The confluence of weaving techniques from two of the mightiest dharmic centers symbolises the uniqueness of this land.
There were a small number of Punjabi families which were settled in Kashmir, on the invitation of the former Maharajas to work there. This was back in the late 19th century to the initial years of the 20th century. They were forest lessees, contractors, businessmen or in the service of the Maharajas. My ancestors belonged to this lesser-known community.
I grew up in the valley in my most formative years in a Punjabi culture with Kashmiri identity. We were Hindus. We followed our distinct rituals, way of life and worship. Shaivism was very important for us but it was the bhakti of Shri Ram by reading the Ramayana or listening to the discourses of the Bhagawad Gita, which was a regular practice in our home. My maternal aunts maintained elaborate temple altars with Sri Radha Krishna as the main deities and the festivals of Janamashtmi and Diwali were very enthusiastically celebrated by our family.
Personally, my main strong brush with Shiva worship was walking up to the Shankaracharya Mandir on top of a hill, overlooking Srinagar. It was an arduous and a tough climb but at the same time mesmerizing owing to the beautiful flowering plants like wild roses, the bright yellow flowers of the golden broom, the songs of the whistling thrushes and the call of the chakor partridge that were experienced on the way.
The 360-degree view from the summit of the Shankaracharya Mandir was spectacular. The ancient stone temple stood majestic with a beautiful lingam inside the sanctum sanctorum. It made me wonder as to how these heavy stones were taken on top of the hill and constructed in the form of this magnificent temple. The other temple to which I went regularly was the Sri Chan Chinar mandir of the residency road. Here too, the sanctum sanctorum had a beautiful granite Shiva lingam.
A very brief glimpse into Hindu worship in Kashmir
The majority of the Kashmiri Hindus were Kashmiri Pandits, who followed Shaivism. Kashmir Shaivism became prominent as a major philosophical trend during the eighth or ninth century CE in Kashmir and made significant strides, both philosophically and theologically, until the end of the twelfth century.
Kashmir Shaivism (Kaśmir Śaivism) is a school of Śaivism identical with Trika Śaivism categorized by various scholars as monistic idealism (absolute idealism, theistic monism, realistic idealism, transcendental materialism or concrete monism). These approaches suggest that Cit – Consciousness – is the one reality and that matter is not distinct from Consciousness, but rather different aspects of the same reality. There is no real separation between God and the world. They is one reality. Their trika (three-fold) school argued that reality is represented by three categories: transcendental (para), material (apara), and a combination of these two (para para) (Lakshman Jee 1988). While, Siva represents the principle behind consciousness, Sakti the energy, and We the material world.
The presiding Devi of Kashmir is Sharada. The Sharada Peeth being an important centre of learning and worship for the Hindus since times immemorial. We all would probably also be familiar with the yearly Hindu pilgrimage of the Amarnath Mahamaya Shakti Peeth and Shiva temple, where it is believed that the throat of Goddess Sati fell. Get monthly updates
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The significance of pashmina in our lives
The use of pashmina shawls was extensive in our families. Plain shawls or those with small borders were used for daily wear. Elaborately embroidered or kaani weaves were worn for special occasions. It was a regular feature to purchase a few shawls every year to add to the wardrobe by my mother and aunts. Pashmina made an important part of the wedding the trousseau too.
I loved to visit the old city and watch pashmina being hand-spun and the shawls being washed at the ghats of the river Jhelum. The men would stand knee-deep on the stairs in the water and beat the fabric against the stone. It was fascinating how such rough treatment produced some of the finest shawls in the world.
I started studying about the history and tradition of shawl-making in Kashmir at the young age of seventeen. This was a natural progression for me, owing to my passion for culture and the fine arts. Though I brought diversity into my father’s business by bringing in pashmina shawls, along with carpets, I was not satisfied with simple trading. Design innovation and revival work were my main interests.
In the late 1980s, we started weaving dense plain pashmina like it was made back in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the pashmina which is commonly available is mainly from machine-spun yarn from Mongolia and China. I still preferred the Indian, hand-spun pashmina from Ladakh. The pashmina goats of the high altitude areas of Ladakh produced the best pashmina. Here the harsh cold and strong and dry freezing winds naturally made the goats produce fine pashmina wool in autumn to protect them from the cold. This coat was shed in spring and collected by the herdsmen. The pashmina wool was woven in a very tight weave called tafta and was a delight to use. Embroidered with intricate Mughal designs in pure silk, there is a classic royalty in these shawls.
