The Evolution of Kashmir’s Textile Industry

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By Prof. Abdul Hamid Malik

treeSome writers believe that the textile industry existed in Kashmir in the early Neolithic age, that is more than 3000 years B.C. This opinion has been formed on the basis of a tile, which was unearthed at Burzahom ten miles east of Srinagar by Pandit RC Kak some time ago. The tiles carry the figure of a lady and, it is supposed that she was dressed in ‘transparent robes’ in Neolithic age. Accordingly they say that the pit dwellers in the pre-historic age in Kashmir were really familiar with the art of manufacturing cloth. But it is surprising how cave men or the pit dwellers could really produce cloth. One can observe for himself those pits or walled caves under the ground at Burzahom Village not far away from Srinagar. It is not possible to spin and weave cloth in them. Light does not enter those pits except through a triangular exit from above in one corner, nor is there enough space for weaving. Far from the fact that the cave men did not at all know the technique of weaving cloth, it is quite probable that the spinning wheel and the loom, etc, had not been even invented in that primitive age. The pit dwellers were most probably the hunters and the fishermen of the prehistoric times, may be, the so called Pishacas or the Yakshas or their ancestors, viz, the legendary races of Kashmir’s mythology. They inhabited the foothills of the Harven forests and the shores of the Dal Lake obviously because these surroundings provided them with rich potential for their subsistence. A large number of bones, boon-tools, tiles bearing numerous figures have been excavated at Harvan and Burzahom, and even now the place, the pits and their walls are littered with bones. The tiles depict the cro-Magnon or the late Paleolithic art probably as old as 8000 to 10000 years B.C. There is no indication of metals, written language, domestication of animals etc. The shape and size of pits or caves at Burazhom indicate group living a natural families, the Neolithic art of Harvan is indicative of sciol religious rites of hunting tribes.

The abundance of bones all around the pits establishes the truth that the pit dwellers were the hunters who depended on animals not only to feed but also to clad themselves with their skin.

The origin of the textile industry of Kashmir is, therefore not so remote as has been presumed. Nor is Kashmir’s civilization the oldest in the world. However, it is certain that in the general course of evolution, transition from the hunting and the fishing stage to the pastoral and the agricultural stage did take place in Kashmir. Myth and legend lends support to this view, the prevalence of Naga-worship, the cow-worship and even the veneration of the plough are indicative of various stages of economic development. The textile industry in its primitive form developed in Kashmir around 500 B.C. to 100 B.C. In the first and 2nd Century A.D. people were dressed in simple clothes. However, it is difficult to ascertain as to whence the spinning wheel and the loom came to Kashmir people started a civilized life at least thousand years before the Christian era. Kashmir has also witnessed considerable influx and invasion of foreign races and tribes in ancient times. The ecological change and the climatic conditions must have necessitated as well have facilitated the development of the woollen industry at the very dawn of civilization. The silk industry is also of a very ancient origin, the earliest historical evidence of developed woollen and silm industry in Kashmir is given by the well known Chinessepiligrim, HieunTsiang, who visited Kashmir in 630 A.D. i.e., only five years after the Karkota dynasty had come to power. What impressed the Chinese traveler most, was the variety and the quality of woolen and silken textiles produced in Kashmir. He Says:

“The names for their (ie. The people of northern India) clothing materials are kiap-she-ye (Kansheya) and muslim (tieh) and calico (pu), Kansheya being silk from a wild silk worm; ch’u (or ch’u)-mo (kshanma), a kind of linen; han (or Kan)-po-lo-Kambala), a texture of fine wool (sheep’s wool or goats hair), and ho-la-le-a made from the wool of wild animal, this wool being fine and soft and easily spun and woen is prized as a material for clothing.”?

More than thirteen hundred years ago, Kashmir was producing fine cloth, silks, calico, linen, muslin and woolen cloth of soft and fine texture as described above.

The two and a half centuries of political stability, territorial expansion and great architectural activity under the Imperial Kark-otas (625 A.D. to 855 A.D.) must naturally have helped the further progress of the industry. But this period of fortune was followed by a long period of misrule and misfortune in the history of Kashmir. From 10th Century onwards, there was no political stability, an era of social unrest, moral degeneration and economic decadence followed. Such a period was hardly conductive to the growth of Industry. In the Kalhana’s history of Kashmir, Raja Tarangani, which is essentially a political-history of Kings and queens, there are only passing references about the textiles industry. Woolen industry according to Kalhan had become localized in Pattna (Patan) during the 12th Century A.D. There are references about the silk industry and indication of its existence since ancient times in Kashmir. On the whole one can infer from the available historical evidence that in order to meet the local needs of the people of the Valley and in view of the difficult system of communication in those days, all sort of textiles were produced in Kashmir. Woolen and silken cloth and probably even cotton cloth was produced. From the folk lore of that age it seems that cotton of a coarse kind was grown in the Valley. But there was nothing conspicuous about the textile industry so far as the rest of the world was concerned. Not only geographical seclusion but cultural stagnation also became detrimental to the further development of the textile industry during long spell of centuries.

Due to internal disorder and confusion, Kashmir had remained cut off and uninfluenced by exogenous influences in industry and trade for a vey long time. To make matters worst the invasion, loot and plunder by Zulchu at the end of the thirteen century brought about complete ruin of the whole economy. The Kashmir ruler ran away leaving his people in a most miserable condition. The people were frustrated and disappointed beyond all hope. Under such circumstances they yearned for and were eager to have a complete transformation of their entire socio-economic order. An imperceptible change crept in to their minds and they were prepared to welcome a change. This is the reason why the Sultan, the first non-Kashmiri Muslim ruler of Kashmir hardly met with any resistance. Fortunately, the change came for the better, the barriers, which isolated Kashmir and the Kashmiries were broken one by one.

In the process of the socio-plolitical transformation the whole economy was revitalized including the industry. Particularly the textile industry benefitted the most. The Silk Industry which had become extinct was revived.

New industries were set up and the famous arts and crafts were introduced under the royal patronage of the Sultans. Two hundred years later, that is, in 1540 A.D.MirzaHyderDughlatinvaded Kashmir. in his book Tarikh-Rashidi this Mugulreuler records :

“ In Kashmir one meets with all those arts and crafts which are in most cities uncommon…..In the whole maver-ul-Nahr (the country beyond the river Oxus, i.e, Khorasan except in Samarqand adnd Bukhara. These are nowhere to be met with, while in Kashmir they are even abundant. This is all due to Zain-ul-Abidin.”

Futher, MirzaHyder say that in the Bazars of Srinagar only textiles were displayed far sales. Luckily the fifteenth century produced an illustrious King gifted with a keen imagination and foresight. He was Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470 A.D.) polularly known as Bud Shah or Great King. It was he who introduced most of the industrial arts and crafts which have won for Kashmir world fame. He reorganized the silk industry of Kashmir began to export silk as far away as Damascus. He also laid the foundations of the Carpet industry. PaditAnandKaul as Kashmiri historian writes:

“Zain-ul-Abidin turned Kashmir into a smiling garden of inculcating in the hearts of the people sane conception of labour and also implanting in their minds the germ of real progress. He introduced correct measures and  weights…..promoted commercial morality. Integrity and Industrial righteousness, it was through these virtues that the Kashmiris successfully carried on their shawl and other trades wroth crores of Rupees annually with distant corners of the globe at a period when Kashmir was an isolated country and communications with the outside world were very difficult.”

Information Courtesy: Gulshan Books. From the pages of “Heritage of Kashmir”