The Pashmina’s Tryst with History

I argue that the rich Pashmina shawl much like its revered counterpart, the Dhaka Muslin, was one of India’s first industrial products
The Pashmina’s Tryst with History
Representational PicGK Photo

The Pashmina shawls, especially the Daurokhas neatly tucked away in trunks at home, are like Proust’s madeleines 1 for me. They remind me of my childhood, of cold winter afternoons when I would happily sit and enjoy Delhi’s winter sun and read a book while these shawls would be taken out for their annual sunning every year. These shawls, I was reminded time and again, were family heirlooms that needed to be maintained with utmost care. I grew up with these thoughts and came to admire and appreciate the skilled craftsmanship that went into creating a ‘Pashmina shawl’.

These shawls are heirlooms that have a unique history attached to them. I argue that the rich Pashmina shawl much like its revered counterpart the Dhaka Muslin was one of India’s first industrial products. While the Dhaka muslin has received its fair share of appreciation over the years, little information is available in the public domain about this prized jewel from Kashmir and its place in India’s history.

The creation of a Pashmina shawl involves collecting the fine hair of the Chyangra goat and hand combing the fiber to maintain its exquisite quality. This delicate fiber is then woven manually to prepare Pashmina shawls of the finest texture and make. In fact, no two handcrafted pashmina shawls are the same and over time, this shawl has come to embrace modernity to remain relevant. While the Chashme Bulbul weave retains its timeless quality, the French Chantilly lace patterns and swarovski crystals are now being woven into these shawls to give them a contemporary look. 2

Pashmina Shawl: Commodity of Exchange

A Pashmina shawl is a rare chef-d’oeuvre that is highly valued by connoisseurs across the world. It is a niche product that came into being after the Mughal conquest of Kashmir in 1586 under the aegis of emperor Akbar. In fact, until the eighteenth century, historian Chitralekha Zutshi points out that ‘Kashmiri shawls were entirely hand woven on looms made of wooden sticks on which the weft yarn was wound and interlaced to produce intricate patterns’ These shawls known as the Kani Jamawars originated in the village of Kanihama in Kashmir and became popular with the bourgeoisie of the the time. Similarly, the Amli shawls with embroidery (Kadhai) also became popular around the same time.

The Kashmiri Pashmina shawl was a commodity aimed at the market and not for domestic consumption alone. While these shawls were traditionally used as shoulder mantles by men, they also came to be viewed as revered items of clothing by the Mughal household and formed a part of the khillat (royal gifts) given to visiting gifts and dignitaries. In fact, as Michelle Maskiell points out, the Mughal royals patronised shawls to the extent that certain shawl designs came to be named after the rulers. For example, designs like Shah Pasand (Emperor’s Choice) and Buta Muhammad Shah (Mohammad Shah’s flower) were named after the said emperor who ruled between 1720 and1742. The popularity of the Indian Pashmina shawl extended to foreign lands as well. The members of the Qajar, Zand and Safavid dynasties used Pashmina shawls and offered them as khillat much like the Mughals.3

However, it was the valorisation of this exquisite garment by Europeans that gave the shawl its rightful place in history.

European Engagement with Kashmiri Shawls

It was through French intervention that the Pashmina made its initial foray into Europe. Michelle Maskielle notes that Napoleon had carried Kashmiri shawls with him after the French Egyptian campaign (1798-1802) and Empress Josephine (1804) popularised its use in France. It became a symbol of French haute couture in the eighteenth century as it became a part of la corbeille or the groom’s gift to his wife. The shawls attracted the attention of class conscious women in France who “felt rich” wearing these soft and delicate garments.

While France had embraced the exquisite Kashmiri shawls initially, the Kashmiri shawl reached the zenith of its popularity in Victorian Britain. The delicate texture, the inherent softness and the signature warmth of the finest Pashmina shawls captured the imagination of the British East India Company. In fact, company officials came to collect considerable information on Kashmiri shawls and the shawl goats. The British made repeated forays into understanding the complex art of shawl making with British imperial officials like William Moorcraft even conducting detailed studies on the subject just to benefit the shawl makers in the home country. His detailed notes and his thirty four drawings of shawl patterns became an invaluable resource for British shawl manufacturers.4

The fascination with the indigenous Kashmiri shawl (Pashmina) was so widespread in mid Victorian Britain of the time that Kashmiri shawls even became a part of everyday life. Historian Suzan Daly suggests that in quotidien Britain of the Victorian age, “shawls were an immediate marker of a woman’s status, especially when the (said) woman was outside her home” She further adds that, “...so powerful was the Kashmiri shawl as a signifier of social status that its appearance even on a woman who clearly bore all marks of poverty and hard living could temporarily unsettle the system of class markers, at least in a context that lacked skillful readers.”

Similarly, the Kashmiri shawl acted as a metaphor in the enduring dialogue between India and Britain in the colonial era when it found its rightful place in British novels of the time. However, contrary to existing beliefs the “novels of the time refused to commodify the shawl - for they were portrayed as old but stately garments that women seemed to have always owned, or explicitly as heirlooms that women inherited and rarely purchased”.5 France and Britain's romantic affair with this polyvalent garment led to cheap imitations of this product in the European markets leading to the creation of what is known as “paisley” today. A brief reference to this garment will suffice for “paisley” is not Pashmina. In fact, the burgeoning interest in the Pashmina shawls was a part of the British psyche to such an extent that the British demanded twelve pairs of shawls goats (six male and six female) and three pairs of shawls as part of the treaty agreement of Amritsar that came into force after the end of the first Anglo SIkh war in 1846.

In Praise of ‘Pashmina’

For an ardent fan like me, it is possible to keep tracing the history of this exquisite piece of garment and writing eloquent praises in its honour continuously. The Pashmina shawl has raised the rank and profile of Kashmir across the world putting this geographical region on the world map throughout history. The exchange of shawls as a commodity over centuries has led to the Pashmina shawls becoming a major source of revenue for Kashmiri weavers.

In fact, even in the contemporary era, this exclusive piece of garment can be a great source of revenue for the exchequer. It is up to the government of the day to take note of this fact and take adequate measures to promote this product across the world so that the Pashmina shawl continues to be a part of living memory and lived experience and the folklore attached to this shawl does not end up being a fading memory like Proust’s madeleines.

Anuttama Banerji is freelance Features Writer & Political Commentator

References

Proust, M. (1927) In Search of Lost Time / À la recherche du temps perdu (Paris, Ligran Books)

(2021) The Making, Pashmina (online) Pashmina.com URL: https://www.pashmina.com/the-making?___store=in&___from_store=usd

Maskiell, M. (2002) Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires 1500-2000 Journal of World History, Spring 2002 Volume 13 No.1 (Spring 2002) 27-65

Zutshi, C. (2009) Designed for Eternity: Kashmiri Shawls, Empire, Cultures of Production and Consumption in mid Victorian Britain Journal of British Studies 2009 Vol. 48, No.2 Special Issue on Material Culture (April 2009) pp. 420-440

Daly, S. (2002) Kashmiri Shawls in Mid Victorian Novels Victorian Literature and Culture (2002) 237-256 (Published by Cambridge University Press)

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