Shawl Industry – evolution by Prof Abdul Hamid Malik

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2Part One
By Prof Abdul Hamid Malik

The world famous Shawl Industry was founded towards the close of the fourteenth century. The great industry owes its origin to a simple but interesting incident – the great saint, Mir Syed Ali Hambani visited Kashmir in 718 of the Hijri era . He left for Turkistan via Ladakh after a stay of two years. On his way along snowy mountains of Ladakh, he was provided with socks made of Pashmina wool. The soft and warm wool attracted his attention and, therefore, on his return he took some wool to Srinagar where he presented it to the King, Sutan Qutab-ud-din 1374-89 A.D. who got it manufactured into a shawl. However, the  use of word ‘Shawl” to represent the various textile products manufactured from the imported Pashmina wool become common during the reign of Mirza Hyder Doughlat (1540-1550). Once his cook, Nagaz Beg presented him with a double piece of shawl, which he obtained from Khoqand, his native place. The King was surprised to see the soft and the beautiful shawl rather Doshalla and, therefore, he too encouraged the development of the shawl industry. The embroidered shawls also owe their origin to an interesting incident. Once Nagaz Beg in a fit of anger slapped his servant. The blood drops fell on a plain piece of shawl. The marks left on the shawl caught the imagination of Nagaz Beg and, therefore, he innovated the embroidered shawl with red and green spots. Subsequently, the Kashmiri craftsmen introduced a large number of patterns and beautiful designs resulting in rich and variegated texture of Shawls.

Shawls may be divided into two principal classes, namely the loom-wove called ‘Kanir-shawls’ and the ‘Amali-shawsl’ the designing of which is worked in imperceptible stiches in an elaborate pattern. The Amali-shawl was invented by Ata Bab a Kashmiri craftsman during 1783-85. Shawl manufacturing eminently suited the artistic faculties of Kashmiri craftsman and soon it attained such an excellence that a shawl of 11/2 square yards could be twisted and passed through a finger ring. Hence Ring Shawl which were of very delicate texture also began to be produced.

The manufacture of Shawls reached its zenith during the Mughal Period (1586-1750 A.D.). They were produced on a large scale and exported. Mughal Emperors were lovers of art and beauty and they extended their full patronage to shawl manufacture. The number of looms engaged in shawl manufacture increased from 2000 at the beginning of the Mughal period to 40,000 during the reign of Jahangir. Akbar was fond of shawls and he took personal interest in their manufacturing. The following principal kind of Shawls were manufactured during the Mughal period.

  1. Tus-Asel with grey colour inkling to red, some shawls and a perfectly white color. These excelled in lightness, warmth and softness.
  2. Safed Alcheh also called Tarehdar
  3. Zardozy, Gulabetun, Keshdeh and Culgha were Akbars’s inventions
  4. Long piece of shawls called James.

Bernier visited Kashmir in the company of Aurangzeb in 1665 A.D. About Shawls he says:

“What may be considered peculiar to Kashmir, and the staple commodity which particularly promotes the trade of the country and fills it with wealth, it is the prodigious quantity of shawls which they manufacturer and which give occupation even to little children.”

During the Afghan Rule (1759-1819) the industry improved as they also found of Shawls. But they introduced a system of taxation, known as Dag. Shawl which ultimately resulted in the exploitation of the shawl weavers and the decline of the industry during and after the Afghan and the Sikh Rule.

The most notable development of this period was the extensive trade in shawls with Europe, Persia, Turkey etc. France alone accounted for 80 percent of shawl exports from Kashmir, USA took 10 %, Italy 5%, Russia 2% and UK and Germany 1% each. In France, Kashmiri shawls had become a fashion of the day after Napoleon Bonaparte presented a Kashmiri shawl to his beloved Empress Josephine.

3In 1783, the number of looms engaged in the manufacturing of shawls was 16,000 the number having declined from 40,000 looms during the Mughal period. This estimate was made by George Forester who visited Kashmir during that year. The main reason were the decline of the Mughal empire particularly its liquidation in Kashmir as well as the heavy excise duties imposed on the manufacture of shawls. But in spite of the heavy custom duties, the Shawl Industry progressed and thrived as a result of enormous export demand from France and other European countries. Shawls had become a sign of prestige and an article of distinction in the well to do families of Europe and the king and the queens, the princes and the princesses of both East and West had developed a fancy, may even craze for it. A Shawl was sold even at a fabulous price of Rs 12,500 in those days. It was a practice for East India Company to present a Kashmiri shawl to Queen Victoria as a birth day present, to the  Queen. Even under the Sale Deed of Amritsar, Maharaja Gulab Singh and his Successors had every year as an obligation to present three pairs of Kashmiri Shawls as a taken of British Paramountcy in the State to British Government. In short from the 17th Century up to 1870, Kashmiri Shawls dominated the world of textiles in the while world. Its possession had become a great sign of prestige and distinction, its trade brought huge profits and the Industry provided employment to large number of people in Kashmir. Moorcroft, who visited Kashmir in 1822 A.D. with a view to make a study of Shawl Industry estimated the average export earning of shawls at R 35 lakhs a year thought it might have largely exceeded that figure before 1822. He says that there were at least one lakh women engaged in the spinning of shawl wool and about 90 percent of the total output was exported. A 26 percent ad valorem duty on shawls was collected by the Government before export. For this purpose, a Dag shawl Department was created. The existence of this department and the rigorous method of collection of the Octroi excise and custom duties brought about the exploitation of and misery to the shawl weavers of whom a large number left Kashmir and settled in Punjab.
Information Courtesy: Gulshan Books. From the pages of “Heritage of Kashmir”