Pashmina: Tracing The History And Struggles Of Srinagar’s Endangered Legacy Craft

Pashmina: Tracing The History And Struggles Of Srinagar’s Endangered Legacy Craft
L: Pashmina.com, R: Hyperallergic

Pashmina shawls are the epitome of heritage and legacy. For thousands of years, Kashmir has been the uncontested producer of Pashmina shawls, where the art of weaving these exquisite shawls is passed down from generation to generation. It takes an artisan, years to perfect their skills in the art of embroidery, which is why the shawls are so revered; because they embody Kashmir’s rich and poignant culture.

In the early ages, Pashmina was a royal symbol and was known as 'Fiber for Kings'. During the 15th century, the weaving of tapestry shawls was introduced from Turkistan by Zain-ul-Abdin the ruler of Kashmir, who brought Persian weavers to the land along with Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who introduced the craft in 13 A.D. Exquisitely soft, lightweight, and still warm, this royal luxury was patronized by successive rulers like Akbar, and later on, in the 19th century, Pashmina became a craze in France after Napoleon presented an exotic shawl to Empress Josephine.

The name, Pashmina comes from the Urdu word, Pashm which is the fleece undercoat of the Changthangi goat that is found in many high-altitude regions in the world, most commonly in Tibet, Mongolia and India. The climatic conditions in these places are very harsh, and the winters are particularly severe. So the goats develop a very fine and soft undercoat to survive them.

As winter ends, the moulting period begins when the goats start shedding their winter coats. By springtime, the undercoat is fully shed, which is collected by combing the goat instead of shearing them like sheep. The Pashm is produced by the Changpa, the pastoralist, nomadic people who inhabit the Changthang region of Ladakh. Raw Pashm is then exported to Kashmir where the combing, spinning, weaving and finishing are traditionally carried out by hand by a specialised team of craftsmen and women. It can up to 3 or 4 days to create a single shawl.

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A pure Pashmina shawl can cost from ₹15,000 to ₹2 lakhs and if it’s a Kani shawl (made from cane or wooden needles) the price can go up to 3 lakhs. You’d think for such a luxury item, the craftsmen and women make a fortune for their efforts, but it’s quite the opposite. The weavers in Srinagar receive Rs 8000-10000 a month whereas the spinners who spin the Pashm fibres receive just 250 for 5 days of work.

Apart from this exploitation, the craft has faced threats from all directions over the years; whether it's mechanisation and cheap foreign imports, a young generation uninterested in mastering the skill, the communication blockade of 2019 that put Srinagar in a void, cut off from the outside world or even the tax system of 2017 before that, which was particularly harsh.

A lot of weavers shut their shops permanently after the goods and services tax came into effect on July 1, 2017, after which various raw and finished components were being taxed anywhere between 5% and 18%. Ali Mohammad Dar, a 72-year-old man who had been supporting his family by weaving carpets for the past 50 years, expressed that he felt trapped because of the conditions. "We have been living in poverty, but somehow managed. Now, things are harder — the industry is dying,” he said.

The tragic working conditions of artisans trying to keep this ancient art alive with little to no help from outside is reminiscent of a similar time in Kashmir 157 years ago when the shaal-baafs (shawl-weavers) rose against the regime of Maharaja Ranbir Singh on 29 April 1865 at Zaldagar area of old Srinagar city.  It was the day when shawl weavers marched through the streets of Srinagar’s old city, fighting against the cruel tax policies imposed on them by the Dogra regime. 28 weavers lost their lives in the protest.

“Nothing has changed since then. We are still being exploited. No tangible steps are being taken to revive this age-old industry”, shares Tariq Ahmed, a weaver.

After trying for the past 4 years, Srinagar finally made it to UNESCO’s network of creative cities for craft and folk art last year. Although it’s a small step towards the improvement of the craft industry in Srinagar, the recognition from UNESCO is likely to get the city the attention of the world which might change things for the better in future.

Companies like Pashmina.com have also created a platform to connect local artisans to the world and celebrate their work with a mission to improve the industry’s conditions. Their luxury pieces are ethically designed keeping in view the working conditions and fair wages of local artisans and are tested for quality by CDI (Crafts Development Institute), which comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Textiles, GOI.

Amongst a sea of counterfeits, pure, handcrafted Pashmina shawls have become a rare artefact now. If you’re ever lucky enough to come across one, remember the centuries of tradition and craftsmanship embroidered into the fabric. Artisans from before our time have fought and died to protect and sustain this craft and it’s only fair that we treat it with due respect. Wrapped around a shoulder, these magnificent shawls carry within them the history and stories of the human creative spirit.

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