Shawl making in Kashmir

The arts and crafts of Kashmir have enjoyed a well-earned fame for centuries. The pre-eminence of the decorative art can be attributed to historical conditions that shaped the cultural development of the Kashmiri people. The people of the Valley have thus developed their technical and artistic traditions over centuries.

In fact art of a place is the heritage of many generations; it represents a series of consecutive layers, which reflect people’s culture through the ages. The small or big creations reflect the necessity of everyday life as well as the aesthetic creativity of the people involved in their make.

The life pattern of the Kashmiri people over the years has been exposed to various movements of different civilizations to reflect the diversity in many of its facets of social fabric.

The skills and knowledge imparted by different groups created a diversity of artistic traditions and is the distinguishing feature in the works of art of all genres.

Kashmir has remained famous for many manufactures but the commodity for which it was considered peculiar and celebrated throughout the world and which formed the most important article of its external trade and filled the coffers of the state exchequer besides providing a source of livelihood to large section of people after agriculture, was the manufacture of light, warm and elegant article of dress known in local appellation as shawl and variously designated by its non-local admirers as paramnaram, royal apparel, the queens wear, the king’s robe or the oriental pride.

Shawl is an English word derived from the Persian word shal, originally denoting a class of woven fabric rather than a particular article of dress. In Persian shal also means a garment usually worn by Sufis and derwashis.

Many speculations have been made by the historians of art about the origin of Kashmiri shawl. Tradition says that Syed Ali Hamdani RA, the learned saint from Central Asia visited Kashmir in the late 14thcentury for the purpose of propagation of Islam in Kashmir and brought with him over seven hundred disciples, some of whom were said to be skilled craftsmen.

However, Hindu scriptures contain several valuable references about this industry which lead us to its antiquity in Kashmir. It is said that during epic age, shawl industry was well established in Kashmir. Tradition goes that when Krishna went to the Kauravas as a delegate from the Pandavas, the presents of Dretarashtra to him included ten thousand Shawls of Kashmir. Hereene was almost of the same opinion that the fine and soft woolen garments were given in dowry by Janaka to his daughters especially to Sita were nothing but Kashmiri shawls.

Another scholar, Dr. Moti Chandra has earned much respectability in this regard. Ksemendra’s Desopedesa and Narmamala have become the focal point from which he has drawn the support. Besides referring to various kinds of woolen textiles like tusta, praveran and prayantatustaka, Ksemendra refers in unmistakable terms the manufacture of what is known as kani shawls during this period.

On the basis of weaving evidence existing in Kashmir, and its portrayal on the Harwan tiles that depict wearing of shawl like textile piece some believe that shawl existed in Kashmir in the 2nd century AD.

In ancient Buddhist literature the shawl can be found among recorded inventories of woollen textiles, and its manufacture appears to have been a cottage industry in Kashmir as early as the 11th century AD.

Scholars believe that the craft went into decline till the end of 14th century AD and it was in the latter part of the 14th century AD that Shah-i-Hamdan revived the craft. Sultan Qutub-ud-Din, who was then ruler of Kashmir, patronized this industry.

However, it is to be added that Kashmiri historian Kalhana has not mentioned it to have been weaved, while as his follower Srivara do write that woollen fabric soha possibly a shawl was weaved during the reign of Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin especially twill-tapestry weave. Jhon Irwin further says that local tradition held so far is that the founder of the shawl industry was Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin. He had direct and warm relations with the Timurid princes, who sent several missions to his court.

According to the learned historian of Tabaqat-i-Akbari, Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin sent a diplomatic mission along with ‘mule loads of saffron, paper, musk, shawls, cups of glass, crystal’ to Abu Said Mirza, the ruler of lands from Bokhara to Khurasan. This is the first time in Kashmir that shawls from Kashmir as diplomatic missions are mentioned.

On the other hand a very interesting tract in Persian on shawl-weaving by Haji Mukhtar Shah has come to light whose ancestors began working in the shawl trade in the 17th century, was painfully struck by its sudden demise during the 1870s, and at the request of the eminent linguist G.W. Leitner, wrote a history tracing the early development of the industry. He records that Kashmir came under the defacto domination of MirzaHaiderDughlat in 1540 A.D.

MirzaHaidar encouraged many of the industries originally introduced by Sultan Zain-ul-Abdin a hundred years earlier.

He further records, that it was during the days of MirzaHaidarDughlat in Kashmir that fine fabric pashmina shawl was weaved for the first time when a noble of his court Naghz Beg, who was resident of Khuqand, has got a few mound of wool (pashm) from the Tibetan goat, that have coarser upper layer and fine fabric soft and warm layer of wool, that was spun and made in Kashmir for the presentation to MirzaHaidar.

A few rolls of putto or coarse woollen cloth were brought from the ruler of Tibet which, in those days, included the area of Ladakh also. When compared with the puttoo produced in Kashmir, he found that former was softer and warmer stuff than the latter. When Naghz Beg got two rolls made of this superior stuff. These were then presented to MirzaHyderDughlat who, after examining, asked in Kashghari language whether only do-shawl (two rolls) were prepared or more. This was how the fabric got the name of shawl.

Doubt still persists about the origin of Kashmiri shawl, but it is firm that during Mughal period shawl making was in a developed stage. From this period onwards its development can be followed without much difficulty.

AbulFazl who was the court historian of Akbar wrote that Akbar experimented with various techniques. He improved the shawl department by making a visual improvement to tus shawls. He increased the size of the Kashmiri shawl so that it could be made of in to complete suit. In the Ain-i-Akbari, the emperor is revealed as a keen admirer of the shawls who not only kept his wardrobe well stocked with them but introduced the fashion of wearing them in pairs (doshala), stitched back to back so that the undersides were never visible. Akbar encouraged new combinations in Lahore factories, “A kind of shawl named mayan is chiefly woven there, it consists of silk and wool mixed. These are of standard size. Both reversible shawls called “durukha” or “aksi were made.”

