The following book review I wrote for Hali Magazine, May/June edition 2006. This is the unedited version.

The Kashmiri Shawl: From Jamavar to Paisley, by Sherry Rehman and Naheed Jafri. Antique Collectors’Club, UK and Mapin Pub. Ahmedabad, 430 color plates, 378 pages.

Transportable Exotica

The authors, Sherry Rehman and Naheed Jafri state in the preface that their goal in writing this book was a sort of rallying cry against seriously vexed dealers who, in their avidity, continue to confuse European, Srinagar, Punjab, Pakistani and Persian shawls. In correcting these biases, they hope to de-mystify the shawl through a re-told story, filtered through the prism of their natal Pakistani roots. They claim that as a luxury textile, the shawl was more appreciated in the Orient than as a fashion accessory of a trade- driven colonizing West, whose biased accounts of the industry tainted its history.

Thus, arrive two women on a mission attempting to set the record straight, and in doing so, establishing an odd political tension that pits East against West in a fraught intellectual environment. Soon one learns that its not about vexed dealers, but about Western scholarship and the distortion and un-repaired holes in its fabric. Fasten your seat belts!

A weighty tome, rich in color, sumptuously designed, each of the ten chapters debut with a decadent snap of a Karachi personage, reveling in his or her jamawars. While the shahtoosh animals wool has been officially banned since 1975, as that from an endangered species, one is particularly baffled why the authors would want to show a former politician and conservationist wrapped up in a shahtoosh. Another photo with the name Jeejeebhoy is bound to attract an audience!

Copiously researched, the text details the shawl story from beginning to end, touching on many aspects of textile and costume history. The Life and Times of the Kashmiri Shawl covers the importance of the khilat or robe of honor that was often given as recognition for excellence in the service of a royal leader. The idea of court etiquette as expressed through costume and dress accessories glows against a royal backdrop of Mughal Imperial rule. The Other Side of Paradise brings out just that, the poor conditions of the weavers, while the system of kharkanas is explored through the early Muslim influence on Indias craft establishment, from Tughlaq to Zain-ul-Abidins rule. The Maharaja Runjit Singh and his court, and the foreign interlopers who visited it, animate the chapters dialogue, which ends with a late 19th century account of trade routes. The Shawl in Persia highlights the cross-fertilization of artistic ideas between India and Persia, with illustrations of some early Safavid textiles, Qajar paintings, and Persian kani shawls, which nicely enhance the narration of the industry of notably Kerman and Yazd during Qajar rule.

In case youve forgotten the earlier manifesto, The End of Princely Patronage recaps the authors call-to-arms. It seeks to redress a lack in western scholarship to contextualize regional patronage that had engendered an industry whose famous product was stumbled on as another item of transportable exotica. A further shot-over-the-bow makes it clear to the reader he’s dealing with authors who are not to be taken lightly. As the authors explicitly forewarn, an intentional political agenda is the crust upon which they chomp. The section ends with a detailed survey covering the politics, patronage, trade and splendor of an Awadh (Lucknow) region that held to the Mughal idiom long after the demise of Delhis Imperial rule. The Punjab Shawl examines Lahore as a strategic entrepot and its links to neighboring cities in the Punjab like Multan; its navigational facilities as a city situated on the Ravi and its importance for shawl and carpet weaving, as recorded by Abul Fazl, author of the Ain-i-Akbari. Shawl weaving activities, are discussed, against the backdrop of the Sikh Court and the French General Allard, with arguments for the types of shawl colors that were most popular. How to identify a Punjab shawl is analyzed. Still confused over dating and types? Three chapters cover all this and Jacquard loom.
The text is unfortunately replete with many nonsensical or erroneous statements, i.e. the tapestry-style was a historic term (p206) and Sikh symbolist shawls devolved from it.(p210). In fact, the tapestry shawl is a clear product of the Sikh period. Moon shawls of 18th century Punjab are predominantly red with a mis-matched design of border and field. (p210) Only about 20 known 18th century ones exist in the world, and they are all from Kashmir, with clearly matching patterns and various colors. They state: thick vines and outlines define a Punjabi shawl. (p210). From a rumor that Amritsars blue and green colors were finer than those of Kashmir, the authors write of the citys famous green and blue shawls (p183) or a shawl where borders encroach on the matan or field becomes a royally commissioned shawl. (p183). A clearly signed Iranian shawl is attributed to Amritsar based on its number of seams. (p200)

In their research, the authors claim to find much myth and apocrypha, yet oddly they announce Chinese and Central Asian sources as primary references, which are notoriously void of meticulous details(p14). The text often labors through a confusion of time frames and events, i.e. speaking about a typical shawl made in Amritsar or earlier Lahore  and then about a more recent rendition,(p206); or ~epochal change on the shawl due to the French in Kashmir; they mistakenly submit that Napoleon~s armies (2 decades before) encountered these changed shawls in Egypt(p184).

As much as the authors strain to make their case for the Punjabi shawls identification, by its loose and rough weave, mediocre colors and a mixture of Kerman wool, the authors, in my estimation, fail to distinguish it sufficiently, from its sister in Iran. Given the authors location, and connections with the upper crust of Pakistans society, one would have hoped to see featured shawls of bona fide provenance. In The Shawl in Persia, illustrations are assigned without positive provenance to various private collections in Pakistan, yet city names of Yazd, Meshad, and Kirman are tossed about glibly so as to make the readers feel as though they had direct access to indigenous Persian collections.

One of the most expensive and sought after shawls is the Dorukha, or reversible shawl with ground color change on one side due to a couching darn stitch. The text falls quite short in its analysis. What is sorely needed is a good macro schematic of the just how this magical darning is affixed. Instead the authors get bogged down in trying to establish new names, and instead of clarifying the embroidered patchy dorukha with finer pieces sans embroidery, decor being solely loomed, confusion arises.

While most books on the Kashmir shawl tend to end the story with the Franco-Prussian war, the authors continue an excellently detailed narration of fashion and costume events leading up to the 20th century. Well written, and delightful to the eye, collectors, dealers, and art historians will find much within to broaden their horizons. Begrudging the West for reducing the shawl to a perishable fashion that it was barbaricized and distorted by orientalists, and then politicizing it,  may be a pungently bizarre way to tell the Kashmir story, but it certainly makes for lively entertainment, suffusing the book’s text and beautiful color plates with the aroma of a Punjab curry.

Sw. Atmo Kabir: a Sannyas in New York after the Terror


17 September, 2001

I volunteered at the American Red Cross on Sunday the 16th and they took me on as a logistics driver. I started on Monday at 6am, just six days after the attack. However, for three solid days after the attack I had cycled all over a hushed and eerie city bathed in a surreal, sparkling sunlight, looking for work. Most of the streets were deserted of traffic and the long avenues were empty pathways flanked by abandoned buildings.

Long lines formed on the sidewalk in front of the Jacob Javits Center, people coming from all over the country to sign up for any kind of work or rescue operation. Some hard hats had actually slept on the West Side Highway the night before in hopes of being the first to get sent down to Ground Zero. The sign-up lady asked me if I had any specialty or just wanted to help out as a volunteer. After looking at the long lines of ‘white collar’ volunteers on the right side of the sign-up table, and the smaller line of construction workers on the left side, I opted immediately for the latter. I decided on the spot that I was a carpenter, being handy with tools. However, after a few minutes in that line I began to realize that most of these tattooed guys with hard hats had arms the size of telephone poles and were built like refrigerators. And most of them were wearing sweaty trade union T-shirts and steel-toed construction boots. I looked down at my Adidas and thought: this is not where I belong. I signed up anyway but they never called me. Of course, anybody who was a steelworker was immediately ‘shipped’ downtown. There were crews waiting in pickup trucks with their search dogs that had come from Virginia. Big trucks pulled up with supplies and everybody spontaneously pitched in to unload them. Somebody walked around with a tray of fat sandwiches and others distributed bottled water to all those who came.

Anyway, I finally started on Monday after I received my security clearance with a photo ID that allows me ‘full access’ but not at the actual ‘Ground Zero’. My clearance gets me to within one block of Ground Zero but not through the gate and onto the wreckage itself. Ground Zero is a crime scene and access is completely off limits to anyone not actually digging at the site. Fact of the matter is that there’s probably too much asbestos still in the air for me. No TV or photo image can ever replace the riveting sensation of seeing the wreckage up front in your face, of feeling your body surrounded by ripped and gutted architecture and at the same time the throbbing heartbeat of a powerful city. You look up at this behemoth, this junk pile of twisted steel and smoke, and the hairs on your arm stand up. How those firemen and construction workers dig there all day long at the risk of their lives is beyond me. And many of them I see without goggles and with only a small white filter over their mouths.

I began by taking Red Cross nurses to some of the hospitals in Brooklyn and Staten Island to help burn victims. The nurses, part of the national system of the Red Cross, came from Montana and Colorado and from all over the South. Sometimes I felt like I was in the Deep South, the accents were as thick as refried hominy grits. Perhaps 70 percent of the national volunteers were retired citizens. People from all over the US have been pouring into this big city to help out. The wealth of support has been just amazing. The biggest problem is that there are so many out of towners that nobody really knows how to get around the city. That’s where I’m an asset. I know just about every nook and cranny and all the short cuts around the downtown areas. Also, I know just where I can get away with outrageous U-turns, going down one-way streets the wrong way and running a red light. Some of my forays into the zone of devastation were to pick up and drop of workers manning the ERV (emergency rescue vehicles) on Greenwich Street or employees running the Cambell Soup stand. But most of the trips over the Brooklyn Bridge (which is closed except for emergency vehicles) were to take senior Red Cross officers to the various kitchens set up to feed the emergency workers and take care of the many displaced people. On one trip I fetched fifty Domino’s Pizzas from East 32nd street for the Brooklyn headquarters. On the way back the heat from all the boxes fogged up my windows and I smelled like mozzarella for the rest of the day.

Out again I went with a van full of ham radio operators and all their equipment-antennas, power supplies, transmitters and cables- dropping them off at secret locations in ‘bomb shelter’ type buildings. Each time I returned to the Brooklyn Headquarters the scene was more chaotic than when I left. Volunteers milling about in the entrance, supply trucks unloading, new phone lines being installed, people dashing through the hallways for who knows what…

Tight security protects the piers at 54th street where the mayor has his office set up and where many of the police and marshal services have set up their makeshift offices. At the same location is the ‘Comfort Center’, the size of two football fields, where the relatives and friends of missing people come with personal items that can be used for DNA testing. Perhaps this is the most intense and emotional part of the process in the aftermath of such a tragedy. I saw a young priest in blue jeans and a black shirt standing, bent over in a hush, talking to someone. You get the feeling of being in some kind of makeshift hospital with all these curtains hanging down to form ‘offices’, and Red Cross workers in their gray and white vests with badges dangling from their necks. Off to one side are a massage therapy area, a kid’s corner, an area marked ‘spiritual care’, an interpreter center, and a food area. But a pall of emotional mumbness hangs over this large space, tempered by the faint hope that some will still be found alive, despite the fact that eleven days have already passed since the attack. And for many the reality has not settled in…..

I came across a couple from Staten Island with two of the sweetest golden retrievers that they call ‘smile retrievers’. The dogs sported collars that read ‘Therapy Dogs’. When I knelt to pet one, it quickly placed its paw on my arm and held its head up high. I was amazed to feel the warmth of its response. The couple told me they wanted to get official sanction from the Red Cross. Judging from the way they had trained those dogs, had it been up to me I would have given it to them straight away. Outside the hanger is a wall plastered with photos of missing people, some in color and some in black and white, each with a detailed description. It’s hard to pass by that without getting choked up and wanting to scream in rage.

