Washing It Off

The secret of washing Pashmina shawls helped five families flourish in Aali Kadal till it remained with them. Once out, the new secret keepers carried forward the legacy despite odds. Ubeer Naqushbandi reports

Downtown-Srinagar-Washermen-on-Jhelum-river-BankSince early 1950s, five households in Wwushi Sahab mohallah in Aali Kadal, Srinagar kept the tradition of washing prized Pashmina fabric, alive. The art of washing Pashmina, which involves delicate process, was a well guarded secret, shared by these five families only. Back then, with just five families doing the washing, work used to be always in abundance. So was the money.

Almost six decades later people in Aali Kadal area still remember the names of famous five: Mohammad Sidiq Wani, Ghulam Ahmed Sheikh, Abdul Karim Sheikh, Ghulam Ahmed Kozgar and Ghulam Qadir Mir.

The famous five would start their day at the crack of dawn by taking Pashmina fabric to nearby ghat of Jhelum River for washing. Then they would mix particular amount of chemicals, known to the five families only, into huge water tumblers loaded with Pashmina fabric. The process involved almost every family member of these men. Fearing takeover of business, no outsider was involved in the process by these famous five.

The famous five had all the big names of Kashmir’s Pashmina on their client list including Babas of Marjanpora and Mattoo’s of Zainakadal.

The most famous among the five was Mohammad Sidiq alias Sidiq dhoabi. He was known for three things: his dressing sense, cleanliness and big langars (large community kitchens). During one such langar Sidiq heard two of his fraternity members Ghulam Ahmed Kozgar and Ghulam Qadir Mir, discuss bringing outside help for assistance.

Sidiq quickly summoned all five household heads and told them: “Listen, brothers bringing outside help would mean death to our business. The secret of washing Pashmina fabric will no longer remain a secret.”

But Kozgar and Mir ignored Sidiq’s words and eventually got outside help for their business. They bought kappar dobhis (washerman) for help. That night Sidiq did not sleep. He wept bitterly. “It is all over,” he was heard saying.

New Hub

These Kappar dobhis or traditional washermen were mainly from Pazwalpora, Shalimar in Srinagar. According to Abdul Ahad, President Dobhi (washerman) Union, the tradition of washing clothes in Pazwalpora dates back to 150 years. “We are taking forward our ancestor’s legay,” says Ahad.

Interestingly, before Kozgar and Mir introduced them to Pashmina washing, Kappar dobhis were exclusively into washing clothes of locals. They would visit households every Friday to collect dirty clothes and return the washed ones.

Apart from these traditional washermen there were two drycleaners as well in Srinagar: Sultana Dry Cleaners at Pratap Park and Veer at Lambert Lane. But they were expensive.

The women folk of these washermen used to actively assist their male counterparts, especially in collecting money from the customers. One such collector was Pheez Dedh of Chamar Douri Zaina Kadal in Shehr-e-Khaas. She was blind in one eye. Whenever Pheez Dedh would go out to collect money, nobody dared to say no to her. But with time Shehr-e-Khaas lost its glory as Pazwalpora emerged as new hub.

The years that followed proved Sidiq’s fears right. Kappar dobhis ended up hijacking the art of cleaning Pashmina shawls, once exclusivity of five families in Aali Kadal. Instead of using the “secret chemicals” these washerman used ‘Khenii Saban’ and ‘Rainnti Saban’ (detergent bars) produced locally at Kalashpora. The next transformation was use of imported Sunlight Bars which cost 6 annas each – something not afforded by everyone.

“Presently washing of around 70 percent of Kashmir craft, including Pashmina, is done in our area. We also wash linen and furnishing items of hotels from Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Boulevard etc.,” says Ahad.

Old-Kashmiri-Washerman

Technological Change

From Jhelum ghats to small hoses inside their houses, the journey of washermen is full of twists and turns. “The increasing level of pollution in Jhelum forced us to look for alternatives,” says Ghulam Mohammad Dhoabi, a washerman from Fateh Kadal. “Besides in this age of technology, it is futile to rely on traditional methods.”

In a few years hoses’ replaced ghats, tube-well replaced Jhelum’s free flowing waters, expensive spinners replaced traditional Werkeej, and rotator press replaced old irons.

Gen-X Shift

The gen-next is not ready to follow their parent’s footsteps because of social stigma, inferiority complex, less returns, more labour etc. A number of youngsters have taken up other means of livelihood. “Social stigma is main reason why young generation is shying away from this profession,” feels Ghulam Mohammad. “A fellow washerman wept bitterly when his oncologist son told him to stop washing clothes as he has to face embarrassment among his friends,” says Mohammad. “That kid became doctor just because his father worked hard throughout his life washing clothes. Now the same kid is ashamed of his father’s profession.”

With no option left, the oncologist’s father left his profession and shifted from his ancestral locality to a posh address in suburban Srinagar.

“Not everybody has inferiority complex. We earn good money, besides it is better to wash clothes than hunt for government jobs,” feels Ahad.

Downtown-Srinagar-Washermen 

Stagnation

With Pashmina and other Kashmiri fabrics losing market washerman feel the pressure of survival. “We are not keeping pace with the world around us,” feels Ahad.

He argues that the price of chemicals have gone up from Rs 50/kg to Rs 170/kg in last one year, but the charges of washing have remained same. “We still charge between Rs 100 and Rs 300 for a shawl. And roll of chain stitch per sq ft is still mere Rs 3.50,” says Ahad.

A year back sulphuric dioxide, which is used for whitening of fabric, was sold for Rs 60/kg now costs Rs 160/kg. “Even the cost of detergent has gone up from Rs 15/kg to Rs 40/kg. How will we manage the inflation,” says Ahad.

 

Current Status

Apart from Aali Kadal and Pazwalpora a number of areas in Shehr-e-Khaas were associated with washerman, espiecally known for washing Kashmiri art. “There were washerman in Hazratbal, Bota Kadal, Nallabal, Fateh Kadal as well,” says Ahad.

But at present it is Pazwalpora that is keeping the tradition alive, rest is all gone. The buzz in Aali Kadal is that the wise man Sidiq saw it coming five decades back.

Sidiq’s son Ghulam Nabi Wani, 60, a graduate, who is trying to keep the family tradition alive, admits that “after outsiders were made part of the secret, the bad days of once famous five families started.”

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