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The Kashmiri shawl: Early History and Literature

April 13th, 2021 | 2698 views
The Kashmiri shawl: Early History and Literature

In the last few decades, there has been a special interest triggered across classes in the antique Kashmiri shawls. These are considered a symbol of royalty & have shaken research scholars and art collectors in India as well as abroad. This is primarily due to its exotic nature that created a stir in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Though the term ‘shawl’ is commonly used, it is essential to understand its etymology. The word is derived from the Persian word shal, which translates into a fine woolen fabric, alternately called a drape. The Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle, in 1623, drew a comparison. The shal was worn as a girdle in Persia, while it was generally carried across the shoulders in India.

The shawl has a long history. Its existence can be traced to the medieval period. But there are archaeological findings & literary pieces of evidence that point towards its presence right from the Indus Valley Civilization.

The kashmiri shawl: steeped in history
It is believed that unstitched woolen wraps on the shoulders were already being used for warmth some 3500 years ago

Kashmiri Shawls - From the coffers of archaeology

We know goats & sheep are the sources of obtaining wool or fleece for making the most coveted products in the world. Although, there has been no woolen yarn that has been traced from excavations conducted in the sites of the Indus Valley Civilization. Yet there are some references that point toward Harappan culture. They show how Harappas were familiar with the use of wool in the same way as they were with cotton and silk yarn.

Little terracotta figurines of goat and sheep have been found from different Indus sites. These clearly indicate that these animals were reared and used for essentials such as meat, dairy products, and wool.

Interestingly, the excavation of dyeing areas in Harappa and Rakhigarhi points toward the intricacy of patterns on textiles. These motifs on utensils, pottery, and potsherds reflect Harappans' love for ornamentation and embellishment. Proof enough that a rich tradition of textiles existed during the Harappan period!

Apart from evidence in India, there have been traces found outside the country as well. These findings point toward the fact that Indian wool was much popular for its high quality between 300 and 400 A.D. It was in fact exported to other countries. The most significant specimens were found in parts of Syria and Egypt.

Also read: History of Pashmina Trade

Kashmiri Shawls - A few more facts

Palmyra in Syria was a major Roman outpost on the Silk Route and Antinoe was close to the great urban center of Alexandria. These fragments were all found to be made out of Indian wool. After doing in-depth research, it was found that they were crafted from a type of four-ended twills. The same was used to produce the famed shawls of Kashmir.

The specimen found at Antinoe replicated the three-end twills. Whilst the Palmyra one was even finer and denser with four-end twills. There is a Swedish textile authority that goes by the name of Ages Geijer. It pointed out that the woolen specimens from Palmyra appear to be of Syrian origin, while the wool seems to be sourced from Kashmir.

At the excavated site in Egypt, there were riding coats of oriental cut with patterned silk fabrics of Sassanian manufacture. This is said to be a significant discovery in the textile world in India. Looking at the fine material and pattern, it was assumed that these were imported readymade from the Sassanian Empire. The time period would be between 300 and 500 A.D. The primary material of these coats was a thin warp and a thick weft of soft and loosely spun Kashmir wool.

Also read: 5 must-have Kashmiri Shawls for all times

Kashmiri shawls as Gifts

Apart from this, there are also references that hint towards these Kashmiri shawls being valued as gift items among the nobility. The Sassanian King Bahram I gifted one to the Roman Emperor Aurelian after the fall of Palmyra. This shows that high-quality Indian textiles were much in demand. And surprisingly the weaving pattern was in sync with the Kashmiri tradition.

During this period, the Sassanians had a great rapport with the Kushans. Kushans ruled the present-day Kashmir from the late 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. This period was when trade flourished on the Silk Route between China and Rome. Some sources indicate that Kashmir wool, perhaps Pashmina, was among the Indian luxury goods that arrived in the Roman Empire.

Turning the pages of literature

As much as archaeological evidence exists about the Kashmiri shawl, there are Vedic texts as well as Buddhist, Jain, and other literature. All of them reflect a tradition of woolen textiles in India. Vedic literature speaks of the source of wool, its quality, quantity, and terminology used for wool or woolen fabrics. The Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda, often mention Avika or Avi, terms used for sheep during this period. The Atharva Veda also talks of Kambal, the generic term used for blankets and shawls.

Some interesting references are also found in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. According to the Sabha Parva chapter in the Mahabharata, the Pandava King, Yudhishtir received several gifts from contemporary rulers. Out of the many items, the most valued were rankava woolen fabrics from the Sakas, who ruled Kashmir during that period. The Mahabharata also indicates that during this period, felts were made out of goat hair.

More Literature

Besides, the Jataka tales also speak of the kambal and rankavas and how they became more popular for dushala, chadar and other woollen fabrics. The literature of the Buddhist period also tells that these shawls were expensive. Sanskrit and Pali literature speak about rankavai as a term used for woolen goods, which was derived from ranku. Some identified it as the Himalayan ibex, while others believed it was the pashm goat, Capra hircus.

Jain literature, Nisithacurni, reiterates that shawls made of goat hair were used between the fifth and sixth century BC.

It becomes important to understand the glorious history of the Kashmiri shawl through archaeological and literary evidence since it was a highly valued item. The rulers and travelers who spoke richly of Kashmiri shawl have largely contributed to the development of shawl making as well. Till today, it whispers secrets of its antiquity that the world is fascinated with!

Also read: The Kashmiri Shawl - all you need to know

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