During this period shawl production increased very much, and it is also believed that shawls were exported to different countries of the world. Following Akbar’s death his son, Jahangir succeeded on the throne and it is believed that Kashmir Shawl industry reached its aesthetic climax.

The shawl industry was widespread under Jahangir as his memoirs indicate:“The shawl to which my father gave the name of Parmnarm revere famous; there is no need to praise them (hajatba tariff naist). From Tuzuk-i-Jahngiri one collects scattered bits of information on shawls such as the wearing of AsliTus in court was a privilege granted only by the emperor or that Kashmir shawls were often a part of formal khilats bestowed by the emperor on his nobles. By Shah Jehan’s and Aurangzeb’s time the shawl industry reached a popular cottage industry level in Kashmir while retaining its superiority in the subcontinent.”

Bernier accompanied Aurangzeb to Kashmir in 1665 AD and gave the following account, “Large quantities of shawls were manufactured which gave employment even to children. Both Mughal and Indian men and women wore them in winter round their heads passing them over the shoulders as a mantle. One sort was manufactured from the wool of the country and the other from the wool of the shawl-goat of Tibet.”

During the Mughal period the Kashmiri shawls were given as presents not only to the ladies of the imperial harem, governors and newly appointed state officials, but also to the foreign envoys on state visit to India.

Sir Thomas Roe, ambassador of James- I of England was presented one such shawl when he visited Surat in 1666 AD. Shawls were sent to foreign monarchs as a token of respect and good will for instance by Shahjehan to the rulers of Rome, Persia, Egypt, Golconda and Bijapur. Mughals made shawl an imperial monopoly in order to cater to their own interests and to those of the Indian and the Kashmiri elite.

A special officer, Qlandhar Beg was appointed to look after the Shawl karakhanas. He was to collect the best shawls that could be fabricated in Kashmir, and send them to Mughal court where they were distributed among the elite and the nobility. The huge demand for the shawl proportionately increased the number of craftsmen. Even small children took to the occupation of Shawl making during this period.

Later on when the Afghans came to rule in Kashmir the shawl industry was further improved, and it is believed that during the tenure of Azad Khan an expert shawl maker called Ali Baba introduced the soznikari shawl in Kashmir.

After his death soznikari became one of the most dominant styles of Shawl making in Kashmir. Shawls of this kind used to be very expensive. Some people are of the opinion that he introduced Amilikar shawls also.

During the Afghan period Kashmiri shawl made its way to Europe through Syed Yaheya of Baghdad who on his visit to Kashmir received it from the ruler of Kashmir. Through Khadive whom the Syed gifted the shawl in Egypt, it found its way to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift again.Napoleon passed it to the future empress Josephine. From that time, these beautiful eastern warps became fashionable for beautiful western shoulders in Paris and other parts of Europe.

The shawl continued to enjoy state patronage during the Sikh and Dogra period. Some of the finest shawls were made during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s period. He ordered numerous shawls for not only decorating his Darbar tent and depicting his victories in the richest embroidery but also for making it a convention to present these to the Europeans who visited his court. Thousands of men and women, in villages, towns and the city of Srinagar were engaged in the shawl industry.

The industry was one of the main sources of income to the state. The credit of this industry laid in the production of the most excellent and exquisite shawl for which Kashmir has always been famous in Europe and Asia.

Carpet weaving is considered one of the oldest crafts of Kashmir. It is said that the craft was introduced from Central Asia. One of the greatest kings of valley Sultan Zain-ulAbdinvisted the area and studied the area well. His reign of about fifty years saw a large infusion of foreign expertise for the promotion of arts and crafts in Kashmir and among them were carpet weavers from Persia and Central-Asia. It is said that Zain-ul-Abdin set up workshops and started coaching classes even in the criminal reformatories where the prisoners of all ages were taught manual skills, especially rug weaving.

Though no rugs have yet been identified as survivors from this period, it can only be presumed that there may have been close aesthetic and technical affinities between rugs of Kashmir and those made in Bukhara, Herat and Khurasan in view of the constant cultural overlap in this entire region. When Mughals took over Kashmir in the 16th century, they found most of the crafts including carpets to be well rooted, though wilting due to political and social chaos under the Chak rulers.

The growth and development of carpet weaving may have also been because MirzaHaidarDughlat, the ruler of Kashmir in the beginning of 16th century, who was himself an admirer of Kashmiri crafts. It is also said that during the rule of Mughal emperor Jehangir a further boost was given to carpet production under the governorship of Ahmed Beg (1615-18), when many dormant weaving centres were restarted and languishing ones were quickened. This was the time when Mughals maintained a great relationship with their ancestral land and the excellent arts and craft centres of the Central Asia that would have further helped the artisans in Kashmir.

In this respect one AkhundRehnuma, a Kashmiri merchant visited Andijan (Uzbekistan) and studied the carpet industry and brought back some new tools for the carpet weavers to train them in the particular art. His tomb in Gojawara, Srinagar is still venerated by the carpet weavers. Carpets were produced throughout the Mughal period and exported to South India where the Deccan provided eager markets.

Mughal reign was followed by Afghan and Sikh rule, a highly unsettled period for Kashmir, during which the karkhana system of carpet weaving declined except at the time when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was ruling as there was an enhancement in carpet production, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Parvaiz Bhat
parvaizphd@yahoo.co.in