Elegance Knotted with Tears: The Tale of Kashmiri Carpets
By Arka Chakarborty
The valley of Kashmir is a lot more than simple a ‘paradise on earth.’ Geographically set in a civilizational crossroads between South Asia and Central Asia, Kashmir has throughout its long history been influenced by the geo-cultural giants that surround it. Hence, an overview of its cultural matrix reminds informed observers of numerous historic centers of culture, art and aesthetics. Yet, the relative sense of isolation that the Himalayan mountain ranges provide the irregular oval stretch of land gives its people and their historical, aesthetic and cultural world a kind of uniqueness that few regions across South and Central Asia can claim for themselves. The Kashmiri carpet industry, having emerged in the fifteenth century and gradually taking over the world with its reputation of exquisite design and the breath-taking labor required to produce the same, seems to be a product of this dichotomy between cross-cultural interaction and ‘splendid isolation.’ While tracing its origins from Persia, the Kashmiri carpet industry has long since taken on a life of its own and developed its unique identity due to the designs developed by its own artisans. In spite of the product’s world-wide appeal, a global market and universal recognition, however, the artisans who are responsible for the creation of such works of pure artistic genius are facing an existential crisis due to factors outside their control.
Like so many other traditions in Kashmir, the origin of the carpet-making craft in the valley is shrouded in myth. While the origin of carpets in general goes back around 1500 years and the exact place of their origin is unknown, the art of carpet-making seems to have arrived in Kashmir in the fifteenth century. Some sources attribute this phenomenon to the renowned Sufi saint Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamadani who is said to have brought skilled artisans from Persia to Kashmir. In other legends, this credit is given to Kashmir’s most famous sultan Zain-al-Abidin also known as ‘Bud Shah’ (‘Great King’) (r. 1420-1470 CE) who is said to have brought skilled carpet-makers from Persia to Kashmir, have them teach local artisans the craft and insist that the locals learn the Persian technique of practicing the craft. He is also praised in these legends for setting up the first factories or karkhanas so that carpets could be produced in an organized fashion. After Bud Shah’s death, the fledgling carpet industry in Kashmir seems to have suffered a setback. It was revived and possibly reached its greatest heights during the rule of the Mughal emperors. The saint Akhun Mulla Rahnuma is said to have aided in a significant manner in this revival with the help of the Mughal governor of Kashmir around 1600 CE. The Mughal emperor Jahangir’s reign saw the continued prosperity of the carpet industry.
The eighteenth century, a period of political instability in the region, with the gradual waning of the Mughal presence and the quick succession of disastrous Afghan and Sikh regimes, was a period when Kashmir’s handicraft industry as a whole is said to have taken a big hit. However, the carpet industry in the mid-eighteenth century saw an unexpected growth, prompted mostly by European intervention. As is well-known, the eighteenth century was a period of growing European (especially British) trade contacts with and political interventions in the Indian subcontinent and Kashmir was no exception. The 1851 exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace featured the magnificent Kashmiri carpet and the West fell in love with it. Subsequent decades saw the Kashmiri carpet-makers cater more towards a western audience which, in general, had more money to spend on luxury goods due to the shifting of the economic and political balance of power on a global scale. Apart from the 1902 global recession and the instability brought about by the partition of India in 1947 CE, the early and mid-twentieth century were periods of gradually growing prosperity for the Kashmiri carpet-making community. After a local government was established in the state of Jammu and Kashmir after India’s independence, the government worked to encourage the industry and increase the Kashmiri carpet’s global footprint. The late twentieth century was also the period when the carpet industry gradually shifted to the erstwhile state’s rural districts like Budgam and Baramulla and training centers were established by the government to create new generations of carpet-makers, whereas the craft was previously handed down in a hereditary manner.
Carpet-making in Kashmir is a long and arduous process that always involves a group of specialists and sometimes requires the labor of an entire family. Artisans undergo years of training to specialize in aspects of what it takes to produce a truly authentic Kashmiri carpet. Sometimes the training begins in childhood for those whose families are employed in the industry. At most times, it takes a lifetime to earn the title of a master.
