WOVEN LEGENDS: Carpets & Shawls from Kashmir 1585-1870

Essay for The Arts of Kashmir exhibition 3 Oct 2007- 6 Jan 2008
From the exhibition catalogue edited by Dr. Pratapaditya Pal.

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About 15 fine Kashmir shawls were displayed in a separate room adjacent to the main exhibition space.

Two were on loan from the V&A, the early Mughal fragt. from the cover of John Irwin’s catalogue and the fabulously embroidered

rumal map-of-Srinagar shawl. Another came from the Guimet, what I call the ‘butterfly’ fragment. also from the 17th c. Three more from my own collection as well as various others including a late Dogra period long shawl whose original invoice shows that it had been bought in 1867 at the Universal Exhibition of London for $3000!

Chapter 10

Woven Legends: Carpets and Shawls of Kashmir (1585-1870)
by Frank Ames

Classical Mughal carpets (1585-1658) symbolize a golden age of kingship where wealth, opulence and largesse were legendary, and where artistic creativity flourished in an unprecedented environment of freedom and peace. India represented a safe haven, an escape from religious persecution, where Persians and Hindus worked side by side, in a land where talent was not only appreciated but richly rewarded. The building of palaces, forts, tombs and residences was so frenzied that the local carpet industry could barely keep up with demand. At various times, the European East India trading companies found it difficult to obtain quality carpets for export. Among these, it was the Portuguese who, in 1603 or earlier, first began exporting carpets, while records show, twelve years later, that England’s first shipment consisted of variously sized Lahore carpets out of Surat, those from Lahore being the most desirable (1).

Following the demise of the imperial city, Fatehpur Sikri (1571-1585), the Mughal Emperor Akbar established his court at Lahore and within a few years annexed Kashmir, which became the favorite vacation spot of all the Mughal emperors. By dint of its regional proximity, Lahore might be viewed as the ‘plaque tournante’ for commodities produced in Kashmir and beyond. For centuries, Kashmir has been celebrated for two of the finest wools in the world: pashmina and shah tus; the former, from the domestic goat (fig. 104), capra hircus, the latter, finer and rarer, from the wild antelope, the chiru. These precious animals graze the high mountains of Yarkand, Kyrghizstan, and China’s Chang Tang regions. The extreme importance of pashmina to the economies of Kashmir, Ladakh and Northern India was first underscored by Mughal intercession in the Tibeto-Ladahki war (1681-1684), which guaranteed Kashmir’s monopoly over the flow of pashmina via Ladakh. The lure of this ‘golden fleece’ had changed little, when, in 1834, Raja Gulab Singh invaded Ladakh. (2)

As no document exists attributing any Mughal carpet to Kashmir, and so rare are the ones knotted with pashmina (tus being too delicate for pile weaving), those knotted with it present valid criteria for a Kashmir provenance. Indeed, of all the classical Mughal carpets known, whether sheep or goat wool, only one, the Girdlers’ carpet, woven at Lahore in 1630-1632, possesses documentation of unquestionable provenance. (3). While literature of the past two millennia is peppered with numerous scant references to carpet making in India, it is revealed as a major industry only by Abul Fazl: yet his Ain-i-Akbari is curiously silent on carpet weaving in Kashmir, despite the fact that hardly a pashmina carpet, and therefore one of Kashmiri craft, exists that is not a weaver’s tour de force.

Fazl writes of cities in Iran and Turan (Central Asia) as areas from which carpets were imported, and that in India “… a flourishing trade … is found in every town, especially in Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore”, and he applauds Akbar’s appointment of experienced carpet makers who have “produced many masterpieces”, noting also that “all kinds of carpet weavers have settled here.” (4) Lahore is further mentioned by the historian Abdul Hamid Lahori (d. 1654) in his Padshahnama. He remarks with obviously chauvinistic relish, that the city produced such “soft and delicate carpets that, compared with them, the carpets made in the manufactory of the kings of Persia look like coarse canvas.” (5)

For carpet weaving in Kashmir, it is not until the reign of Shah Jahan that we come across the first reference. A recently uncovered imperial letter, written at Lahore in 1640, cites “two prayer carpets of rare quality made in the karkhana-i padshahi at Lahore and Kashmir” as a gift to the Ottoman Sultan. (6) Though undoubtedly they were both woven with the finest pashmina, this intriguing letter begs interpretation. Was one made in Lahore and the other in Kashmir, or did both locations work equally, teaming up to produce the same finished product? For practical reasons of climate and space, large carpets would have been woven in Lahore, with Kashmir supplying the raw materials, especially pashmina. Once removed from the loom, final preparations of washing and cleaning could have been done in Kashmir, a three-week trek away via the Pir Panjal Pass. (7)