Terrorism raised its ugly head again in the Kashmir Valley in 1989. The Hindus were forced to leave the valley. Fortunately for us, we had a base in Delhi. By the mid-1990s we had restarted work. The looms were active once again.
The visit to Kashi
In 2014 I went to Varanasi (or Kashi) for the first time. The city fascinated me. Kashi is the home to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Jyotirlinga). The city is sacred for Hindus and especially followers of Shaivism. It is believed that if the ashes of a deceased are immersed in the holy waters of Kashi, the jivatma would be free from the cycle of birth and death.
Kashi is also a Shakti Peetha, where the temple to goddess Vishalakshi stands, believed to be the location where the goddess Sati’s earrings fell. Hindus of the Shakti sect make a pilgrimage to the city because they regard the Ganges itself to be the goddess Shakti. Adi Shankara wrote his commentaries on Hindu Dharma here and his efforts led to the great revival of ancient teachings and philosophies.
The strong connection between ancient spiritual links of Varanasi and Kashmir were clearly evident. And, interestingly for me also in terms of the fine weaves done in both regions.
In Kashi, every lane had someone or the other weaving saris. Though the handloom work had reduced immensely, there were still a few who were weaving textiles in brocade or handloom sarees. The brocades fascinated me. Varanasi weavers till date, continue to weave brocades to frame the traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka paintings. Fabric and saris are made in rich brocades.
Not many weavers were using the pure silver and gold zari needed for brocades. Researchers tell us that the sacred cloth of gold, or hiranya mentioned in the Rig Veda, (1700-1100 BCE) is the equivalent of the present-day brocades.
Pure zari textiles were woven only on specific orders as the cost was very high. I was very disappointed but the intensive search for fine artists working with pure zari continued, to satiate my artistic thirst. The very seat of weaving seemed to have rotted and just a handful weavers were doing fine handloom. Finally, I found a person who was an expert in fine zari making. It was the discovery of a great treasure.
Weaving dreams – bringing Kashi to Kashmir
Both the pashmina of Kashmir and now the pure zari of Varanasi attracted me. I was keen to get a pashmina shawl woven with pure zari. I managed to procure a small quantity of good quality zari to enable me to start my project zari- pashmina from my Varanasi contact. Several reputable weavers of pashmina expressed either unwillingness or inability to make such a shawl with zari. After a very long and tough search, I was delighted to find one such weaver who agreed to this very unconventional demand. I sent him pure pashmina yarn to try weaving. However, he never got back.
With the top weavers in Srinagar who I approached, there was again great disappointment too since they expressed inability to weave the soft and fine pashmina yarn with the sharp metal thread. I was told that it was very difficult to twist the zari around the wooden sticks called kaani and then to push it through the pashmina warp threads. The sharp zari would end up cutting the pashmina. The method of weaving kaani shawls can be seen here.
Eventually, at the end of the year 2015, I found a competent and bright weaver. He agreed to attempt weaving a shawl with pallas (heavy ends) rather than an all-over pattern. I was overjoyed and I gave him the zari and pashmina yarns. The designing was started, approved and the work began.
It was very tedious and difficult to make the shawl. Often the zari thread would break or slip. At times it would also cut into the pashmina threads. The weaver had to be patient and had to unravel and start again if the thread got cut. It was a very slow and exacting process. Only an expert and patient artisan could do this fine and precise work. It takes great courage and passion for an artist to experiment and innovate. This was a challenge for sure.
February 2017, finally, the shawl came off the loom. It was like a dream come true as I held the super-soft, luxurious shawl in my hands. Patience had paid off and a pioneer work of marrying the techniques of two great art centres of India had borne spectacular results. A wonderful heirloom piece was been created. We had made history.
A complex lotus design was chosen which had a very fine weave of 24×24 kaani stitches to an inch. The inspiration for this design came from the famous Manasbal Lake of Kashmir. This lake has large amounts of lotuses which bloom profusely in late summer. There are so many kingfishers which sit on them, diving for the small fish in the lake waters. We depicted this on the shawl. It took the master craftsman one year and eight months to complete it.
It is indeed a marvel how our fine Indian art forms while maintaining the detailed traditional techniques, can be enriched and expanded with contemporary innovation. Yet, not losing their purity and quintessential heritage.
We are now making kaani shawls with pure zari from Kashi, in Kashmir, regularly. This innovation represents the romantic union of the two rich centres of fine textiles and ancient spiritual tradition.
Kashi has arrived in Kashmir now – through weaves.