Today is Saturday and I’m resting up for another week. I enjoy this work and feel connected to the events on a real human scale because everybody with ARC (the American Red Cross) is so nice. We are all volunteers and nobody is a boss or ‘building any empires’. We are all on the same level and doing a job because we want to do it.

24 September, 2001

Already eight days have flown by since I first began driving for the American Red Cross. Each day I take the One train to 59th Street and change for the A which drops me off at the first stop into Brooklyn, right at Cadman Plaza, which is where ARC has its headquarters. I knew something was up this morning when the security officer refused to admit people. A bomb scare at the Brooklyn Bridge had the whole place on high alert and FBI Marshals were everywhere.

Soon however we were able to enter and begin our day. Eight drivers were sitting round waiting as I strode into the dispatch area, some reading the paper, others discussing the best way to get from Kitchen Two to the Service Center on Murray Street, which adjoins Ground Zero (GZ), or how best to beat the horrific traffic jams going towards the Williamsburg Bridge, etc. Logistics finally received a much-needed batch of cell phones, which they dumped out like candy bars on the table. Now we can all stay connected. Up to that point I was using my own. Also our security clearances changed over the weekend and drivers are now required to wear badges with the ‘Full Access & Ground Zero’ green stripe at the bottom. This was done to facilitate our access to a new service area next to the devastation, where food and supplies are being delivered.

Pulling out of the parking lot for my first run into Manhattan, I felt the weight of a balmy pall hanging over the city under gray, overcast skies and wondered just how the search and rescue crews were coping with such sadness in the air. The smell as I descend the Brooklyn Bridge tells me which way the wind is blowing: if it stinks, it’s coming from the west i.e. Ground Zero. After dropping off tired, national ARC co-workers at their respective hotels in the theater district, I made for the West Side Highway and slipped into the emergency lane reserved for vehicles such as mine. Heading downtown I was held up at 34th street while police waved on a long train of NYC passenger buses filled with the new shift of Ground Zero rescue workers.

I counted maybe twenty buses and as each one went by I observed a collection of faces behind those windows like I’ve never seen before. Every day these guys face death and destruction in a crater from hell. Each face appeared frozen in silence, telling a story of anguish and sadness. The diesel roar of the buses as their drivers gunned the engines and swung south onto the West Side Highway seemed to intensify the already charged atmosphere. Waved on by the federal marshals, the buses kept coming. A police car at the front and rear, each with its array of whirling lights, locked the buses into formation, challenging other vehicles to keep their distance.

I saw something that caught me by surprise as I followed this cortege alongside the Hudson River. At each ID and badge checkpoint on the way, the FBI marshals, sheriffs and police officers burst out clapping. Many times I had flown down this route to the cheers of clusters of New Yorkers lining the highway, but to see these uniformed men standing tall with their hands together was really something. And to go by these groups of local residents lining the road, holding up hand-painted signs saying “Thank you! Thank you!” which they’d also yell at the tops of their lungs to all the emergency crews, is really a heartening experience.

The West Side Highway tells it all even before you get near the area of devastation. The first chilling reminders of human death are the numerous 54-foot refrigerated trailers, ‘reefers’, lining the road, ironically placed near the 14th Street Meat Market. Each of the found body parts is placed in its own plastic container and stored in these reefers. I also learned from the ERV (Emergency Rescue Vehicle) drivers, those making the runs to the land-fill in Staten Island, that they are using these big reefers out there, too. Just below the Meat Market you see numerous flat bed trucks with huge sections of cranes waiting to be placed in action. Then come the rows of mobile TV stations, each one with its large dish antenna pointing towards the southern skies and a makeshift studio in front replete with camera crew, silver reflector cloth and an announcer poised before a camera.

I could barely believe the story that one of the ERV drivers told me as I shuttled him back to his hotel. The forensic devastation engineers are attempting to separate the rubble into Tower One and Tower Two! Hundreds of tons of the stuff each day makes its way in mammoth dumpsters to what was a defunct dumping ground known as ‘Fresh Kills’ (sic!) in Staten Island. Nobody within miles is allowed there. The place is swarming with Federal marshals. Hundreds are dressed in full Type A biological protection suits, painstakingly raking through the debris and separating the stuff into large piles of metal, cement, crushed motor vehicles, and of course, human remains if there are any. This is an area which even in normal circumstances requires full protection to work in, so powerful is the stench of decaying garbage. Old television sets are rotting next to food waste, dead batteries and oilcans, etc. while seagulls hover above so thick they block the sky. And unless your olfactory system has shut down, you wouldn’t want to live with 25 (or more) miles of this area.

I pulled into Canal heading east and swung down Varick towards Chambers but suddenly felt the need to stop for a few minutes near GZ. I parked the van and walked towards the rubble. I felt a tightening around my chest and something like a lead weight in my stomach as I made my way past the military control point. They checked my backpack and I walked the last few steps right up to the final fence beyond which only work crews are allowed with heavy boots, hard hat, etc. Several cranes were operating next to the rubble. From one hung a ‘basket’ with two workers suspended several feet above this beast of a mound. I suppose they were searching for signs of life, although I could not imagine anyone surviving after such a long period. Incredibly after two weeks, wafts of smoke can still be seen rising upwards and they say that fires are still burning as deep as eight stories below. According to one of the workers, they’re still recording temperatures of two thousand degrees from several stories below the site, heat from the trapped gases and oils and other chemicals that came from all the machinery that was used to power these monster towers.

Another smaller crane seemed merely to be pecking at the rubble, its slow pace making it hard to imagine any progress. Reaching up about five stories, it made several attempts with its clasping device to withdraw iron girders. When one girder wouldn’t budge, it moved to the next until it finally got one loose. It had rained heavily the day before and the rubble appeared totally compacted, the tons of dust and crumbling bits of cement turned to what appeared to be a thick mud and settled into a monstrous mound with nasty shards of jagged steel beams. Yet despite the heavy rain of the preceding day, each time a piece of steel was dislodged it sent a cloud of dust skywards. In the backdrop the vestigial columns of the exterior façade loomed tall above the debris. On them I could see the gothic niches that had decorated the world-famous monument that once defined New York. Hanging on the fence to my right I noticed a panel with various photos of the aircrafts’ black boxes, explaining to the site workers how to recognize them.

I grew up with the powerful and unsettling images of a Japan crushed by atomic force, and these were the images that suddenly flashed through my mind. Then came the fear that we’d never really understand this hidden enemy whose logic is so different from our own, and no matter what we do we’d always be like sitting ducks to them. It is impossible not to feel helpless against people who are willing to blow themselves up.

Being here at this spot was my way of saying a prayer and feeling the pain of those souls whose lives were so quickly snuffed out. The pull of gravity beneath my feet was strong and I resisted a desire to drop to my knees and wail in anguish. The need to curl my fingers into a fist and scream gushed to my throat. How could these workers simply go about their business without screaming in pain?

New York City is my home. As these two towers rose high above the earth I remember watching them in amazement each time I found myself roaming the Wall Street area. They were the state of the art in the science of tall buildings and a monumental achievement in engineering. Mathematically, they had to be built from the top down with each floor especially designed to support the one above it. A whole generation of people grew up with them. And now suddenly New Yorkers find themselves searching a skyline for something that is no longer, like an amputee still feeling his missing limb.

The odd noise of a vehicle chugging behind me shook me back to reality. I turned around to see the lovely, serene smile of a blond lady officer in a golf buggy. She was bedecked in so much emergency paraphernalia that I couldn’t resist the feeling that her costume would soon emerge as a sick new fashion in the glossy fashion magazines this winter. I found these emotions reinforcing my reason for being here and doing what I was doing. Slowly I shuffled back to my ARC van, headed down Chambers and back to the ARC headquarters.

New assignment from HQ. This time to pier 94 called the Comfort Zone area, described in my previous missive as where the parents and relatives of the missing come to seek their loved ones and where the ‘triage’ of DNA evidence takes place. My passengers are a bigwig, the head of the Brooklyn headquarters, and his colleague. Pulling into the area the van is scrutinized by security. My passengers descend and I park just behind the stern of the US Navy ship ‘Comfort’. It’s so gigantic that I have to crane my neck to espy a gunman on the deck perched behind sandbags with a machine gun at the ready. I haven’t a clue how long I’ll be waiting but my cell phone is on. I stretch my legs by walking over to the entrance. A long wall plastered with photographs of the missing, almost assuredly forever gone, lines the whole entry to this ‘funeral parlor’. I see smiling people sitting at their work desks, in some they’re holding the family dog, others appear snapped at a recent wedding. I take careful notice of what floor they were last seen on and invariably it’s the high floors, the ones above the 85 or 87, where people were virtually condemned to death at the instant of impact. Tears roll down my cheeks and I’m afraid to linger lest, moping in my loud ARC vest, I set off a chain reaction.

Sauntering back towards the ‘Comfort’, I decided that I should wait in the van. A troop of US Marines in T-shirts and heavy combat boots came jogging by to the cadence of motivational slogans bellowed by the leader.

Finally, the call came telling me it was ok to leave without the bigwig. I called HQ for a new assignment and headed south to Kitchen Two. K-2 is just by Canal Street and opposite the Hudson River. There was a lull so I strolled into the kitchen to admire the way all these retirees from the Tennessee Southern Baptist Convention work so well together. At the fold-up windows of the cooking truck you could see the shinny kitchen equipment: the vegetable steamers, ovens and industrial can openers-and boy do they have cans to open. For the meal that day they were opening #10 cans of corn beef hash and dumping them into a large receptacle called a ’tilt skillet’, which heats the stuff up to the required temperature of 180 degrees.

Carmel Beam, 74 years old with a shock of white hair, stood there in his new Adidas, churning away at this goo with a spatula the size of a broomstick. And like the other folks he was wearing his bright yellow insignia hat and polyester vest. Once food is poured into the cambros for delivery the temperature is constantly monitored and should it fall below 140, by law it is chucked. A cambro is a thick, red plastic box with two flip-doors at the top which snap open for easy serving.

Hundreds were lined up and being readied for distribution, each marked for its destination: Fire Dept. Center, DOH 1, Chinatown, Cherry & Pike, Greenwich & Chambers, Landfill, Seabees, OEM, ad infinitum. The ‘Landfill’ requires 525 meals every four hours raising the total number of meals for the day to 3500. Records of all meals are meticulously recorded.

Inspector Singh, from the NY Dept. of Health was on the spot taking notes, and observing the cooking and handling of the food. Originally from British Guyana, one could not miss Singh’s impressive gold badge from the City of New York, prominently displayed on his chest. He seemed to have no qualms about his job description and it’s exigencies. But as he began to dwell on the subject of the fly’s life cycle, it’s mating habits and the filth it carries, I decided I really had gotten into a conversation I didn’t need to hear.

My day is over. I make my last run up to the hotels to drop off more tired kitchen workers and head back to HQ.

29 September, 2001

Each day I walk into the Logistics office the mood is different. And I never know exactly what runs will be tossed at me. In the first week a desperate call went out to drive a 28 foot box body diesel truck to the US Tennis Stadium, fetch three thousand meals and deliver them to Kitchen Three, under the Brooklyn Bridge. Growing up in the family business of used cars and trucks save for a tractor-trailer, I could drive anything with a steering wheel. However, that was twenty five years ago and unless my life depended on it had no urge to jump behind the wheel of one of these big monsters given the present traffic. Finally, someone stepped forward and I’m recruited as the navigator to guide this bloody beast. We hop in the truck and the guy who’s suppose to be the driver has feet that can’t reach the pedals and the seat can’t be adjusted, it’s broken. So, guess who winds up driving the truck. Finally, by the time we got the meals to K-3 they find out it’s below temperature and three thousand Salisbury steaks have to be chucked.

