Kashmir is famous for its wide variety of often very
beautiful handicrafts. The Kashmiris are not only poets and philosophers
but also artists and artisans producing exquisite carpets, embroidered
shawls, silverware, gold ornaments, finely chiselled woodwork of walnut
and oak, brilliantly coloured and painted papier-mâché and
leather and fur garments.
Everybody associates Kashmir's handicrafts with carpets, but there's a whole lot besides. Depending on the quality of one's purchase, one can either pay as little as Rs. 10, or a few lakhs. There are numerous qualities exist side by side in Kashmir to suit a variety of budgets.
One of the best-known, and most expensive, Kashmiri
handicrafts is carpet weaving. The art of weaving carpets first came from
Samarkand in central Asia and was later modified by artisans from Iran.
Zain-ul-abidin is credited with first introducing the skill to Kashmir.
Late in the 14th century, as a young prince, he was kept hostage by the
scourge of Asia, Timur the Lame (Tamerlane) at his court in Samarkand.
When Tamerlane died, the young prince returned to Kashmir, taking with him many of the artisans and craftsmen whom Tamerlane had collected from many parts of Asia. The carpet industry was given a new direction during the reign of Mughal Emperor Jehangir when a Kashmiri craftsman brought the Persian knot style of weaving back from Persia.
Carpet Making Nowadays
Present day carpets come in a variety of sizes - three by five foot, four by six foot, and so on. They are either made of pure wool, wool with a small percentage of silk to give a sheen, or pure silk. The latter are more decorative than intended for hard wear. To see just how decorative Kashmiri carpets can be as a wall hanging pay a visit to the restaurants where carpets are hung around the walls, like paintings.
Kashmiri carpets are not inexpensive - expect to pay high for a good quality four by six carpet and don't be surprised if the price is more than twice that level. Also beware of cheap imitations and false knotting.
Experience The Craft
Carpets are very easy to come by - in fact it is almost impossible to avoid them. Someone on the houseboat will be either selling carpets, or have a brother who owns a carpet factory. Do go and visit one, most of the weaving is done on hand looms by young boys.
Willow rushes that grow plentifully in marshes and lakes in Kashmir are used to make charmingly quaint objects, ranging from shopping baskets and lampshades to tables and chairs, all generally in expensive. To increase their life span, unvarnished products should be chisel and frequently sprayed with water, particularly in hot, dry climates, to prevent them from brittle. Surprisingly strong, wicker baskets can be used as picnic hampers, lampshades, glass holders for holding hot tea, workbaskets, even packing cases which can be sent unaccompanied by road. The main centre of this craft is at Hazratbal in Srinagar.
Far less expensive are these colorful floor coverings made from woolen and cotton fiber, which has been manually pressed into shape. Prices vary with the percentage of wool - a Namda containing 80% wool being more expensive than one containing 20% wool. Chain stitch embroidery in woolen and cotton thread is worked on these rugs. One can compare the different types in the Srinagar handicrafts emporiums.
Instantly recognisable as a product of Kashmir are the
papier-mâché items. They're usually reasonable, well made,
light and easy to carry. The basic papier-mâché article, made
in a mould, is painted and polished in successive layers until the final
intricate design is produced. Prices are generally dependent upon the
complexity and quality of the painted design and on the amount of gold
leaf used. The gold leaf is applied in tiny pieces to produce a leaf
design or other pattern.
Papier-mâché is made into bowls, cups, containers, jewellery boxes, letters holders, tables, lamps, coasters, trays and so on. Prices can be as low as Rs. 10 for a bowl to several hundred for some large, fine quality pieces. Production is very much a cottage industry with the molded rough form being made in one place, the painting and polishing being done in another, adding the intricate and colourful designs in still another. It's very easy to arrange to go to a papier-mache factory to see how it's done.
One can have shoes or boots or leather coats made to measure
in just a few days in Srinagar . The beautifully
embroidered Suede coats are particularly interesting, but one has to put
one's conscience in the back seat when it comes to the fur trim. The same
goes for the many fur coats - fur should be left on the backs of its
original owners. Animals such as Wolf, Fox, Jackal, Brown and Black Bear,
Marmot, Leopard and Lynx are all being driven from the slopes of the
Himalayas by hunters. And in any case the best furs are exported
One can, however, find sheepskin lined or trimmed coats. Although Kashmiri leather, suede or sheepskin may look very fine the quality is often quite like that so look carefully before buying.