In India, it was not unusual to ship textiles long distances for special processing. (8) This would have been particularly true of rugs knotted with pashmina, since just as the rich dyes of the pashmina shawls were brought to life by washing them in the Jhelum River, so, too, were those of pashmina carpets. Lahore, too, is situated on the banks of a river, the Ravi; but the special qualities of the waters of Srinagar’s Jhelum were legendary. Francois Bernier, witnessing the shawl industry first hand, emphasizes this point, and admits that “Great pains have been taken to manufacture similar shawls in Patna, Agra and Lahore, but notwithstanding every possible care, they never have the delicate texture and softness of the Kashmire shawls, whose unrivalled excellence may be owing to certain properties in the water of that country” (9) Supplies, such as bulk pashmina and produce, such as saffron and rice, originating from Kashmir, were more expeditiously shipped by boat along the Jhelum and onward to Lahore.

Prayer ‘carpets’ were also woven in the kani technique (twill-tapestry), the same technique employed in shawl-making. The uniqueness of these special kani weavings and their confusion with real carpets is emphasized by Burnes, who, in 1840 wrote: “I should here mention the carpets of Mooltan, which do not equal those of Persia: but even they are far surpassed by the splendid shawl carpets of Cashmere. This manufacture is not to be purchased, and is made, I believe, only for the ruler of the country.”(10) Since kani prayer carpets were always made in pairs, as were the long shawls known as dochallas (see below) the possibility that the two prayer-carpets sent to Turkey were an identical pair should not be disregarded. Indeed, the famous Thyssen-Bornemisza pashmina prayer-rug is touted by some experts largely as being part of a saph, a type of multiple-prayer niche carpet, used in mosques (11) Although we know little of their structure, during Humayun’s exile in Iran, for instance, pairs of carpets were ordered especially for him by Shah Tahmasp: “Each amir should present three pairs of carpets each measuring 12 dhar …” (12)

Identical pairs of Mughal carpets also are found among today’s extant evidence, though whether they were systematically made as such is not known. On the other hand it is more than likely that the kani prayer carpet was always a pair item (fig. 134). (13) For shawl weaving, Lahore, after Kashmir, had to be one of the busiest towns in India, for Fazl noted that “…more than a thousand workshops” are there; doubtless, the number of looms ran in the thousands. All this is to say that the above letter firmly establishes Lahore and Kashmir as imperial weaving centers, and further suggests that the production of an imperial carpet, at least in pashmina, involved joint efforts by both regions.

The groundbreaking exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (1997), and its rich catalogue, give further support for this “twin craft-region” idea (14). Although the show reunited for the first time some of the world’s greatest Mughal carpets, it did little to dispel the enigma of place of origin: which carpet came from what Indian city? All ten of the early Mughal pashmina carpets exhibited were assigned to Lahore or Kashmir, a designation tending to confirm the theory of Lahore/Kashmir-centric manufacture. The exceptions were the two late 18th century pashmina prayer-carpets, which were appropriately assigned to Kashmir, alone, since by then, Lahore had long ceased to exist as an imperial capital. (15) Thus, without evidence of a documentary nature, it is virtually impossible to affix an unassailable Kashmiri provenance to a carpet.

The design repertoire of textiles is related to painting, which during the Akbar period, was still immersed in and defined by its Persian inheritance. This is observed in the Hamza Nama or Babur Nama, where carpets depicted correspond to their Persian cousins. Yet, very quickly, local painting styles emerged with their own distinct characteristics and vitality, exhibiting natural rhythms of line and brilliant polychromes. This nascent style matured further under Jahangir, whose connoisseurship of painting was renowned, as was his deep attachment to the enchanting beauty of Kashmir. During his travels there, he took with him his famed artist, Mansur, commissioning from him many works of animal and flower studies, the details of which are astonishingly photographic. The result was the development of a new ‘Mughal style’ of painting where flowers and shrubs, which were formerly depicted as minor or inconspicuous elements, suddenly exploded onto the canvas, occupying the entire frame (see fig. 073) This occurred at a time when the impact of European herbals was such that artists were either copying directly from them or reinterpreting them with their own ideas (see figs. 097 & 091) (16). Similarly, European architectural designs found their way into the repertoire of Mughal carpets and textiles, especially in the rococo trellis pattern as seen in the V&A’s Mughal carpet fragment (fig. 102)