Raised in the Bible Belt of the Deep South, Isiah Wilcox at one point in time ministered more than 30 churches in and around his hometown along the northern edge of South Carolina. He had also been an officer in the military and probably that’s where he got the great knack for what he’s been doing great here in New York with ARC. Isiah oversees the distribution of food supplies between the three main kitchens, all of which are run mostly by retirees from the Southern Baptist Convention. K-1 as we call it, is located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the guys making the grub hail from Virginia. At K-2 they come from Tennessee whereas those from K-4 (K-3 under the Brooklyn Bridge was eliminated), are from various other Bible Belt states. One has only to see these hearty people in the waning years of their beautiful lives move about the complex task of preparing thousands of meals everyday to understand the spiritual wealth inherent in selfless service.

Isiah Wilcox, a paradigm of this great southern American tradition, was sitting next to me today as we sped through the emergency lane over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I was proud to be his driver. Other drivers are in Logistics but Isiah likes to ask for me. I believe he likes my clipped New York accent and the way I doff my hat, or perhaps he just likes the snappy way I zip in and out of traffic. People from the south move about slowly, I guess. Isiah’s southern accent commands respect. When I see his belly rise almost to his chin, like a deep sigh, I ready myself for a slur of words. They seem to spill out in short sentences, all linked together so that by deciphering the first part quickly, I can catch up to the end, if there is an end. As a minister he certainly had many years to hone his loquacious chops. I tell Isiah some of the stories I had heard from the ERV drivers who drop off food at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and I see his interest piqued as a curious as mine. From K-2 the ERVs left every four hours and I suggested to Isiah that we drive one of them out there to get a first hand look at the wreckage. However, by the time we set things up to go out there, the system changed. No longer were ERVs going out there and food was now being supplied by Staten Island companies.

I was a little disappointed about that but then something happened the following day. Waiting for my next run, Joyce, a lovely girl from Seattle Washington with fine, porcelain-like features and who has been working tirelessly at the Logistics desk since day one, gets a call to bring a mental health worker to the landfill. This was it, my opportunity to get a first hand peek at just how the tons of WTC rubble were being sorted. I guess Isiah is going to have to wait his turn on this one.

Joyce throws me a set of keys to one of the vans and I exit with my mental health worker in search for the vehicle. One of the petty challenges of this job is locating the vehicle since returning drivers rarely note where they parked them. And with more than thirty vans being constantly shuffled about it’s easy to waste time walking around in circles with your passenger(s) trying to match plate number to key tag. It’s even more fun in the rain.

Anyway, we finally get on our way and head down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway towards the great Verrazano Narrow Bridge that will take us into Staten Island. Just arriving from Indiana, my passenger, Jack Piel, is sitting next to me asking a lot of naïve questions about New York. Jack, a trained psychologist on the verge of retirement is maybe 65 with a large face that reminds me of the comedian Jonathan Winters. Each time he speaks I can’t help imagining his lips to curling up into some hilarious twisted mug shot. But Jack just sits there staring straight out as if waiting for some impending doom. I’ve never been to the landfill but I have a map and know approximately what directions to take. We stop at the tollbooth and I flash my Red Cross badge at the officer who jots down our plate number. After a short stint on US 278 we pick up 440 south until I spot a large Dumpster which I recognize as coming from the WTC site and very soon I see he’s pulling over towards exit 5, marked Muldoon Ave.

To my right I notice a small sign “Native Plant Restoration” almost buried in the high grassy weeds swaying violently in the windy wake of the 18-wheeler Dumpster truck we’re following. We’re entering a yard marked NY City Department of Sanitation with buildings on either side: To the right stands the Boro Repair Shop, to the left, methane extractors connected to the landfill, and a Special Waste Drop-off Site. The yard sits alongside what could have been a quaint inlet had it not been for the barges of debris that were being unloaded by large cranes. Off in the distance on the New Jersey side of the Arthur Kill inlet a huge oil refinery stretched its stark white tanks for perhaps half a mile up the shoreline.

Strange, I see no rubble in the truck we were following and so it may be empty. Or, perhaps it’s possible that by design the FBI decided not to overload them lest something would fly out during the haul. We followed it right into the gate with no check and about 300 feet up the road it pulled into a weigh station area along with about a dozen other vehicles. That’s when I understood just how meticulously the tonnage of the devastation removal was being recorded. We swung around towards an intersection where the large vehicles were headed up a long hill. Two plainclothes police officers jumped out to inspect our credentials. Approaching the top of the hill one begins to see hundreds of piles of twisted ‘whitened’ steel looking more like aluminum, a result of the extreme heat of the devastation. It hard to imagine how steel could even get to this shape, so intricate was each of the shards making up the stacks. As the terrain leveled off we arrived upon vast plateau with dumpsters, monster Caterpillar tractors and other zoomorphic earth moving equipment rumbling ominously close by. Of to the right were piles of motor vehicles from civilians, fire departments, and the NYPD, crushed or flattened into almost unrecognizable shapes. Next to this, oxygen/acetylene welders with FBI printed bold on their backs, exploded showers of orange sparks from their torches as they sliced through trunks, clove compartments and hoods, searching for the VIN or motor serial numbers needed for eventual insurance claims. In one of the subterranean parking lots they say that more than a hundred vehicles are still buried.

I pulled up to an army bivouac and parked. Jack and I went to greet his relief co-worker. It turned out to be Susan, a wonderful lady whom I had the luck to meet on a previous run. She knew the place inside and out and offered us a short tour of the place. The men are working the wreckage 24/7, twelve-hour shifts each, and crises are happening: they must process the fright of discovering human remains. For two weeks they’ve been working and until yesterday hadn’t found a body. It was a man and within one hour they identified him. The forensics saw that it had undergone a hip replacement and that greatly speeded up the process of identification. That and an address book in the back pocket were all that was needed to bring some desperate closure to a grieving family. A large military helicopter swooped down and gently alighted not 100 feet from where we were grouped. Some civilians appeared strapped to their seats but remained. The pilot jumped out with his cell phone to his ear, distancing himself from the noise of the aircraft. Perhaps they were family members of one of the victims they were trying to identify. And as fast as it appeared it flew off again.

We approached another area almost the size of a football field surrounded by tall poles ending in powerful halogen light clusters. A large backhoe digger with a shovel full of debris raised high was inching back in reverse and scattering the stuff in small mounds for the workers to more easily pick through. Off to the side, were sifting machines that shake the rubble through a strainer before it’s strewn out on the ground before the men. I counted eight workers carefully eyeing the sifted debris for any evidence as the conveyor belt carried it towards a bin. The evidence could be in the form of say, pieces of the Black Box or of the aircraft, or valuables destroyed from the collapsed buildings. Dressed in white Tyvec suits, yellow boots and gas masks, groups of four or five of these guys sift through the debris with pitchforks and rakes. And each group employs German shepherd dog that works the debris just as hard as the men do. One guy holds a white plastic bucket and goes about looking for small objects; another is dangling an article of clothing off the end of his pitchfork. Anything of importance is quickly inspected and handed over to the specialists, either the bomb squads, Secret Service, CIA, police or whatever agency that needs to be informed. Off to the side two folding tables covered in muddied plastic are there for placing evidence that needs to be recorded. A large hand-painted cardboard seen behind the tables reads: “No body parts on the table”.

Sharp rays of sun break suddenly through a high ceiling of cumulous clouds as blustery autumn winds propel them to the far reaches of a crisp horizon, casting drama to an already grim sight. The rays ignite white Tyvec suits into a brilliant glow, transforming the men into ghost-like creatures. Once they finish their search with the rakes and pitchforks a bull dozer scoops up what remains and pours it once again into a Dumpster only to be place in some other pile. The American Humane Association provides a long trailer marked “Animal Planet” for the dogs’ R & R. Emblazoned across its side a large greyhound dog is in full gallop, surrounded by a fierce looking eagle, a cow’s head and some waddling ducks- a surreal cartoon so close to fields of death. As a means of breaking the ice and reaching out to a worker, Susan likes to offer a newspaper. Once a conversation has been established, she tries to get to the point where he just pours out what’s on his mind. In an environment where the camaraderie among the men in police uniforms is established along the lines of strength and courage, the accumulation of grief, anger, sadness and frustration become suppressed to the point where there is no place to turn. When those moments arise and there is no one with whom to share your thoughts or emotions, the presence of ARC mental health workers provides a much need support. Personally, I don’t understand how the mental health workers go about it without breaking up themselves. None of them I spoke to ever encountered such a scene before. They’re more used to dealing with dysfunctional families or psychosis.

3 October 2001

This week I noted that the mood and ambiance at the ARC Headquarters changed quite a bit. Because the GZ operation switched from search and rescue to one of recovery and clean up, the tension and immediacy of our chores lessened dramatically. Most of the kitchens that had been set up by the Southern Baptist groups had closed. Some of the respite centers had been regrouped with others and thus the number of runs required of the drivers has diminished accordingly. A strange period of relative calm had descended over Manhattan. By the look of the people and the bustling activity on the street, and given the horror of the attack, you would never know that part of lower Manhattan had recently been blown away. All the hastily scribbled pieces of paper that hung like graffiti on the walls, showing the locations of the hotels, respite areas, kitchens, vehicles, etc., had now been replaced by neatly printed signs. In the beginning the need for drivers was great, and just about all were welcomed. But walking into the office now, those without a good knowledge of the city’s complex roads are politely turned away.

Like her co-worker Joyce, mentioned previously, Marlene adroitly slipped into her role as a drivers’ dispatcher shortly after a stint driving, deciding that perhaps it was more exciting fielding the endless phone calls and requests of ARC workers needing to be chauffeured. Marlene’s telephonic expertise seems to function best when she’s surrounded by a smorgasbord of snacks- sour dough pretzels, tootsie rolls, miniature Hershey bars, half-eaten gooey sandwiches, etc. With the receiver crunched between ear and shoulder, her chestnut mop of hair swirls forward as she turns to beckon one of the drivers. Before clearing her throat, Marlene’s tongue pushes across the inside of her cheek and dislodges a gob of pretzel stuck under her gum. “Frank, can you take this big guy to the Crown Plaza?” she yells over din of the room. The big guy is Bud Stalker, a strong burly man from Northern Michigan and a Native American Indian of the Chipewyan tribe. Bud, a national ARC volunteer, flew in that morning and was readying himself to take up the post of Systems Log Officer, a division of logistics, at one of the New Jersey warehouses in North Bergen. Bud still lives true to his Indian traditions, going up to the lake areas for his tribe’s annual pow wows. When he left military service, he drove semis across the US before settling down as a Juvenile Officer in Placenti, California. One of Bud’s friends was the mayor there but after a good few years on the job and then finding the mayor’s daughter dead in a sleazy hotel with a needle still stuck in her arm, it was all too much to handle and so he quit. As we cruised along the emergency lane of the West Side Highway, Bud and I exchanged stories about our moms and the final moments before they ‘left’ their bodies. Since it was only a few months ago that I had lost mine, tears swelled easily to my eyes. My Indian friend described how his mom had for a long time been in a coma and miraculously popped out of it just before passing away. It was a cloudy day and all of a sudden a lone ray of sun broke through the window and moved across her bed. Suddenly her eyes opened and she told her two sons gathered at the bed: “You guys are going to learn something from this” and immediately drifted back into the coma, never to return. I couldn’t help feeling that within her passing words lay a profound tribal revelation. As I dropped him off at the Crown Plaza Hotel on 7th Avenue, turning to me and pointing across the street at the famous Stage Diner, Bud beamed: “that place over there serves one hell of Reuben sandwich, Frank”. He had stalked the best sandwich in town!

