated with making of Kashmiri caps in 1947. After 50s Kashmiri caps were made in Islamabad but they were sub-standard. “They used paper instead of cotton in the making of the caps,” he says. “But that cap was of low quality and would not last long.”
Khaleel says there were big units in the Srinagar city involved with the making of Kashmiri caps. “There were many units, in Khawaja bazaar, Nawabazar, Batamaloo etc, where these caps would be made. In one unit they would employ as many as 100 people to make these caps.” But they no longer exist now.
The original cone shaped Kashmiri cap is made of cotton. The handmade cap costs from Rs 50 to Rs 150 and even more (even Rs 600) depending on the work done on the cap. It is usually called gamee toep. Although handmade Kashmiri caps are of better quality, these caps are also made by machine now.  
Khaleel points out that the original of Kashmiri cap has a religious background as it was first made by Shah Hamdan (RA). “He made a slightly elevated and a larger in size cap that what we have at present,” he says. The thread (poat) used for the original hand made Kashmiri caps is no longer available now, he says.
There are other caps in the market now that are doing brisk business. The wholesalers have stocks of Baramulla caps and Sopori caps as well. They sell well in the market but these are not the original Kashmiri caps. “In Baramulla they changed the shape of the cap to round and in Sopore they made it of Nylon,” says Muhammad Aijaz, son of Muhammad Khaleel. “The original Kashmiri cap is of cotton and poat (thread).”
There was a handmade, round Kashmiri cap that women wore in the past. It was called Kashmiri teach. It is no longer available now. “Women would wear this red coloured embroidered Kashmiri cap. It would hide their hair,” said Khaleel. Some 50- 60 homes in Bamdeme  village and Kailashpora area of Srinagar were associated with making of this cap. “It is no longer made now. For the past two years this cap is not found anywhere,” he said.
Some 50 years ago in Dadewampore village of Chadoora, some 60 homes were associated with the making of Kashmiri caps in a place called Jailkhane. “Someone from that village was earlier believed to have been making these caps while serving imprisonment in jail. When he went home after his release, he taught the craft to his fellow villagers,” says Khaleel. Then all the people from the village started making these Kashmiri caps. “They would make the caps in winters and sell them to us in March every year,” he says. From 90s onwards, as the use of Kashmiri hand made caps declined, they left the craft.
For a while in 1980s Tibetan refugees also made the Kashmiri caps. They left it too. The introduction of imported caps in the market after 80s had an impact on the market of Kashmiri caps. Since they were not as costly as Kashmiri caps, they found an easy market in the valley. Khaleel says youngsters would not wear caps but after the movement broke out in 90s youth started wearing caps.  “People started asking for caps of different kinds. So we had to get these caps from outside to satisfy the market demand,” says Basharat.
Increasing labour costs and less profit made the artisans give up the craft and take up other works. “They could not earn their livelihood from this craft alone as there was no profit in it,” says Khaleel. “Those old artisans are no more now, and the new generation doesn’t want to take up this work as there are no returns.”
After 80s, caps from Bangladesh, Delhi and other places were imported in the valley. “There was demand for these caps as they were cheap and people liked these caps. The Kashmiri cap was disliked by the newer generation,” says Khaleel.  
He stocks caps from other countries, especially from Indonesia, which are sold well in the market these days.
Khaleel’s son Muhammad Aijaz, who looks after his father’s business, sees a bleak future for Kashmiri caps. He says they were forced to change their business line as Kashmiri caps are no longer made and in use now. They also sell Islamic items like surma, prayer mats, prayer beads etc. They have customers from different Darululooms who ask for caps made in Bangladesh and Indonesia. “People go to perform Hajj and there they see different kind of caps. Then they start demanding the same caps here,” says Aijaz. “So we have to import caps from other countries keeping in view the current market demand.”
He says very few people are interested in buying the Kashmiri caps now. “Only some old people above 60 come and ask for these caps and they want it for cheaper rates as well,” he says. “They want to get it on the same price they brought it in the past. They don’t understand that times have changed and rates have changed as well,” Khaleel says smilingly.
Given the rising costs, less demand, increased labour and lack of interest among people, the future of hand made Kashmiri cap looks bleak. “That time is not far when you won’t find the original Kashmiri cap anywhere,” laments Khaleel.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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