Rapidly, the interest in flora spread to other crafts, to architecture (Pl. 1) and, of course, to shawls. Art historian, Robert Skelton, attributes the sudden rise of this floral style to a time just following Jahangir’s visit to Kashmir in 1620. (17) This ‘Mughal style’ ushered in indigenous Indian flowers and trees, such as the lotus, peonies, wisteria, orchids, and palm tree, many of which are not ordinarily found in Persian carpet designs. Such carpets are identified by their frequent use of a crimson red field and greenish dark-blue border; a ton-sur-ton effect whereby one color lies upon another, sans outline; by directional pattern compositions and by architectural scenes (18) Carpet weavers excelled at creating animals with remarkable exuberance. Compared to Persian carpets, the Mughal animal carpets were drawn with freer spacing. Experts look to two famous lodestars, the Girdlers and Fremlin carpets, as exemplarily illustrating these characteristics, and especially points of structure. (19) Similar key points of reference are non-existent among the many extant 17th century shawls; but unlike the carpet industry, the Kashmir shawl weaving industry was not challenged from abroad, making the real Kashmir shawl more easily identifiable. Pre-Mughal precedents, however, are virtually unknown, for as with carpets, most of India’s 16th century textiles are lost in the mists of time. (20)

Among textile scholars, the antiquity of the kani shawl emerges as a source of contention, owing to differing textual interpretations of literary passages. Alas, one finds no clear description either of the vocabulary or of the technique employed. For example the Kashmiri Brahman poet, Kshemendra (c990-1065), in his Narmamala, discusses wool spinning, drawing and pattern weaving on strips with tujis. These are the tiny wooden sticks (still in use today) employed as needle-bobbins to insert various colored threads. (21)

Kashmir’s most celebrated ruler, Sultan Zain ul-Abidin (1420-1470), was, by far, the most instrumental in promoting not only the country’s crafts, but all the arts and institutions of learning. His enlightened rule attracted talented people from afar, and his chronicler, Srivara, specifically mentions new types of weaves that were assimilated from these newcomers: “The special woolen textiles of foreign origin, worthy of kings, are now woven by the Kashmiris … the painters seeing the patterns and creeper designs obtained by intricate weaving process are reduced to silence as the figures in a painting”. (22) Despite these early references to a type of tapestry weave, prior to the 17th century, kani weaves seem noticeably absent from the corpus of extant material.

Akbar was exceedingly fond of the Kashmir shawl, and Abul Fazl mentions his master’s orders to improve the industry in many ways. Among the changes, new dyes and dying techniques were developed, and the width of the fabrics was enlarged in order to make clothing. With respect to fashion, Fazl notes: “In former times shawls were often brought from Kashmir. People folded them up in four folds, and wore them for a very long time. Now-a-days they are generally worn without folds and merely thrown over the shoulder. His Majesty has commenced to wear them double, which looks very well.”(23) Thus the term ‘dochala’ (two shawls) where shawls were woven in pairs, such that they could be afterwards attached back to back, hiding the ridged undersides.

Kani weaving assimilated the new trend in floral decoration with amazing ingenuity and grace, giving rise to finely wrought flowers of painterly quality. The Guimet shawl fragment, most likely a product of imperial magnitude, presents a unique example of direct European herbal inspiration, particularly with respect to its ‘speckled-wing’ blossoms (see fig. 091). Botany in the 16th century was at exciting cross-roads. Phytography, the language of flowers, had suddenly become a science unto itself, and Valerius Cordus (1515-1544), its greatest exponent from Germany, and the most celebrated botanist since Dioscorides, demonstrated that each species of flower could be so perfectly described as to be completely identifiable by its description, alone. He popularized the term papilionaceous, or butterfly-like (from papillon, Fr. butterfly) a term found in Latin herbals of the period, and often used by succeeding botanists. Indeed, the four large blossoms appear hovering, borne aloft by their stippled wings. (24)

Aurangzeb’s rule of strict orthodoxy created an uneasy religious tension, under which patronage of the arts declined. The wonderful grace and poetry that defined the brilliantly woven carpets and shawls of his predecessors faded for the most part, into hackneyed patterns and rigid compositions. However, this imperial evanescence hardly diminished the great popularity of these weavings, which, by then, had achieved international fame, creating considerable wealth among Kashmiri merchants, and establishing India as a major supplier of carpets (25). The close of the century saw a divergence in carpet and shawl patterns. Shawls retain their status as a perennially dazzling costume accessory, their patterns, perpetually dancing to the whims of fashion, while carpets become merely a confined utilitarian object.