Though the tension and chaos of the first couple of weeks had diminished, the work of the mental health people has increased. There are survivors who haven’t slept since day one; displaced people still in hotels that are refused entry into their apartments; family members of the missing that have to finally accept the fact that they will never see their loved ones again. My trip the next morning was to New Jersey to visit a survivor who had had six minutes to vacate his office. With two nurses and two caseworkers we rolled out of the parking lot on a beautiful sunny day and headed for the Holland tunnel. The tunnel under the Hudson River, even on a quiet day, is packed with traffic. Now, reserved only for emergency vehicles, it was deserted. I sped through the tunnel astride two lanes knowing this was the only time in my life I’d be able to get away with this. An F-16 attack jet could shoot through it with ease.

Bonnie, a strong buxom lady with a determined look, is a registered nurse from Fairbanks, Alaska. She piloted a twin-engine airplane and for twelve years had run her own medical flying service. I felt comfortable when she rode shotgun and helped navigate to this obscure address about an hour from Manhattan. Curiously, none of my passengers had talked with the survivor we were going to see. However, when they showed me the directions to the house, two pages of Cartesian, left-right-left gibberish printed from a map website, I decided I needed to called this guy for better directions. As we pulled into the driveway he came out in his shorts and T-shirt looking a little disheveled. He greeted us warmly and beckoned us into his living room where we all sat down. I listened to my fellow travelers go about their work of filling out forms and asking the necessary questions. He was extremely grateful to us for coming but he explained that the classified nature of his job as a government service employee permitted him to reveal few details of exactly what happened that day, something which I thought rather strange. My guess is that he was with one of the secret services. With bruises on his legs and eyes frightenly sunken from lack of sleep, he lounged on his sofa explaining his bout with nightmares and how impossible it was to share with his wife the events of that terrible day. He insisted he felt no anger but only guilt. And because he never detailed the events, except for the bodies he saw raining down, I found this guilt he harbored difficult to understand. OK, so he survived and others did not; only later did the thought come to me just what horrors he might have experienced. We only hear of those who performed heroic deeds to save lives. What we don’t hear about are the hundreds of others who stepped on, jumped over, or even pushed others away to save themselves. And although this might not be the case with him, these people have not only to wrestle with the trauma of the event itself but also with unbearable shame and guilt.

I listen to the nurses recommend that he go for counseling, that he take good care of himself. One of them mentioned that when she counsels the women she advises them to go to the florist and buy a favorite flower or take long aromatic bubble baths. Likewise, she advised him to partake in whatever healing process he could create for himself. But above all, he needed to eventually share his experience with someone so that whatever had happened didn’t remain locked in. As with most of the mental health workers with whom I came in contact, none of them had much experience in dealing with the consolation of so many people and death on this magnitude. Many of them were social workers and psychologists used to dealing with dysfunctional families, problem children, school issues, etc. But now each one of them had to come to terms with powerful emotions; deep wounds caused by grief and despair. This was something quite alien to the clinical third party academics of psychology in the office. There is no room for triteness, false emotions or ego. To connect with these families on a deep human level, all this stuff must be dropped and in the let-go of this process the mental heath workers themselves undergo deep transformations. A psychologist friend of mine, Fred, working at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, spotted an elderly couple sitting at one of the canteen tables. As Jews they had fled Russia to come to American and raise their son in freedom. On that Tuesday morning, their Ivy League educated son, a stock analyst, had gone to a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World. Waiting for an opportunity to broach a conversation, Fred stood quietly next to them until he made eye contact. He asked them if he could be of some help. The mother, opening an envelope and removing a photo of her son, replied: ” Yes, if you can find my son that would be a great help”

On a run to Staten Island, I drove two mental health workers, a husband and wife team, Don and Vale, to a stately place on a grassy knoll, called the Mount Manresa Jesuit Monastery, where families of the missing NY firemen were gathering. Crossing the sleek Verrazzano Bridge with the yawning expanse of the sun-lit New York harbor to our right, I knew a task of unimaginable proportions awaited them. Dark memories of my childhood resurfaced as I began to relive the experience of my own brother’s death at the age of 14. For six months I had lost my ability to speak. But at this moment it was heartening to know that there could not have been elected for this task a more beautiful couple. If Vale had a prepossessing charm, her soft-spoken husband certainly had a warm personality. They must have made a formidable team. A few hours later I drove by to collect them at the monastery and we returned to HQ. As I slid open the side door they stepped out and we hugged each other for what seemed a long time.

Night had already fallen as I wound my way across Chambers towards the huge Municipal Building that stands like a bastion at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. My cell phone rang. “Frankie boy, where are you? Can you pick up two at Service Center One?” I made an about face and headed back to Ground Zero where it’s located and waited for my passengers.

Work at GZ never stops. Colossal halogens illuminate the area like a Hollywood shoot as 18 wheelers roar through the narrow streets with tonnage of burnt steel, heading for barges docked at the Hudson River. That night I was driving a brand new BMW SUV, sink white and emblazoned with ARC emblems. I open the door for Mac and Gladys Bunter. It always amazes me how many great husband and wife teams serve as volunteers. The Bunters came from Billings, Montana to serve as ERV drivers and, to feed the GZ workers, have been transporting the cambro meals from Manhattan’s famous chef David Boulet. At seventy years of age you could see the Montana outdoors written on Mac’s leathery but still boyish face. He claims his parents were Cherokee and that if he were back home now he’d be out deer hunting. I slipped into the glitzy driveway of the Millenium hotel near the UN and the doorman looking like Pee Wee Herman helped the Bunters up to their room. My day is over…

11 October 2001

For some strange reason Mental health workers are no longer stationed at the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, the place where the rubble is sifted through and finding body parts can become disquieting. The search dogs, too, were recently eliminated due to the multitudinous scents that confused them, which in turn caused the men to lose valuable time. And the scene at HQ is now fairly quiet and humdrum. As the weeks roll by, the initial large perimeter that cordoned off and defined the crime scene in lower Manhattan, underwent a slow shrinkage, to the point where it basically takes you within three blocks of Ground Zero. And with that, many of the pesky road blocks and checkpoints disappeared, providing public access to the many spots where one can stand and gape in amazement, though still from an acute angle, at the scene of devastation. A closer view may never happen. Many of my friends refuse to go near from fear of nightmares or anger and whatever else that may all too easily disturb the consciousness of an individual. Some volunteers with GZ clearance avoid approaching it, and they work right at Respite Three, or at Service Center 1, both just around the corner! As for myself, after almost four weeks as a volunteer logistics driver, I still feel compelled to observe GZ’s daily transformations. Until a week ago, the West Side Highway, which becomes West Street at GZ was closed to all except construction vehicles. Now emergency vehicles can actually continue through the western end of the rubble area on their way to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel or the FDR Drive. Thus, making my way the other night towards Respite Three to deliver mail, a Federal Marshal waved me through the barrier. I cruised ahead over an undefined, bumpy dirt road and within seconds found myself surrounded by colossal earth moving equipment. Under the powerful halogens strategically placed in and around the 16 acre rubble, man and his machines bathed in brilliant rays of intense white light. Squinting, as if suddenly finding myself thrust upon a blinding stage, I slowed the van to the point where I became mesmerized by the dance of shadows bouncing off the gigantic cranes, cranes that have the largest lifting capacity in the world. The “Matatowa”, they say, can lift 1000 tons! A ‘panza division’ of Hitachi, Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators, crept like insects across a compacted field of twisted steel and pulverized cement, using their powerful mandibles to uncover new pockets for the search crews to enter, or to separate chunks of steel and drop them into the 18 wheeler that never stopped coming, even at this dark hour of the night. Incredibly, a month after the catastrophe, swirls of hot white steam still rose from the rubble as the men hosed it down. The end of a recently-yanked steel girder was cherry red! The remains of the exterior north wall of Tower One arched precariously backward with its brownish aluminum girders, like upraised skeletal arms stretched maybe 23 stories high. At Tower Two, whose south wall stood about four stories high, a pile of rubble appeared to be cascading over what was left of the first floor superstructure, spilling down into a pit that leads to the foundation of the towers, almost 90 feet below. To see these ghostly remnants of skeletal walls, like the ruins of a Roman coliseum, blown open and looming up from the rubble is almost to hear a final scream from those who perished. To my right, from perhaps the 25th floor of the American Express Tower known as Three World Financial Center, sharp intermittent flashes flew from an arc welder. From the high windows of the surviving tall buildings, the twinkle of hundreds of yellow lights patterned the stark blackness beyond the bright halogens. From the partially damaged structures, long black veils of protective netting hung, as if the buildings were grieving widows. Rising majestically on Broadway a few blocks away from GZ, the Woolworth Building, awash in emerald green lights, stood proud with its tiered floors all aglow. Over on the site’s east side, the remains of WTC’s diminutive buildings Four and Five stood charred and shredded, waiting to be demolished, while the Nasdaq, though still relatively intact, may have to be imploded. It wasn’t until my eye slowly fell on a hard hat frantically waving to me to get my ass in gear that I awoke from my silent communion with GZ to see behind me, waiting impatiently, two chrome-out-to-the-max, 18 wheeler Freightliner Dumpsters. I parked the van and before entering Respite Three, as an anti-contamination requirement, I had my shoes sprayed off with a water hose by one of the ARC volunteers. I had a feeling my sister Joyce might be on duty but she was nowhere to be found. Joyce and I live in the same apt building and after reading my diary she got the bug to volunteer. However, I did bump into Jackie Roth , also a tenant in our building. To have three people volunteering from the same building is a wonderful feeling, and in fact, if I count Marcel who lives in the contiguous building,the West 73rd Street block is well represented.

Around 8pm the queue for food was growing rapidly while the large dining hall was filled mostly with blue uniforms. Although I already had eaten at HQ I eyed the buffet table to see was on the menu. Opposite, the desert table had neatly laid out plates of chocolate brownies, something I have a hard time refusing. I swiped one and munched it while chatting with Jackie who stood near the dining room door tending to tables. A strong feeling arose that my time as a volunteer was finished. A break was needed from constantly being close to GZ and the emotions it stirred up. With the frantic events since the eleventh and now the anthrax scares, it had been a while since I’d had a good night’s sleep. Friends often asked me how I was coping and I usually responded positively since I was so bent on performing my logistics duties. But in reality I was pushing everything else aside, including myself. Distancing myself from GZ and returning to normal work and daily routine suddenly seemed more than appropriate. One of the highlights of my time as a logistics driver was meeting the beautiful retirees who came here to donate a part of their skills as ARC volunteers. It was an honor to serve them in a metropolis whose complicated roads and infrastructure, even without a September 11th, is otherwise quite daunting to the visitor. I sincerely hope that we never have another catastrophe like this but if we do I have a newfound confidence in America’s amazing resource of ready, willing and able volunteers.

Atmo Kabir
© 2001: Frank Ames

Khalsa and explosive Graphics in the age of Maharaja Runjit Singh’s Kashmir. Textiles Asia, May 2011, Vol. 3 issue 1

By Frank Ames

23 Oct. 2010

Located just under Kashmir in Northern India, the Punjab encompasses a five-river region that was severely battered by the opposing forces of various nations and religious sects during the eighteenth century. Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs, Pathans, Marathas, Rohillas and eventually the British, all clashed over this piece of land the size of France. Out of this warring chaos, the Sikh rose victoriously under the leadership of Maharaja Runjit Singh, who annexed Kashmir in 1819. During this time of Sikh ascendancy the Kashmir shawl, around 1820, underwent within a few years a dramatic change in both format and design, from a tradition of simple Paisley repeats at each end of a long swath of twill-woven pashmina wool, to one of dynamic, complex patterns that expanded over the whole area of the shawl. In this article an attempt will be made to show that a close correlation exists between these patterns and the artistic, religious and military environment that evolved under Runjit Singh.

