The state of Jammu and Kashmir was created way back in 1846. This is when a treaty was signed between the British government and Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu. To acknowledge the power of the British, the king promised to annually offer one horse, twelve perfect shawl goats, and three pairs of Kashmir Pashmina shawls. This is when the Pashmina shawl production came to the fore and was considered important in the state.
This was referred to as the practice of gifting “treaty shawls”. It continued as later as the 20th century. But since the first lot died, the goats were not presented after 1848.
This might paint a sorry picture of the Pashmina trade in the times bygone. However, it is critical to note that Pashmina making is heavily dependent on high-altitude pastures of Ladakh, Tibet, and Central Asia.
Also read: Kashmiri Shawls during the Dogra period
Whispering the tales of Pashmina
The first mention is believed to have been made by Francois Bernier, who visited Kashmir with Emperor Aurangzeb in 1663. About two decades later, the supply of Pashm to Srinagar was a significant clause in the tripartite settlement between Kashmir, Tibet, and Ladakh. In 1684, this supply to Srinagar was the most important subject as part of the tripartite agreement.
Under this situation, there were four Kashmiri merchants who settled in Ladakh. This was done so that they could procure pashm from the pastures of western Tibet and bring it to Ladakh. Thus, the trade in cashmere, whether it was produced in western Tibet or in Ladakh, was an area of common interest between Ladakh and Kashmir.
Thirty years later, the account of Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri, who visited Kashmir in 1715 confirms the importance of the pashm trade. He calls it “a source of great riches to Kascimir (sic)”. He added that a “large number of agents” were involved by the Kashmir merchants in Ladakh to collect the pashm.
Sometime in 1820, William Moorcroft visited India under the pretext of buying horses. But his motive was to divert part of the Kashmir Pashmina trade to the British, which is why he came all the way. However, he did not receive whole-hearted support from the British and his attempts turned futile.
The Contemporary Pashmina Trade
Until the 1960s, the Cashmere that came to Srinagar (the heart of Kashmir) was primarily from western Tibet, from across the border. But during this period, the relations with Tibet were going kaput. Consequently, there were radical changes observed in the trade of this precious fibre. Though wool continued to be a significant trade item, it was Pashmina that gained commercial significance. This led to the barter system getting diluted and gradual integration of the Changpa nomads into a market-led system. Here they needed money to survive and purchase staples such as rice and other essentials to make a living.
Also read: The trail of India's Cashmere Goat Men
Meeting the Demand of Cashmere
The increased demand for Pashmina from Ladakh, after ties with Tibet were severed. It led to prices skyrocketing. For instance, the highest price for pashm in western Tibet before 1962 was Rs 30/kg. But by 1970, the price of local pashm multiplied ten-fold and became Rs 300/kg.
At the same time, the government tried its best to establish a monopoly of the fibre in Kashmir by issuing the Raw Pashmina Wool (Control) Order. This gave the Controller the right to fix the price. It also prohibited the export of raw pashm from Jammu and Kashmir with prior permission from the government. Later, the Sheep and Sheep Products Development Board was also established to issue licenses without which no one could trade in pashm.
At first, these steps saw success. A support price was set at the start of the combing season, so that the Changpas do not sell their produce for less. Initially, the local traders were unable to match the prices set by the Board. But over the years, the Changpas found it difficult for the Board to pay their dues. They then dealt with local traders, who they relied upon to make their payments.
The Growers Society
In 1995, the government then set up the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society. This was done so that the Changpas get a better price. It also enabled them to sell directly to the Pashmina shawl manufacturers as well as to the big companies. This would reduce the role of middlemen. Every year, the Cooperative sets an average price and the current year’s demand and broadcasts it.
The amount of pashm a family has for sale varies. Some may have 100 kg, while others as little as 10. The cost of transport to Leh is high; only limited quantities are on sale since Changpas do not go there themselves.
Pashmina is also promoted by the government through the Handloom Department, Handicraft Department, SICOP (Small Scale Industrial Development Corporation Limited.). Also, Handloom Development Corporation (Sales and Export), Ministry of Textiles, and private traders to encourage its trade.
Generally, these are traded by different means such as exclusive showrooms, exhibitions, door-to-door or even online.