Intricately carved designs are a hallmark of Kashmiri
woodcraft. One can see the complex relief work on every houseboat. Look
for tables, chests, boxes and screens. Woodcarving is relatively
inexpensive and inlaid ivory is often incorporated into the design.
Walnut Wood Items
Items made from walnut wood come from three parts of the tree: the branches, the trunk and the root. The branches have the palest colour of wood, and the trunk the darkest. Branches have no veins; trunks have the strongest marked veins. Objects made out of the root will be the costliest because of the wood used.
As walnut is a soft wood, it takes carving very well. Chinar leaves, vine leaves and flowers can be either carved along borders or can fill entire surfaces. The artistry of the carving and its abundance dictates the cost. Trinket boxes and the larger jewellery boxes should have invisible seams. Other walnut wood objects are salad bowls, nut bowls, photo frames, trays and furniture. This can range from a simple telephone stand or nesting tables to a dining table with six chairs.
In the case of furniture, the thick ness of wood used dictates the price. Two very similar writing desks can be priced very differently, if one used ¾" wood and the other ½" wood.
Kashmir has extensive mulberry cultivation and silkworms feeding on this produce resilient silk. Kashmiri silk may be thin, but it is strong nevertheless, as is chiffon. Very little silk is actually woven in Kashmir - Kashmiri silk is the term used silk produced in Kashmir. It is mainly used to make saris.
This garment, somewhere between a coat and a cloak, is eminently suited to the Kashmiri way of life, being loose enough to admit the inevitable brazier of live coals which is carried around in much the same way as a hot water bottle, Men's Pherans are always made of tweed or coarse wool; women's Pherans, somewhat more stylized, are most commonly made of Raffel, which splashes of Ari or hook embroidery at the throat, cuffs and edges. The quality of embroidery and thickness of the Raffel determines the price.
and tweed weaving are more important industries in Kashmir, with
departments of the State got. Closely monitoring the process.
Interestingly, just as little or no raw material for tweed comes from
Kashmir, almost no weaving and printing of silk is done in the state.
However, the cocoon reared in Kashmir is of the superior quality, yielding
an extremely fine fiber, and any silk woven from this thread becomes
known. The fineness of the yarn lends itself particularly well to the
weaves known as 'Chinon' and 'Crepe de Chine', in addition to the
universally recognized silk weave.
Tweed on the other hand is woven in Kashmir with pure, never blended, wool. The resultant fabric, made with imported know-how, compares favorably with the best in the world. It is available by the length occasionally as ready to wear garments.
Because of the high quality of embroidery done on wall
hangings and rugs, Kashmiri crewel work is in great demand all over the
Chain stitch, be it in wool, silk or cotton, is done by hook rather than any needle. The hook is referred to as 'Ari', and quality for quality, hook work covers a much larger area than needle work in the same amount of time.
All the embroidery is executed on white cotton fabric, pre-shrunk by the manufacturers. The intrinsic worth of each piece lies in the size of the stitches and the yarn used. Tiny stitches are used to cover the entire area - the figures or motifs are worked in striking colors; the background in a single color, made up of a series of coin sized concentric circles which impart dynamism and a sense of movement to a design. The background fabric should not be visible through the stitches.
Crewel is basically similar to chain stitch. It is also Chain stitch done on White background, but here the motifs, mainly stylish flowers, do not cover the entire surface, and the background is not embroidered upon. Wool is almost invariably used in Crewel work and color ways are not as elaborate as in Chain stitch. They make excellent household furnishings being hand or machine washable.
The old city abounds with shops where objects of copper line
the walls, the floor and even the ceiling made generally for the local
market. Craftsmen can often be seen engraving objects of household utility
- samovars, bowls, plates and trays.
Floral, stylized, geometric, leaf and sometimes calligraphic motifs are engraved or embossed on copper, and occasionally silver, to cover the entire surface with intricate designs which are then oxidized, the better to stand out from the background. The work known as 'Naqash' determines the price of the object, as does the weight.
Kashmir's willow is so highly prized, that most of the national team uses cricket bats from Kashmir.