For the first time in history, the numerous independent and quarrelling misls (chiefdoms) rallied behind a warrior and despotic monarch, Maharaja Runjit Singh, whose army came close to challenging that of British India’s. Within this landscape appeared a new pool of Kashmiri, Sikh and Pahari artists, developing an innovative vocabulary of patterns. Geometric shapes in the form of eight pointed stars, circles, spear-like forms, sweeping curves and architectonic devices- all of which intersected and merged in a rhythmic flow of what might appear as musical or at times pyrotechnic energy, began suddenly to permeate the shawl’s ‘canvas’ . Other curious objects entered this growing design repertoire such as the bow and arrow, quiver, boats, quoits and the dagger, the last of which is indubitably one of the five symbols of the Khalsa (Sikh Brotherhood). Frequently integrated into the shawl’s twill-weave (kani) were gurdwaras (Sikh temples). No longer limited to the shawl extremities, these various motifs began to fill the complete space of the shawl, to such an extent that hardly any area remained unadorned.

From what source did this new artistic expression of the Sikh period spring? Did it come from the sacred literature of the Sikh, such as the illuminated or illustrated Janamsakhi or the Sri Adi Granth? Was this expression absorbed by artists who remained close to Maharaja Runjit Singh’s Lahore darbar (court)? Was it initiated by Imam Bakhsh Lahori, one of the most sought after Punjabi artists of the period? Did these creative impulses filter down from the Pahari princely states as a result of Raja Sansar Chand’s submission to Runjit Singh? Or, perhaps it descended from the legacy of the Pandit Seu family of artists from Guler. Were they created in Lahore by Muhammad Bakhsh Sahhaf’s workshop or in one of the many other important ateliers that thrived in Lahore? The foreign military commanders, or mercenaries, who trained Runjit’s special forces (Fauj-i-Khas) may also have influenced these stylistic impulses with their regal battle costumes, war decorations and the flashy military accoutrements of Runjit’s Napoleonic Generals, Allard and Ventura, who arrived in Lahore in 1822. Unquestionably, the exotic novelty of this scenario generated awe and excitement among the weavers and craftsmen, who were sensitive to and actively engaged in the integration of colorful and artistic ideas into the fabric of their designs. In the thirty-five years I’ve been involved with the Kashmir shawl, these questions have continually piqued my curiosity and it’s the main reason I had set about writing Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, which endeavors to survey the most exciting examples from this era, and establish and weigh their importance as a mirror of Sikh culture.

William Moorcroft, more than any other early traveler into the Valley of Kashmir, is credited with the most complete description of the Kashmir shawl industry. During his long sojourn in Srinagar in 1823, only a few years after Runjit Singh annexes the valley, Moorcroft encounters a very curious shawl. Its borders (hashias) are called in Kashmiri “hashiyadar kunguradar”. He writes: “This has a border of unusual form with another within side, or nearer to the middle, resembling the crest of the wall of Asiatic forts furnished with narrow niches or embrasures for wall pieces or matchlock, whence its name.” Indeed, a few extant shawls confirm Moorcroft’s observations, which represent the first inkling of kani architecture and a radical change in the winds of shawl fashion. By 1830, the shawl ‘canvas’ had become an esoteric playground for an exotic mélange of geometric, architectonic, sweepingly curved, oblong and bizarre shapes, jostling with each other in seemingly mysterious ways.

My first book (1986) set forth an historical classification of this subject, which by highlighting socio-political segments of history, had identified and associated these graphic enigmatic patterns with the powerful expansion at the beginning of the 19th century of the Khalsa movement. However, my research was limited to much fewer shawls as compared to the number and diversity of those recently added to world collections. The big difference in the treatment of the subject between my first book and Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage is that in the former Sikh association had been lightly touched upon and presented only as a plausible theory. Now, based on accumulated evidence, it is possible to establish with a reasonable degree of certainty that this style of Kashmir shawl is indeed a woven product illustrating the integration of symbolic ideas, architectonic concepts and contemporaneous events drawn from the Brotherhood of Sikh culture and the Land of the Five Rivers, the Punjab.

The high, or quintessential, Sikh pattern comprises overlapping images expressing a multiplicity of complex links and possible metaphors, many of which still beg interpretation. Moving into Euclidean spaces and isometries (one space embedded within another space) we find that the Kashmiri shawl arrives at a crossroads where the paths of simplicity, orderliness, and purity of line coalesce with the complexity of a new pictorial language filled with layers of interlocked graphic symbols. Previously, there was nothing to interpret, intellectualize or shake our sense of equilibrium. In the earliest of shawl patterns, the Mughal weavings, for example, we can easily connect with and marvel at the grace and poetic sway of flowers and blossoms. Indeed, they were a simple extension of the pervasive Mughal style defined by the swaying triple flexion (tribhanga) grace of floral shrubs found on carpets and in miniature and wall paintings, woven into costumes and sculptured on architecture. It was a powerful style representing the infusion of Persian and European iconography into a creative and indigenous Indian heritage. During the Afghan rule of Kashmir, the shawl continued its reputation for the repetition of the boteh across it end panels, its shape delimited by a bulbous curvilinearity in which it would appear that artists competed with each other to see how many different ways flowers could be arranged within the boteh’s strict outline limitations.

In Kashmir’s Runjit Singh period the student of Indian art, and the Kashmir shawl, must come to terms with a definition of Sikh art, which does not possess an easily definable style. Rather it is better understood as a synthetic phenomenon of artistic energies that colored the landscape of the Punjab-Jammu-Kashmir-Pahari region. Runjit Singh was no Jahangir. If he had a court atelier it certainly was not on a big scale. There were no genius artist such as the likes of Manohar or Mansur. There were no beautifully rounded faces with well-proportioned physiognomy, nature studies, or explorations of three-dimensional effects. Runjit Singh had neither the poetic sensitivity nor the artistic passion to become involved in such indolent pastimes; he was too busy fighting wars. Under his rule, Sikh art, if there is such a thing, most likely growing out of a need for Sikh mss and their illumination, of which Runjit was known to gift many sumptuously illuminated copies.

During the last few decades a renewed interest from the days of Archer’s seminal publication PAINTINGS OF THE SIKHS (1953), has developed, notably with the research of B.N. Goswamy leading the way. Three major exhibitions on Sikh art were held in the last ten years alone (fn), comprising paintings, coins, metalware, textiles, and armaments, which gave evidence not necessarily of an all encompassing Sikh style but rather as representative of “a new function, which must be considered with style as hallmarks of the art of the period” as proffered by Barbara Schmitz. Because of the lack of any unifying Sikh style, the weighty catalogues of these major exhibitions were copiously illustrated with craft objects which are merely ethnic artifacts and utilitarian items typical of contemporaneous Punjab., but not in themselves identifiable as Sikh works of art.

To know Sikh art, is to be familiar with the Sikh holy scriptures. These are the Sri Adi Granth Guru Sahib and the Janamsakhis. While the Granth is basically the Bible of the Sikhs, the Janamsakhis are stories about the life of Guru Nanak. Both of these scriptures during the late 18th and 19th century experienced an artistic renaissance, rendering them through illumination and illustration excellent sources of Sikh iconography as well as providing possible clues to the study of the Kashmir shawl.

Setting aside illustrations of the Granth and Janamsakhi, Sikh art as a style is difficult to define. The fact is that until the mid-19th century, Hindu and Sikh religions tended to meld together. It was customary for Hindus as well as Sikhs to pay homage to Sikh shrines and holy places. Dr. B.N. Goswamy, states that there is a “clear lack of any sharp demarcation between Sikh and Hindu themes when [especially] one examines the evidence of the murals on the walls of the Sikh royal palaces and other structures.” There was deep respect the one for the other. The Granth is filled with poetic commentaries (albeit brief) on Hinduism, Islam and Yoga as well as on righteous living. It is written in the form of devotional hymns and devoid of essential narrative; illustration was left basically to portraiture of the Gurus. It has been opined that this may be one reason why textiles and crafts of the period have no references to Sikh spiritual ideas.

The Granth’s 6000 shabads or verses are written in a poetic style and each of the hymns follow a specific raga style. Through them we learn that Guru Nanak must have been very closely connected to workers in the dye industry for ‘dyeing’ is repeatedly used as a simile and metaphor. “The Lord dyed in deep red; the Lord is an expert dyer; He who has been dyed in the red is of great good fortune; dyed in fast color, the color that never fades” are only a few examples of Nanak’s obsession with the color red.”; “dyed in the divine, …the lord dyed in deep red; the Lord is an expert dyer…;; He who has been dyed in the red is of great good fortune; dyed in fast color, the color that never fades. My mind is imbued with the Lord’s Love; it is dyed a deep crimson”. While red was certainly a popular color, green seemed to be the preeminent hue among Sikhs, and saffron, a color sacred among Hindus, especially.

In Nanak’s morality of sartirical etiquette, we find “Truth and charity are my white clothes; the blackness of sin is erased by my wearing of blue clothes, and meditation on the Lord’s Lotus feet is my robe of honor; contentment is my cummerbund…; dressed in vermillion you will be happily wedded should you take the name of the Lord; O Baba, the pleasures of other clothes are false, wearing them, the body is ruined, and wickedness and corruption enter into the mind.” Turning to the hunt and the warrior’s paraphernalia, the Granth states “The understanding of Your Way, Lord, is horses, saddles and bags of gold for me; the pursuit of virtue is my bow and arrow, my quiver, sword and scabbard ; to be distinguished with honor is my drum and banner.”
While much of the above information on dyes and clothing may be important for the textile scholar, still we find no mention of shawls, despite the fact that Guru Nanak actually was born near Lahore and married in Batala, a village whose main artery led to Kashmir

The Janamsakhi is, contrary to the Adi Granth, filled with anecdotes of Guru Nanak the most popular being Nanak’s wedding; his sleeping at Mecca with feet pointed towards the Qaba; or Nanak’s lying under a tree with his head shaded from the sun by the hood of a snake. Nanak’s ever present sidekicks, Bhai Bao, his devoted follower, and Mardana, the rabad player are two individuals who usually always figure in miniature paintings of the Master. However, even here we find that in other than painting there is nothing that carries over into the crafts. This lacuna can be contrasted with some 19th century kani weaving in which we can observe figures of Krishna and Radha. It is not until the later part of the 19th century, beyond our focus of attention, that Sikh themes from the Janamsakhi, life stories of Guru Nanak become prevalent.

During this stage of Indian history who in fact were the key players in patronizing the arts? Lahore bustled with activity under Runjit Singh. Building was at a frenzy. Among the many book sellers, Muhammed Bakhsh Sahhaf was one of the biggest. He was also an artist in his own right as well as a good friend, if not relative, of the equally renowned artist Imam Bakhsh Lahori. Sahhaf’s illustrated and calligraphic books reached clients throughout Indian and Iran. Although the Ahluwalia, Majithia and Sandhanwalia misls were commissioning works from painters prior to the 19th century, these Sikh families were now powerful players in the world of Runjit Singh’s hegemony of Northern India and continued to actively commission works of art. Runjit Singh and his bevy of European officers, such as the Generals Allard and Ventura, were continually engaging mural painters to decorate their palaces, gurdwaras, public buildings and homes. Last but not least among the many patrons of the arts, were the powerful Dogra Brothers, Gulab, Suchet and Dyan Singh, who worked very closely with Maharaja Runjit Singh. Many of the artists came from Kangra, which was ruled by Raja Sansar Chand. A serious connoisseur and avid collector of miniature painting, Chand had lived in a dream world of royal opulence which came to a sudden end in 1809, when Kangra fell under the sway of Runjit Singh. Many former Kangra artists were now plying their trade in other hill state regions and in Lahore, Amritsar, etc.