Current theory in the development of shawl patterns during the classical Mughal period holds that the floral bouquets contained lots of free spacing in the arrangement of the natural flowers, with large un-embellished spacing separating the botehs, themselves (see fig. 133). (26) Typically they were of a single botanical species, and often consisted of delicate, identifiable flowers that rose in triple flexion, a Persian stylistic legacy. As the Mughal period waned, the botehs closed ranks, and floral content along with palla (the flowered ends of the shawl) height was increased. Over time, this style gave way to a boteh so crowded with flowers –perhaps, a phenomenon due to heavy commercialism — that its outline shape became a bulbous curvilinear shell (cone) filled with a mosaic of tiny flowers (Plate 2). The heavily charged floral content of the MMA’s pashmina prayer carpet (fig. 072) is indeed reflective of this phenomenon and illustrates a rare dialogue between shawl and carpet designers at the dawn of the 19th century (27).

In the 1660s, Francois Bernier rode into Kashmir in imperial style accompanying Aurangzeb as his personal doctor. Yet, a hundred years later George Forster was forced to sneak into the Valley, disguised as a Turkish merchant. The already suffering shawl weavers were reeling under the burden of a tax known as ‘dagshawl’, newly imposed by the Afghans. Forster, arriving there 30 years after the Afghans had wrested Kashmir from Mughal rule in 1753, noted that shawl looms had dropped from a count of 40,000 under the Mughals to 16,000 (28). Under the harsh rule of the Afghans, few artistic innovations came about, yet it was during this time that the curvilinear boteh, or cone motif – a shift from natural flowers to a bulbous shape, most likely came into its own. The MMA fragment (fig. 074) is an excellent example illustrating this design shift, which by its botanical details and spacing, render it a critical and rare document of early to mid-18th century shawl iconography. The red ‘cog wheel’ flower in the upper right descends from the Turk’s cap lily of the Shah Jahan period. Similarly, the root securing device at the boteh’s base is found only on 17th century shawls. The crocus, a source of fragrant saffron, a rich dye and a medicinal aphrodisiac, is found in the hashia’s (the narrow shawl border) meander, and was one of Jahangir’s favorite flowers. These observations point to one of the earliest manifestations of the cone form, dating possibly to c1700. It is from Zand paintings that the earliest pictorial references to the curvilinear boteh are found. (29)
One of the most striking shawl styles to emerge during Afghan rule was the stripped (Khatraaz) moon shawl (fig. Reisbord moon shawl). In this stunning example, further embellished with rarely seen half moons, we see how the stripes remain visible through the transparency of the perfectly resolved center medallion, creating a kind of hologram effect.

The Sikh rose as a powerful and unified force under the brilliant hand of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who annexed Kashmir in 1819. Artistically, this was the start of a very stimulating period for shawl designs, for nobody luxuriated in shawls like the Sikhs. Many of the Maharajas, princes, and sardars, etc., through agents, oversaw directly the production of their personal shawls. The Russian Prince, Soltykoff, visiting the Valley in 1841, exclaimed “the tents were doubled with Kashmir shawls…we only walked on Kashmir shawls and while sitting down I perceived that all the alleys, ceilings and streets-as far as the eye could encompass- were covered thusly of superb shawls; even the horses were prancing on them” (30) Unfortunately, William Moorcroft, who arrived twenty years earlier, despite recording the most detailed descriptions of shawl weaving, appears to have made few such casual observations of daily life.

The Sikh were extremely flashy dressers, swathing themselves up in bright saffron silks, often with two or more Kashmir shawls (green and yellow were the two favorite colors) wrapped rakishly around their waists. Ranjit Singh, a charismatic figure, attracted foreign mercenaries, in particular, the Generals Allard and Ventura, who arrived in 1822. Their hard efforts to raise a superior Sikh army, known as the Fauj-i-Khas, were lavishly rewarded with palatial homes, governorships, and with a share in the lucrative shawl industry. Thus, the industry experiences its first direct influences from the West. A radical change in the shawl’s format came about: from a traditionally long, flowing, diaphanous, unembellished shawl (except for the boteh’s flowered ends), designs quickly expanded, overflowing toward the field’s center, leaving only a small rectangular portion of the field plain (Plates 3&4).

