Indian government unravels Kashmiri crafts

For ages, the region’s people have turned wool into highly sought-after shawls. It’s a craft that has sustained generations of artisans and traders alike but now it is threatened.

A recent decision, by a government-owned industry commission in India, to process and weave pashmina shawls in Varanasi is threatening the livelihoods of Kashmiri weavers. The craft of pashmina has its roots in the region, and is a source of livelihood for many.

The Valley of Kashmir is globally known for the tradition of the pashmina shawl and dates back to nearly 700 years ago.

The word shawl has Persian origins and means a woolen drape. The pashmina made in Kashmir is dyed and hand woven into vibrant designs showcasing superb workmanship.

In December, the Indian government’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) roped in four Khadi institutions from Varanasi & Ghazipur districts in Uttar Pradesh for processing raw pashmina wool and weaving it further into the delicate woolen fabric. Khadi is an Indian homespun cloth, made of wool or other materials.

The move has created concern that it will adversely affect the livelihood of artisans and pashmina traders in Kashmir.

For example, around 500kg of raw pashmina wool was purchased from Leh that was taken to India’s capital Delhi for processing in December. Now, the pashmina products, which are essentially indigenous to Kashmir, will be produced from outside the region as well. 

In August 2019, Kashmir was stripped of its autonomy and brought directly under Delhi’s rule by the Indian government. The government put Kashmir under a lockdown and communication blockade that went on for months, thus hampering the economy of the region badly. Later, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the pashmina industry was badly hit. Traders have been suffering huge losses since.

KVIC’s move to approve the production of pashmina products outside the region will throttle the life out of many men and women whose lives depended on this craft. A Kashmiri weaver, who only earns 450 Indian Rupees (R6), said: “This is like slitting our throats and snatching our bread.”

3 January 2022: A Kani weaver works his way through the weaving. Wooden spools are used to weave through the warp thread by thread and, depending on the intricacy of the design, a weaver may be able to weave one inch of the fabric in a day.
3 January 2022: The pashmina yarn is wound on wooden spindles called “pretsch” in the Kashmiri language, and the process of winding the yarn for the warp is called “Phamb tulun”.
12 January 2022: A group of shawl weavers preparing a warp for the handloom. Preparing the warp usually takes the whole day.
12 January 2022: Showtkat Ahmed Mir, a pashmina artisan, has been in the vocation for more than 35 years. His family is the 11th generation pursuing this craft.
3 January 2022: Mohamad Ayub feels that the money he earns from his craft can only cover his basic needs and not much else. “We are content, because we have cut down our wants.”
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