Kashmir, a valley of art, has a legacy of art, as old as the history of art itself.
With life flowing like the waves of Dal Lake on a peaceful day, Kashmir has discovered art in the crevices of minutes infused in idleness & chaos. And, being a Mushaira, a poetic symposium of languages, lives, & stories, the art that bloomed in Kashmir wasn’t untouched by the whiff of this symposium of words & their poetries.
As early as 16th century or so, an art of effort & dedication, a symbol of craftsmanship, weaved its own space in Kashmir, for ages to remember & relish. A delicate luxury, a “soft gold” – Pashmina Shawl is infused in the history of art of Kashmir.
The word Pashmina find its origin in Persian word, “Pashm” (wool) , & in Kashmir, it’s the raw wool whose fibers are given the form of threads.
Known for its extreme smoothness, Pashmina shawl is the winter coat of Changthangi goats found in the high Himalayan regions of Leh. The climatic conditions of Changthang located in the east of Leh region – the low temperatures, & the high attitude (around 12,000 feet above from sea level) facilitate the weaving of the winter coats of Changthangi goats, that eventually end up being the Pashmina shawls – a shawl reflecting luxury & richness.
The process of combing, removing this winter goat from different parts of Changthangi goats, specially from their underbellies, is what lays foundation for the soft Pashmina shawl. But, with combing comes a lot of undesirable materials, which can only be cleaned with laborious effort.
In days gone by, Pashmina wool was the companion of idleness of Kashmiri women who sought financial independence through effort. Raw, uncleaned wool, could be found in most of the households alongside spinning wheel, called Yander in Kashmiri. A delicate, painstakingly attentive effort to clean the raw wool, to get rid of low quality coarse materials, to form threads out of it, ended up being the golden, warm ornament beyond borders. Yander, or spinning wheel held those threads, while adding another tougher thread to weave a softer toughness. Hand spinning (yander katun) aligned these threads of different textures, rendering a fineness, after which two or more threads were moulded together using traditional spinning combs. The well moulded threads were further smoothened in factories to create the beautiful Pashmina shawls. Washing & dying comes along too, even though the colour of wool also depends on the colour of the skins of goats. Nature’s wonders!
Women, back then, were an important part of trade that Pashmina making involved. These fine threads were so precious to women back then, whose livelihood depended on how many fine threads they had by the end of the month. Pashmina shawls, no matter where they’re admired today, will always be the honour of Kashmiri households. The faith of women in working, pouring their heart & soul in creating masterpieces out of their hardwork.
History does speak for art. During the rule of Zain-ul-Abideen, Pashmina Shawls are many a times related with the Mughal Era claiming that 1500 or so looms were in place in the valley, weaving this luxury. Many also believe that Emperor Akbar used to gift his wives Pashmina shawls. Others add that in 19th century, Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, adored Pashmina shawls.
The variety in Pashmina Shawls is heavenly, whether you like your Pashminas to be simple or all bedecked with mysterious prints, with singular floral motifs (Buti) or multi floral ones (Butta) you get to decide what you put. For “No Two Pashmina Shawls Are The Same.”
Pashmina Shawl without embroidery is a blank canvas. Embroidery, let loose on Pashmina Shawls make them uniquely distinguishable. Embroidered shawls are believed to be originated in the 18th century when they were known as “amlikar shawls”. To embroider the shawls, the patterns to be bedecked on the shawls are carved using wooden blocks or perforated lines. Once the patterns are traced, the weaving is done with different coloured pashmina threads.
Some common types of embroidery :
1) Sozni embroidery : Sozni embroidery consists of elaborate floral or paisley patterns woven with silk or cotton threads. With a price of Rs 35,000 or so, each shawl takes months of hardwork to complete.
2) Paper-machie embroidery : An expensive variety of embroidery, it uses thicker & vibrant threads. A marvel in itself, it may cost Rs 160,000 or so.
3) Tilla embroidery : Tilla is a golden coloured thread. The needless used for this embroidery are quite delicate & are even more delicately used to embroider diverse patterns on shawls. Limitless in patterns, tilla enlightens the shawls with unmatched grace.
• One shawl that I’d like to give a special mention is Do-Rukha Embroidered Pashmina Shawl – a shawl in which one side of the shawl is the mirror image of the other.
It takes around 250 hours or so to make one Pashmina shawl, that too, without embroidery. The art survived because the artists believed in their hardwork. However, as technology shifted lives & labour, Pashmina shawls & its varieties ended up being the victim of machines. Hand-weaving alienated, it became difficult to recognize the pure Pashmina shawl from the infinite variety out there competing for market. To the respite of traditional shawl weaving, in 2013, Kashmir became the only place where Pashmina Shawl has GI (Geographical Indication Mark), a mark of identification to choose hand-woven Pashminas over machine made ones. A mark to choose pure pashminas.
There are other techniques to identify real Pashmina too – for example, we know Pashminas are made from real hair so burning their threads must give hair – like smell or burning their threads must give ash as residue. Also, a test for their smoothness is that they should easily pass through rings. Coarse & Pashmina are antonyms for sure.
Pashmina shawls are believed to last for as long as 100 years. And, the time it takes to weave them is what makes them so-lasting & expensive too. Effort has to be expensive. Depending on the quality, on the degree of fineness, Pashmina shawls can range from 12,000 – 1,60,000. And, possibly more.
A soft warmth, lasting for ages, clinging to you yet not feeling burdensome – that’s Pashminas shawl for you.
Article by Aiman Khan