Indeed, it is from a Kangra painting that a major discovery in shawl iconography came about. (see illus.) In this painting the body of Maharaja Runjit Singh is laid out on a bier while seven of his slave-girls mount the pyre to commit sati. In the corner a boat dripping with garlands and appointed with flags lies on a bier across a beam placed stern to bow. Years earlier I recalled a kani shawl I once owned having a very odd motif. It turned out that that motif matched the boat in this very painting, replete with all the decoration. The boat as well as the bow and arrow mentioned above, with all their interpretations went on to become a very popular motifs in Kashmir designs.

All this to show the extent of the fertile artistic landscape that existed in Northern India at the time of the Kashmir shawl’s new ‘awakening’. But in no way should one assume that this awakening happened in Srinagar. Runjit Singh may have annexed Kashmir 1819, but certainly Sikh culture was not an influence there. Apart from the controlling brigades of Runjit Singh’s forces, Sikhs hardly lived there. The Punjab was there home, where 12 misls basically controlled the region known as the Land of the Five Rivers (i.e. East of the cis-Sutlege) with Lahore being the focal point, the darbar, the royal throne of power. However, Jacquemont observed that noble sardars kept their own shawl ateliers in Srinagar, insuring that a steady supply of high quality shawls were always available. Similarly Lahore, it would appear, harbored large shawl weaving ateliers, as evidenced from a series of fine Company style paintings made at the time of the Universal Exhibition of London in 1867. Whether the Sikhs ran such ateliers prior to Kashmir’s annexation is not wholly clear but a good guess would be yes.

Because of the severe Indian climatic conditions and early India’s neglect of conserving important archival material, for the textile scholar, many pieces of the puzzle are still missing. Jeevan Singh Deol, eminent professor of Sikh studies, further points the finger to the fact that so many “extant illustrated texts depicting Sikh themes or commissioned by Sikh patrons have experienced a broad geographical diffusion” rendering them extremely difficult to access. And in many ways he sums up the frustration that many of us feel, in the conclusion to his seminal article, Sikh Scriptural Manuscripts: “In a very real sense, then, illustrated and illuminated Adi Granth mss are a window into a lost Sikh cultural universe. Their disappearance marks a major change in notions of cultural prestige and attitudes toward the physical form of scripture. At this stage of research, we know regrettably little about the geographical, temporal and social distribution of adorned mss and even less about the patrons, scribes and artist who created them. Until this changes, it will remain extremely difficult to understand the multiple meanings and intentions that lay behind their creation and use.” (p.43)

It is hope that in this brief space the above will have provided the reader with a glimpse of the complex forces operating under Runjit Singh, and illustrated how the Kashmir shawl became for the first time a kind of ethnographic mirror of a dynamic culture unique to India’s Punjab.


A Unique Kashmir Shawl at the Guimet Museum

This Article is from the October 2007 Orientations Magazine, whose edition features articles written by the co-curators of the current exhibition at Asia Society on Park ave, The Arts of Kashmir, which runs until 6 January 2008.

A Unique Mughal Kashmir Shawl at the Musée Guimet
by Frank Ames

A remarkable fragment from a 17th century Kashmir shawl in the collection of the Musée Guimet is one of the highlights of the exhibition ‘The Arts of Kashmir’ being held at Asia Society this autumn (Fig. 1). The passage of time has imbued the seductive taupe pashmina with a soft, glowing patina. Originally, the shawl reached a length of nearly 2 ½ metres and a width of over one metre; preserved on the fragment is a pattern of three flowering plants. The design is a particularly fine example of what became known as the ‘Mughal style’, a manner of depicting the grace and beauty of flowers, that reached its greatest popularity under Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58).

This Mughal fragment was formerly part of Krishna Riboud’s large collection of Asian textiles generously bequeathed upon her death in 2000 to the Musée Guimet. While living in Paris in the 70’s and 80’s, I had the pleasure of knowing Madame Riboud. She was a fastidious collector, acquiring only objects that measured up to the high levels of quality and historical importance to which she perseveringly adhered. The dynamic energy she invested in collecting, her own research in Chinese textiles, and her constant coterie of renowned experts in the field, resulted in a rich collection of very rare textiles. This Mughal fragment, with its novel pattern and charming botanical nature, is very representative of her discerning taste. I recall the feeling of surprise when Madame Riboud first showed it to me at her home on the Rue de Breteuil, back in 1985. Seeing the fragment was to be reminded of the seemingly boundless creative spirit of the Mughal artist applied in almost all crafts. Evidently, the maker was consciously attempting to create a unique aesthetic experience, rather than slavishly trying to duplicate a known pattern.

The most unusual features of the floral bouquet decorating the fragment are the curious jagged, wing-like and speckled devices attached to the blossoms. These devices may be sepals or petals that separate from the sheath of flowers (perianth) cupping a blossom. Notice, also, on the two budding flowers on the left, the calyx tubes or bulbous sections with their crosshatch patterns, formed like the abdomen of a butterfly. The overall effect is of blossoms that seem not so much supported by the faint outline (now oxidized black) of their spindly stems as by the ‘fluttering wings’ of the sepals that imbue the plant with an ‘unbearable lightness of being’. As the stippled petals mimic the wings of the monarch butterfly , the artist is depicting the blossoms in various positions of ‘flight’. Winged insects are commonly found in Mughal architecture and decorative arts, and in the late 16th century Amber Fort, on a sculptured marble dado, one sees a similarly playful admixture of butterflies and scorpion-like flowers (Fig. 2).

Kani (twill tapestry woven) shawls or shawl fragments from the 17th century exhibiting this level of sophisticated visual synesthesia, woven as if expressing a poetic play-on-words, are extremely rare. In fact, the Guimet fragment is the only one I know. Such designs, in a way, reflect the great contemporaneous passion for poetry, where poet laureates competed for the emperor’s nod, and merchants, goldsmiths and bankers appreciatively stroked their chins as they reveled in lyrical and romantic ghazals. Perhaps the shawl’s creator was inspired by the words of the 15th century poet Alisher Navoi, who wrote ‘…there is an image of the world in this flower bed, and the whole world is hidden in every flower’; or even the echo of a sonnet by Shakespeare, a contemporary of the Mughal artist: ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity/ wears yet a precious jewel in its head/finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks/sermons in stones and good in every thing’ (As You Like It, act II, sc. I).

Although all the great Mughal emperors were poets themselves, Abul Fazl, Akbar’s court chronicler, points out that thousands of poets were continually at the court of Akbar(r. 1556-1605). Textiles, weavings and carpets reflecting a poetic grace or which are enigmatic in nature, are not exceptional considering the Mughal period’s artistically stimulating and intellectually charged atmosphere. For example, the Aynard carpet, considered one of the greatest pashmina knotted Mughal carpets, contains a bouquet of blossoms that resemble octopi floating languorously on a crimson sky filled with dragon-head chi clouds (Fig. 3). Here, we enter the surreal world of the artist’s brilliant imagination, whose floral bouquet of voluptuous efflorescence sweeps us away into a metaphysical reverie.

In the masterful border design of the Altman pashmina carpet, (illustrated in Figure 4) we see another excellent illustration of this resonant visual poetry. The Altman is the only carpet, which I know, whose artistic style bears a close relation to that of the shawls of Kashmir. Apparently drawn by a Kashmiri artist, the border displays evergreen trees alternating with jasmine bushes and artichoke plants on a landscape of alluring hillocks. A golden ground colour bathes this vegetation in a mystical twilight, pulling the viewer into the magic of a fairy-tale experience. One can only wonder if there is not a hidden alchemical metaphor embedded in this rare mix of gastronomic and odiferous plants.

As in the Altman carpet, such stylistic borrowing is evident in the small unidentified protrusions or pips visible in the mound at the base of an exuberant bouquet design in the patka (waistband) at the National Museum in Delhi (Fig. 5);. The bouquet appears to overflow with colour and life: a spray of lower branches with dark-green leaves undulates upward in such a caressing, coaxing manner, the viewer is taken aback by the unexpected flow of energy between leaves and flowers.

The great shawls of this era often display unusual or exotic flowers not found in shawl weavings of the later Afghan, Sikh and Dogra periods of Kashmir’s history. Through the juxtaposition of subtle tones and the purposeful placement of flowers, different moods are achieved. The white ground dochalla (long shawl with plain center) at the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum in Banaris, for example, exhibits botehs comprised of a fanciful coxcomb variety (Fig. 6). The blossoms, all tilting downward, contain centers tinged with yellow, creating the effect of Chinese lanterns all aglow. The well-known boteh fragment illustrated in Figure 7, impresses us by the femininity and daintiness of a frail plant unsettled by the light breeze that appears to be tousling its ‘feathers’. In another rare, white-ground dochalla at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, we encounter the beauty of delicate, yet wilting bouquets, freely spaced and drawn with an almost melancholy indolence (Fig. 8). They rise from a root-securing device fashioned in the shape of a Chinese character; another character performs the same function at the other end of the shawl. In fact, such Chinese character-shaped bases appear occasionally in shawls of this era, including the Banaris shawl discussed above (Ames, 2003, p. 94).

Of all the known Kashmir shawl designs of this period, it is extremely rare to come across an herbal botanical pattern with its smooth outlines and curves, due to the constraints of the kani technique of twill tapestry weaving. While the graceful beauty of the few other surviving Mughal shawls cannot be denied, most of these weavings display standardized patterns, whereby one flower is either monotonously repeated, or all the flowers are drawn from a pool of disparate but recognizable types. As an exception, the Guimet fragment, by its novelty of pattern and execution of weave, illustrates the weaver’s great efforts to overcome the challenges of these constraints. Where the artist excels and succeeds, we find a bouquet of flowers, budding or reaching full bloom; stems twisting and taking unexpected turns; and entomological or anthropomorphic life surprising the casual observer.

It was during the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) that the decorative arts adopted the motif of freely spaced, naturalistically rendered flowers which eventually came to be known as the ‘Mughal style’. Evidently, the Mughals were very impressed by European herbal and florilegia books brought to the imperial court by the Jesuits and other firengi (foreigners); several Indian flower paintings are known to exist that closely match the wood block prints of well-known 16th century Flemish botanists.)The beautiful realism of the Flemish botanicals reflect the flowering plant’s European ‘Renaissance’ harkening back to the nature studies of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. With the laser-like focus of the naked eye, presciently anticipating the microscope a few hundred years away, these two geniuses were able to bring into sharp focus the minutest aspects of nature. (2)

Current theory submits that the Mughal Style first developed as a result of Mansur’s large series of painting of flora and fauna, following Jahangir’s spring visit to Kashmir, in 1620 (Skelton, pp. 147-152). Mansur’s botanical studies were renowned for their approximate photographic realism. Analogous to the phenomenon in Europe, flowers, as depicted in painting, flowers were raised from minor decorative embellishment, to full portrait treatment. Whether in textiles or architecture, the freely-spaced flowering plant was now shown naturalistically.

Scholarly discussion of the herbal’s impact on the Mughal decorative arts has so far omitted the textual descriptive aspects associated with the book’s woodblock prints, often in Latin or German. Transforming botanical studies, Valius Cordus, one of the most celebrated botanists, invented a whole new descriptive language for flower studies.