Although traditional cone designs continued to be supplied to a conservative market, obviously a fashionable niche had been discovered since the new format created a powerful huge ‘canvas’, giving artistic life to a whole new repertoire of geometric, architectural and military forms. Boats, fireworks, bows and arrows, shields, daggers, quoits, soldiers, maps, — it seemed like nothing was so removed from daily life that it couldn’t find its way into the shawl (see e.g. plates 3,4 & 5). With the constant surveys of new territories acquired by the expansion of Sikh hegemony, map makers cum artists, spurred on by the new western trigonometric surveying techniques, were under pressure to keep pace with the new geography. This is reflected in the novel embroidered map shawls in various collections, of which the V&A’s rumal (square shawl) of Srinagar is unrivaled
(see fig. 096). (31)

Artistic inspiration was drawn from the lacquer and papier maché industries as well as from the craft of illustrators for the Janam Sakhis (stories of Guru Nanak). After centuries of bowing to the demands of the export market with elegant floral boteh patterns, finally Kashmir developed its own indigenous ethnic style. The rakish Sikh costumes, ‘armed-to-the teeth’ Alkalis, French military costumes and paraphernalia, and the Khalsa energy of Lahore’s glittering darbar – all found dynamic resonance in shawl artistry, and underscore once again the tight artistic nexus of Lahore/Kashmir (see fig. 108 & Plate 3)

Through the business dealings of Allard and Ventura, the new patterns took Europe by storm. General Allard’s proud return visit to Paris in 1836 and his appointment as political agent by King Louis Philippe, combined with his meeting with the Parisian shawl merchants, represented not only a political coup for France, but also a boon to Kashmir’s shawl industry (32)

Although the Punjab once again fell into chaos with the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, the Sikh shawl took on a life of its own. The new style was here to stay, foreshadowing Europe’s Art Nouveau and Deco styles (Plate 6). In 1846, Runjit’s right hand man, Raja Gulab Singh, by the Treaty of Lahore with the English, became the sovereign Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, and thus achieved his great ambition of absolute control over the shawl industry.

The Universal Exhibition of London in 1851, where shawls and carpets were featured, was a major milestone for Kashmir’s products. (33) As British rule quickly engulfed almost the whole of the subcontinent, carpet production drifted towards the hackneyed substitute of an industry that was once the pride of Imperial India. French agents arrived en masse in Srinagar, and soon Kashmiri weavers were patterning their shawls from Parisian sketch books. By this time, Jacquard loom engineering had become extremely sophisticated, incorporating the enlarged Sikh designs with great ease. French shawl designers, ever fashion conscious, fused these exciting Sikh patterns with their own creative ideas, with such successful results that the new shawls returning from India mimicked those of the Jacquard loom. Nevertheless, 19 years later, the industry finally collapsed with the Franco-Prussian War. With all the idle weavers there, opportunistic European rug merchants moved into Srinagar and opened rug factories. By the turn of the century, Kashmir had become the second largest producer of carpets in India, with Amritsar and Lahore holding first and third place respectively. (34)

Some feel the Dogra era spelled the death of the Kashmir shawl, but this view is incorrect. Kashmir was experiencing unprecedented peace, and shawl weaving was at full throttle. It was simply another style, the Indo-French style, fueled by the innovative designs of, for example, Amedée Couder (Plate 7) and Antony Berrus (Plate 8), two of France’s most famous shawl designers. Enriching further this style was the palpable presence of Kashmir’s proximity to Ladakh and Tibet, which manifested itself, for instance, in the form of dragons (fig. [Ray square shawl]). Although dragons were often carved embellishments in Srinagar’s famous walnut furniture, here we see them in this finely woven transitional Sikh-Dogra period rumal, arrayed menacingly in a ‘fiery’ circle woven against a stark, black center pulsating with cosmic energy. From the Dogra period came some of the most beautifully embroidered shawls as seen in fig. (Reisbord peacock shawl). India’s national bird, the peacock runs wild throughout the Sub-continent, and as the vehicle for the Hindu god Kartikeya, son of Siva and Parvati, he is held by Hindus to be sacred. A veritable aviary of peacocks, this finely wrought embroidered rumal must have been a marriage gift. The many brilliant shawls extant of this era (see for example fig. 123), and indeed of all of the 19th century (including the European Jacquard shawls), remain a lasting testament to the unknown, forgotten, poor weavers of a tiny Himalayan village that had spawned one of the greatest fashion industries of the world.