Kashmiri shawls during the Dogra period
Since time immemorial, Kashmir has been referred to as the cradle of several crafts. According to Kashmir ruler, Mirza Haider Dughlat, “in Kashmir, one meets with all those arts and crafts which are in most cities uncommon.” French physician and traveller, Francis Bernier, who visited Kashmir in 1665, believed that “it is due to special properties of water available there.”
The Dogra period (1846-1885) witnessed the sharp rise of certain crafts that reached their climax. In the words of H.W.Bellew who visited Kashmir sometime in 1873, praised the artisans of Kashmir ─
“their shawls and embroideries, their silver work and paper mache paintings, their stone engraving and wood carving all exhibit work of wonderful delicacy and minute details.”
In fact, this was reiterated by Lawrence, a settlement officer in Kashmir in 1889, who said,
“every Kashmiri is a weaver and the home spun cloth woven by the villagers was highly appreciated by many Europeans.”
It was actually during this period that the shawl industry employed a large number of people, which in turn generated revenue for the state.
The “Royal” identity of the shawl
This industry has its roots in the picturesque state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the air is crisp and art runs in the veins of its people. In the 19th century, the Kashmiri shawl was considered a symbol of imperial prestige and no fashionable woman’s wardrobe was complete without this luxurious piece. It enjoyed name and fame across the world, owing to its softness, warmth, brilliance of colours and sublime fineness.
Under the Mughals, the industry made several strides, with karkhanas creating new social groups among its craftsmen. In the text Tuzk-i-Jahangiri, Emperor Jahangir expresses fondness for this shawl and calls it one of his “favourite items.” It was considered a status symbol in the Empire and was gifted as part of imperial festivals.
In the Afghan period, the industry grew further and in 1796, these Kashmiri shawls were sent to Europe. These objects of desire reached Napolean during the Egyptian campaign, who then gifted it to his wife Empress Josephine. At that time, many French soldiers returned with plundered shawls worn as belts over their uniform. It became severely popular in Europe and as the demand rose, merchants travelled all the way to Kashmir to purchase them.
Post this, during the Sikh period, the industry continued to receive consistent patronage and it became fashionable even in Punjab and also popular in Lahore. During the reign of the last two Sikh rulers, the industry witnessed a decline from 1841-45. This was also due to some political disturbances in the region.
When Gulab Singh became the Maharaja of Kashmir, the shawl trade began to revive. In 1846, the total number of looms reached 7,000 with 17,000 weavers working at that time. The same year, there were 3,500 karkhandars in the Valley. However, in 1847, several shawl weavers migrated to Punjab and the number of looms reduced.
In early 1847, the weavers put out certain demands – early enumeration of workers, reduction of nazarana , fixing the length of a work day, and framing of proper regulations for their welfare. More than 4,000 weavers migrated to Lahore and this worried Gulab Singh. He announced the following regulations:
- Salary was fixed at four annas
- Taxes were reduced
- The weaver was allowed to change his master and was no longer restricted to work under one
- Tax would be levied on woven shawls as per the market price
- Weavers would be paid on the basis of actual work on the loom
Though these regulations pacified the weavers, but only for a short while.
Later, in the 1950s, French agents came all the way to Kashmir to deal with the manufacturers. This way, these shawls became more popular in Europe and trade flourished. According to a Frenchman Larouosse, “In spite of heavy duty levied by the French government, whatever its value, the trade flourished.”
In 1850, the annual shawl production reached Rs 40 to 50 lakhs and there were about 40,000 to 50,000 workers engaged in the industry. During the second half of the 19th-century, it became a coveted fashion item in England, France and America. It was during this time that these shawls became prestigious and the favourite of elites and nobles.
In the concluding year of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s reign, there were about 8,000 shops of shawl weavers in Kashmir. Post his reign, Maharaja Ranbir Singh tried to bring about reforms to further provide an impetus to the industry. During this juncture, a new type of shawl called dorukha was manufactured in the Valley. They were excellent in texture, soft, colourful and were most celebrated. Among countries across the world, it was France that shared 80% of shawl trade between Kashmir and Europe.
The manufacturing of the shawl happens from what is called pashm, which was obtained from a goat found in western Tibet, Baltistan and Ladakh. It was brought to Kashmir via Ladakh. The pashm fibre is first removed by combing. During winter, it is a protective layer of soft fleece that provides insulation to the goats in the biting cold. The Changpas say that only when the winter comes to an end and the goat eats the first new grass that the pashm rises above the surface if the goat’s body and can then be combed out.
The pashm that is combed out is not really clean and has dirt and bodily secretions. The women who sift through this raw mixture say that only 35 percent of this is the pure fibre that can be used. Once the hair is combed, the animal’s shaggy coat is then cut with metal shears. A few goats are combed at the same time, generally before they head out to their pasture lands. They may be again combed in the evening, only if there’s adequate light by the time they return after grazing.
This is a painstaking process, right from sourcing the fleece to handcrafting products from Himalayan cashmere. It takes months and years for the gifted artisans of Kashmir to create a masterpiece. It is a sorry state of affairs when imitation pieces flood the market, diluting the labour of these weavers, who shed all their blood, sweat and tears to this “Art of the Royals”. We are Pashmina.com, the largest curators of pure and handcrafted Pashmina products in the online space and are on a mission to revive this dying art by spreading our wings throughout the world by way of our online platform. Our website serves as a window to our range of products that are luxurious and have the highest quality. We offer the widest range, certified quality, luxurious packaging and free shipping to over 250 countries. Explore our range now!