“Through Cordus’ powers of observation one can sense the movement of the plant’s growth, witness its various morphological configurations, its colorful hues, taste the bitterness or sweetness of its odor and experience, even sense the kinesthetic effects of swallowing such flavors. Besides his photographic memory of all that Pliny, Theophrastus and Dioscorides had written, Cordus’ heightened olfactory, gustatory, and tactile sensitivities were gifted abilities that greatly aided him in revolutionizing the world of botany” (Ames: from soon to be published Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage)

More importantly, in terms of the Guimet piece, in his description of an orchid, the figure of a butterfly appears with its wings spread as though about to take flight (5). For this, Cordus devised the word “papillionaceous” (from French), a term which became popular among succeeding botanists, and among court artists.

Mughal artist actually read herbal descriptions, and then project his newly fueled imagination into the creation of innovative designs? Secondly, is it possible to now assign any of the Mughal Kashmir shawl’s flowers to a particular European artist/botanist? In the first instance, we know that right from Akbar’s time, the Jesuit priests were a regular and intimate fixture at the imperial court, right up through Shah Jahan. They were more than capable of translating these texts, either verbally or otherwise, into Persian. (fn:Akbar revered the sacred Christian books; his sons were taught to observe the ways of the Jesuits; his son Prince Murad of thirteen, learned Portuguese. “The Jesuits and the Great Mogul”, by Sir Edward MacLagan, NY 1972)

In the second consideration, recent research in the decorative arts of India has already uncovered the origins of various vegetal designs. Ebba Koch has convincingly shown that the Mughal’s architectural use of the acanthus-leaf baluster, for example, derives directly from Durer’s engraving found on the third page of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (6). Robert Skelton and Vivian Rich have traced more than several flowers found in miniatures to the European botanists, Clusius, Dodoens and l’Obel, for whom the drawings were made by Peter van der Borcht. For example, evidence of Mughal artist’s herbal copying can be seen in miniatures found in The Dara Shikoh and Small Clive Albums, which can be positively identified from Clusius’ 1576 Rariorum Aliquot Stirpium, published by Christopher Plantin of Antwerp, and Pierre Vallet’s florilegium of 1608, Le Jardin du Roy Trés Chréstian Henry IV (4) As more textiles, shawls and other artifacts of the period are discovered, future scholarly research will certainly uncover further instances of the impact of European artistry on the Mughal decorative arts.

The nature of these black and white woodblock prints found in the herbals, was such that the actual plant often appeared dull and lifeless. The Mughal artist corrected this vapidity by adding grace and charm, with stamens and other naturalistic botanical details. He set about, using the rich working materials of the imperial atelier, to transform these dimensionless, monochromatic images into vivid and colorful bouquets.

The Mughal artist excelled in his innovative mélange of pictorial fantasies and invention of aesthetic tensions, succeeding in creating a style which recalls the Mannerist school in Europe, where art and artifice interfused. It was this style in a painting by Mansur, over which Cary Welch once enthused in describing the flowers in its magnificent border: “They(flowers) snap with freshness, gesticulate, dance, reach for the sun, and exchange views on botanical life”. (Welch, p. 225)

Frank Ames is the author of The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence; co-curator of Asia Societies’ exhibition The Arts of Kashmir (Oct. 2007), and a well-known New York based dealer and consultant in antique textiles and oriental carpets. His new book, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage ( forthcoming) focuses on the Kashmir shawl woven during the first half of the 19th century.

Selected bibliography:

Frank Ames, Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage, forthcoming.

__________, The Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-French Influence, Antique Collectors’ Club, United Kingdom, 2003. p. 94

Edward Lee Greene, Landmarks of Botanical History, A Study of Certain Epochs in the Development of the Science of Botany. Part I. Prior to 1562 A.D. Vol. I, The Smithsonian, Washington, DC, 1909, 1983.

Ebba Koch, Mughal Art and Imperial Ideology: Collected Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New Delhi, 2001.

Vivian Rich, ‘Mughal Floral Painting and Its European Sources’, in Oriental Art, Vol. XXXiii no. 2. Summer, 1987

Robert Skelton, ‘A Decorative Motif in Mughal Art’ in Pratapaditya Pal, ed., Aspects of Indian Art, Brill Publishing, Leiden, 1972.

Stuart Cary Welch, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Holt, Rinehard and Winston, New York and Canada 1985.


(Fig. 1) Detail of Kashmir shawl fragment 17th century Height 18 cm, width 69 cm Musée Guimet

(Fig. 2) Scorpion-like flower, marble dado, Amber fort, Jaipur. Photo: F. Ames

(Fig. 3) Mughal pashmina ‘Aynard’ carpet, Kashmir, 17th century. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. T-90 124.5cm x 90cm

(Fig. 4) Mughal pashmina ‘Altman’ carpet, 17th century. (border detail). MMA, Bequest of Benjamin Altman 1913 (14.40.723). 417.2cm x 161.9cm

(Fig. 5) Mughal Kashmir shawl (detail), 17th century. National Museum, Delhi
285cm x 150cm.

(Fig. 6) Mughal Kashmir shawl (detail), 17th century, Bharat Kala Bhawan, Banaris,
310cm x 155cm

(Fig. 7) Mughal Kashmir shawl. V&A, IS. 70-1954, 36.8cm x 14.6cm

(Fig 8 ) Detail of Mughal Kashmir shawl, Museum of Fine Arts, Length 310 cm , width 165 cm

Stupa Shawl Analysis


Kashmir shawl, 17th century Mughal India, wool: fine pashmina; weave: twill tapestry woven all in one piece; size: 52 inches by 129 inches.

This long shawl, known as dochalla, is woven with a large open, undecorated field of light brown, very fine pashmina. The decorated extremities (pallas) are patterned with a unique design of two distinct types of highly unusual geometric floral ‘structures’ that alternate in a connected fashion across the width of the shawl. The first is composed of a three tiered base supporting a large yellow, fan-like serrate leaf. Stacked above this is a bold, almost plain red, (except for a thin yellow outline) horizontal thick form with a centrally rising protrusion flanked by two erect yellow flower stalks on green stems, each with a large squared-off leaf. The structure continues its rise with a blue stem perched atop the red protrusion which supports a large red, stacked six-layer ‘flower’, each layer delineated with a white line and with a sharply pointed ‘leaf’ end. Below this stacked ‘floral’ structure is a small group of hanging green bracts. The stacked red layers are further decorated at the center with a triangularly shaped cluster of 33 white dots. The complete structure, which repeats 12 times across the palla, terminates with a finial type device, a yellow circle rising on a thin red stem.

Just as interesting and unique is the second structure of this palla pattern, which, like the first, also begins with a three tiered blue base. Rising from this we encounter also a large serrate leaf but less fan-like and more tree-like. It appears decorated with yellow horizontal lines, eight on one side and nine on the other, of a yellow dividing line. The summit of the tree supports two horizontal blue ‘slabs’ with sloping sides. Sprouting from this slab base is a tripartite design consisting of a large conical, radar-like, yellow dome with four tiny blue dots, resting on a triangular blue shape of plain blue with three yellow dots. Flanking this strange central ‘flower’ are two similar but diminutive flowers of the same ilk, though more bulbous or bud like in shape. The dome gives rise to a ‘superstructure’ of a stacked array of six horizontally placed yellow flowers, the first two of which rise directly from the dome, the second two sprout from a blue bowl-like device attached to the rising stem, and the last two emerge from the continuation of the same stem that ends finally with a large yellow flower. This structure also repeats in full 11 times across the field but with two halves at either end. Because of this, it would appear that the red one dominates to some degree over the other.

Although both exhibit similar ideas of geometry their themes appear quite different. They pattern the pallas in tight formation, in some places touching each other. Indeed they are unusually interconnected with a type of bridging ‘cable system’ that appears anchored at their tiered bases. The ‘cables’ join between each of the structures, enclosing the large serrate base leaves in a rectilinear fashion.

The hashias, exhibiting a flower bud meander, are more typical of the Mughal period and indeed their free spacing and soft palette are indicative of very fine 17th century contemporaneous shawl weavings. In fact, by the turn of the 17th century shawls no longer appear to use this type of hashia pattern. Unusual also are the few threads of white silk warp used to strengthen the guard borders of the lengthwise hashias. (1) The Calico and Bharat Kala Bhawan Museums both contain 17th century shawl with this type of Hashia. (2). The backside of the shawl displays an extremely clean nip-and-tuck type of superb weaving finesse that is quite typical for fine shawls of this period.

By placing the two pallas next to each other, slight but distinct differences arise in the way the patterns were woven from one end to the other. Four dots instead of three are found on the dark blue flowers; 11 lines instead of the 8 on the serrate blue base leaves; the double slab’s sides slant up instead of down; the leaves of the yellow, erect, flanking flowers hang down instead of up; two yellow dots instead of three decorate the large red horizontal device. These differences may be due in part to the reversal of the talim (the coded warp/color card used by the weavers) when the weaver has returned to the other palla end of the shawl, as well as to the personal inclinations of the master weaver.

The over all style of the shawl pattern is one of an abstraction of the pagoda or more likely the stupa, which would reflect the tiered timber buildings of Western Tibet. (3) Carpet patterns from the region of Xinjiang come to mind when comparing similar ideas of motifs, especially those carpets from the Kashgar, Yarkand, or Khotan oasis regions. Kashmir shawls woven with Himalayan design influences are extremely rare (4). Kashmir shawls woven for kingdoms of the Himalayas or points further east are completely unknown, as well as those with two completely different floral structures patterning the same palla. For that alone, this shawl is extremely rare. 16th century India carried on a brisk commerce and trade with China whose ships plied the Indian Ocean. A century later Thomas Roe wrote how much Jahangir’s minister’s coveted the rarities of China and Japan. All this to point out that this shawl, obviously very expensive at the time, could have been for all intent and purposes, a royal gift destined for a potentate of any one of the Eastern or Far Eastern kingdoms.


(1) see Il Cachemire, Collectione Antonio Ratti, 1995 pages 26-27 for a similar hashia, though the shawl, obviously of the late 17th early 18th century, has been wrongly dated
(2) see pp 275 and 278 of F. Ames, The Kashmir Shawl, 1997, 2003)
(3) This has been corroborated wtih Dr. Pratapaditya Pal. email correspondence of 10/10/06.
(4) See for example the shawl’s flaming nimbuses of the type usually seen in early Buddhist art, in the dust cover shawl of The Kashmir Shawl, 1997, 2003

A Kashmir Paradigm Shift : Qajar and Zand Painting as evidence for Shawl Dating

Zand Painting by Muhammad Baqir, 1778

The following article is the original manuscript sent to Hali Magazine for the March 2005 edition. Because of the unfortunate and misleading changes the editors had made in the text, it was deemed necessary here to published the unedited version, which should clarify any of the faux pas ‘corrections’ performed by Hali.
Because of the detailed nature of this essay, and to obtain a good understanding of the variations in design motifs, it behooves the reader to refer to the illustrations in Hali(issue 139, March-April, 2005).

Curiously, Sotheby’s recent sale (1) of a new unpublished Zand (1747-1779) painting, “A Portrait of a Dancing Girl”, makes no mention of the magnificent Kashmir shawl that figures with such dynamic impact in the picture. Signed and dated Muhammad Baqir, 1778, the shawl’s seemingly late pattern seems to clash with the early date of the painting. This shawl cannot fail to rivet the attention of textile experts and shawl aficionados who have carefully followed with keen interest the early development of the shawl’s boteh. Not knowing the painting’s date, those familiar with shawl iconography would not hesitate in dating its pattern to the first quarter of the 19th century or even more precisely to around 1815. Over twenty years ago, I first noted that the only known 18th century pictorial evidence for the curvilinear boteh was a painting in Toby Falk’s Zand Painting, titled “A Girl Playing a Mandolin”, signed Muhammad Sadiq and dated 1769-70(2). It features a woman in pants with a sharply defined, unmistakable Kashmir boteh pattern.

With the impending publication of my book in 1986 (3), the daunting thought emerged that many of the Kashmir shawls woven prior to the Sikh period (1819-1839) might have to be quickly reassessed. Such a dramatic volte-face in chronological thinking would have certainly raised a few eyebrows. Since this was the only known painting of its type at the time, located in a private collection in Tehran, and thus couldn’t be easily corroborated, I had somehow convinced myself that given the obviously ‘late’ motif of her pants, the date inscribed on the painting was either inaccurate, misread or possibly bogus. I was wrong.

It wasn’t until 1998 when Layla Diba’s magnificent book Royal Persian Painting (4) appeared that I began to have serious doubts about current shawl dating. Diba had revealed another chronologically ‘unsettling’ painting of a similar date and artist, as that one in Toby Falk’s book. Having consulted Diba about the Falk painting, she assured me that both signature and date were clearly inscribed on “A Girl Playing a Mandolin”(5). Suddenly we now had three 18th century Zand paintings with kani material of sharply defined, strikingly ‘precocious’ botehs.

Although the painting in Diba’s book entitled “Embracing Lovers” is not signed, she firmly attributes it on a stylistic basis to Muhammad Sadiq (fl. 1740-1790), with the date of 1770-1780. While all three paintings represent an emblem of courtly luxury and refinement, they also boldly pronounce the style and fashion for Kashmiri products, either imported from Kashmir or for those made in Persia. Indeed in “Embracing Lovers” , the male’s tall red cap is brightly patterned with a buti repeat and his coat is a dazzling red and white striped (khatraaz) material with tiny buti, most likely from Yazd or Kerman. His female consort sports a ‘Kashmir’ coat with buti (small botehs) on a dark blue ground (typical of Persian taste) while behind her is draped a long saffron colored shawl with an overall pattern of larger buti and bordered by a hashia which is obviously of Kashmir origin. The girl’ billowy pants, most likely of silk, are patterned with bold curvilinear botehs on a blue ground, while the cone is filled with a hazy, vermicular scribble, something very unrelated to the types of cone-fills, one would find typical of Kashmir.

On a stylistic basis, Diba attributes this painting to Muhammad Sadiq, the same artist of “A Girl with a Mandolin”. Scrutiny of “Mandolin” shows that the pant’s pattern clearly reveals sharply pointed botehs containing a vase and dish flanked by leafy fronds and a large flattened flower placed at the top and in the center, all typical features of the Kashmir pattern. In addition, a long shawl is obscurely draped behind her, but due to the lack of a proper color photo, little can be deciphered. It might also be argued that the women’s pants in both paintings were made of silk, since kani material might have been considered too heavy for comfort. Postulating that these pants were of silk suggests that the time capsule for the boteh pattern in Persian silks equally requires re-evaluation. With the evidence of these paintings, both silk and kani boteh patterns appear to be in fashion. A distinct likelihood that the silk industry of Persia was first responsible for the creation and dissemination of these boteh curvilinear patterns should not be overlooked.

The contribution of Persia to the kani (double inter-locked twill tapestry wool weave) shawl industry has remained in almost complete obscurity for a long time, often eclipsed by the world famous industry of Kashmir whose kani products were almost always considered superior (6).
Kashmir shawls are so well identified and defined by the shape and style of the boteh pattern, that it influences most collectors, curators, and aficionados to date pieces according to these ubiquitous patterns of repeat design.

Although the development of the boteh has been previously discussed at length (7), the ability to develop better chronology for its development has often been hampered, surprisingly, by lack of pictorial evidence from India. Until recently, the earliest Indian paintings found, in which, one can say for sure, that the shawl has been well replicated with its distinctively identifiable features, have been from the first quarter of the 19th century. (8) While 18th century Indian paintings certainly contain many instances of the Kashmir shawl, the detailing is so sparse and undecipherable, that the pictorial evidence barely resembles the extant evidence (9).

In the Western world, one had to rely on the Empire painters such as Ingres, Baron Gros, Godefroy, and David who meticulously featured the Kashmir shawl in their paintings. One can also turn to see designs of French printed textiles in an album, from the Oberkampf estate, bearing the inscription: “Most were copied from the first shawls and scarves which were introduced in France at the beginning of this century (c1800) by the officers of the Egyptian army.”(10)

In the Near East, the early Qajar period (1795-1834) of painting, more than any other contemporary period, is replete in shawl illustration. Qajar nobles reveled in Kashmiri cloths. The types of patterns they enjoyed most, appear to be narrowly focused on either tiny buti repeats or on the curvilinear boteh. Thus, Qajar painting appears to act more as a confirmation of Persian fashion and rather than as discovery of new stylistic information. Therefore, before c1800, until the discovery of these three paintings, there was basically no pictorial evidence, either from Western or Oriental painting. Looking at extant shawls themselves, held by institutions and collectors, there are basically no dated shawls either from this period or earlier. (11)

Evidence of the curvilinear boteh developing well into the 18th century, as attested by Baqir’s “A Portrait of a Dancing Girl”, serves to confirm the pictorial legitimacy sought by textile historians.
Although life-size Persian painting began in the 17th century, its popularity, it seems, emerged only at the beginning of the 18th, reaching its peak with Fath Ali Shah (r.1798-1834) in the 19th c.
Baqir’s “A Portrait of a Dancing Girl” depicts a woman with a wonderfully detailed long Kashmir shawl that has been wrapped around her waist and tied in front around her belt buckle. As she pinches one end up with her castanets, the other falls down in a smooth telescopic twist with the pattern clearly visible.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the dochalla’s (long shawl) hashias (borders) were extremely narrow and comprised of a finely laid out floral meander of usually less than four or five flowers, flanked by an insignificant guard border whose width was no more than a few millimeters. After the first decade of the 19th century, this was to change by a widening of the hashia with more evolved guard borders. (12) Baqir’s meander shows only a two flower repeat within the typically narrow border of the 18th century.

However, one should be careful not to confuse patkas with dochallas in that the former almost always have larger hashias. Baqir’s botehs are sharply curvilinear and filled with flowers that are not simply mosaic in style, but exhibit clearly identifiable features from the known repertoire of Kashmir designs. Baqir’s enthusiasm for the shawl, though not as meticulous in his details as, say Ingres’s, is nevertheless such that he leaves us little doubt as to the shawl pattern’s floral content. Although close in format, but not in detail, the boteh does resemble those found in Moorcroft patterns dispatched to England in 1822. (13) However, Baqir’s boteh is clearly from an earlier generation in “Dancing Girl”. There is a large blossom at the top, while at the bottom, we find, flanked by leafy sprays, a vase spewing forth the familiar flower buds and blossoms. More surprising yet, for this early date, is the fact that the boteh is tightly enveloped by a similar dense thicket of flowers, which mimics the boteh’s interior, and which covers most of the red ground.

These three key paintings by Sadiq and Baqir represent an important milestone in shawl history. Whereas, many of the life-size portraits symbolized a form of political propaganda, it appears that others such as these three were destined to make an important fashion statement about Kashmir shawls. The exciting revelatory boteh graphics they depict seem to instantly overthrow all our previous ideas of chronology for the shawl by at least thirty years, establishing a new time-line paradigm. The implications are huge and suggest the possibility that the curvilinear boteh first developed in Iran.

For a long time, it was felt that this curvilinearity of the boteh had evolved not much before the turn of the 18th century, and even then, not in any popular manner; yet, in fact, here was dated proof to the contrary. The appearance of these ‘Sadiq botehs’ becomes, at this point, quite compelling for re-assessing shawl dating and requires us to take another hard look at the types of designs made popular not only in Persia but also under Napoleon, or those designs which go under the eponym ‘Empire” shawl. Thus far, apart from pallas of tiny buti, 18th c. French paintings illustrating Kashmir shawls with ‘full blown’ botehs are unknown.

Does this mean that many of the shawls with this type of design that have been previously dated to 1815-1820 now have to be reconsidered? The immediate answer to that question is “yes”; the long-term answer will take, well, a little longer. Why? There are other factors to be understood. We need to look at the dyes used, the botanical rendering of the boteh, and we need a thorough knowledge of the hashia pattern repertoire of the Afghan-Sikh period. In addition, much as a painter’s brushstroke can identify the artist, the outline shape must be carefully weighed against the floral naturalism of the content. The effect of all this is to narrow the playing field, placing a heavier demand on the researcher to be more precise in shawl pattern recognition.

Despite the long history of Persia competing with Kashmir to produce a fine shawl, there is no convincing kani evidence for Persian products of the 18th century. Almost all the beautiful long shawls, jamawars (long gown shawl) and moon shawls we know of, attributed to this period are from Kashmir. 18th century shawls possess a distinct color palette of rich and exotic hues and unique botanical details, and, so far, none attributed to Persia have been found with these characteristics.

At present, we don’t find the typical Indian patka with its wide hashia format in Zand or Qajar painting. Conversely, we don’t see fine Safavid silks with botehs in 17th century Iranian paintings. Safavid kani shawls, where one might expect to at least see designs with the bird-and-tree-stump cliche, appear to be non-existent. What is important to note from all this is that despite Iran’s rich textile industry, where once great artists such as Shafi Abbasi and Muhammad Zaman flourished, transitional elements that might link typical Safavid designs to those found in the kani shawl appear to be patently missing.
The impact of Persia’s silk or kani fashion on the products of Kashmir has yet to be fully investigated. In Moorcroft’s trade/commerce notes (1822), Persia tops the list as recipient of the highest percentage of different shawl items exported from Kashmir. Thus Persia’s mercantile influence should be weighed when considering its impact on Kashmir and the possible introduction of the Zand boteh into the repertoire of its shawl industry. We also know from traveler’s accounts to Kashmir that the shawl industry was in the hands of just a few rich Persians. Jacquemont talks about the commerce of Kashmir with Tibet as being in the hands of Persian shias (14).

While the 17th to early 18th century Persian paintings are devoid of Kashmir shawls, patkas are clearly depicted, although most likely woven of silk. It’s only when we approach the Zand period that we come across small patterned kani dress accessories and the transfer of the decorative motif of the shawl. The curvilinear boteh appears on women’s pants and jackets, and in men’s turbans and waistbands, according to the visual evidence the figural paintings afford.

Tiny patterns or butis were usually the best choice for the Persians, because their fashion dictated that these cloths be wound and twisted as men’s turbans and waistbands. A large pattern would not have looked appealing as the design would have been broken up and lost in the folds. Wrapping a classic Zand high turban was different; dochallas were often used, making good use of the long hashias as decorative swirls while the pallas were mostly hidden except, on occasion, one could glimpse part of a tall boteh. (15). The approach of the Qajar period, which paralleled the high Sikh Period in India, seemed to bring about a radical change in fashion, as evidenced by the wide spread use of the sharp boteh pattern on many other costume elements. This is especially apparent in the figural painting of nobles sporting long fur-lined robes, while in India a similar transference occurred except that the draping of the shawl still remained the custom.

The discovery of these three Zand paintings requires us to re-evaluate the origins and development of the boteh motif. The Persian silk and kani industry and its patronage should be carefully reviewed to develop a better understanding of the propagation of motifs within the historical complex of the international shawl industry. The paintings instruct us above all not to disregard fashionable patterns in the Kashmir shawl which remained in vogue for a conservative Persian taste, while parallel to that trend other fanciful motifs came and went, fulfilling a niche for the exotic and whimsical. They not only provide hints of a textile motif, the boteh, that could date shawls even to the early 18th century, but extend the implications for reassessment of the prior dating of rugs and carpets, as well.

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