There are broadly three stages in the production of Kashmiri carpets. The first stage, designing the carpet, requires the services of the designer or the ‘naqash.’ In this stage, the design to be knotted is chosen, the colors to be used are selected and the layout of the carpet is decided upon. All this is done in a code called ‘talim’ which is only understood by those trained in the carpet industry. The second stage is the dyeing of the yarn and requires the services of the ‘ranger.’ In this stage, after the material(s) with which the carpet will be knotted is chosen, the specific yarn is sent to the ranger who then dyes it according to the color scheme recommended by the naqash and then leaves the dyed yarn to dry in the sun. The final stage is knotting itself and requires the services of the kalimba. The kalimba first prepares his loom with warps and wefts. Warps are thick, strong threads of silk or cotton which run through the length of the loom while wefts are similar threads that run through the breadth of the same. The knotting process begins from the botto of the loom where a number of wefts are passed through the warps to form a strong base. Knots of dyed material are then tied in rows around consecutive sets of adjacent warps. These rows become the pile of the foundation as the process continues. One or more shots of weft are passed through each row of knots to keep the latter fixed. The wefts are them beaten down by an instrument called the comb beater to further compact and secure the row. If the process sounds complex, that is because it is! Depending on the skills of the naqash, ranger and kalimbar and the requirement of the customer, a carpet can range from 16 to as much as 800 knots per square foot.
Based on the materials used, Kashmiri carpets can be divided into four broad categories. The Silk on Silk (S/S) carpets are carpets where silk is used both for warp and weft threads and where silk comprises of 100% of the material used. The Silk on Cotton (S/C) carpets are carpets where cotton is used for warp and silk for weft. Wool (W) carpets are made of pure wool. The staple (STP) carpets are also probably of the cheapest variety, as it makes use of synthetic silk or merchandised cotton.
Kashmiri carpets are world-renowned for their design. While the Hamdan, Ardabil, Kashan,
Kirman and Tabriz designs are directly inspired by the Persian carpet industry, there are
innumerable variants old designs which are exclusively and uniquely Kashmiri. While no two carpets are completely the same, some general patterns are referenced while producing Kashmiri carpets: gulabdar (rose), the tree of life, bagdar (garden), dabdar (box pattern), gumm (maze pattern), all over (an area spread floral pattern), khatam band (intricate wood art inspired motif) and the lotus pattern. In the carpet making industry, many symbols mean different aspects of life and some symbols are exclusively associated with certain regions, communities or localities. The lion, for instance, symbolizes loyalty, the peacock stands for royalty, the rose signifies opulence, the camel wealth and prosperity, the sparrow stands for fertility, the color red denotes virtues like joy and cheerfulness, the indigo solitude and sky blue is the national color or Persia. The price of Kashmiri carpets vary based on the design, colors and size, but the most important determinant of its value is the knot density. As indicated earlier, the knot density of a typical carpet varies widely based on the weavers’ skills and the amount of density required. The higher the density of the knots per square inch, the higher the quality of the carpet is assumed to be and the higher it is priced. The price of a Kashmiri carpet can range from Rs. 500 to as much as Rs. 100,000. Carpets boasting 600-900 knots per square inch are counted among the very best. A few rare carpets with 3600 knots per square inch are regarded to be wildly valuable; marvels like these are actually displayed in museums. The chief reason for the high pricing of the Kashmiri carpet is the extreme labor it requires to produce them. An average carpet takes around 8 10 months to finish with a dedicated and well-trained team of naqash, ranger and kalimba.
Kashmiri carpets are far more than a high-priced piece of handicraft item that the wealthy can display to flount their expendable income. They are the culmination of years of endless training through trial and error. They are the visions of the designing masters, the expertise of the dyers, the endless toil of the weavers. They sometimes represent the blood, sweat and tears of an entire family over a period spanning almost (or over) a year. Given the kind of unbelievable labor it takes to produce these rugs, it is astonishing, shocking and appalling to think that the carpet manufacturing families benefit the least from the whole industry. Today, the Kashmiri carpet industry has a turnover of Rs. 650 crores, with the majority of the carpets being exported to developed countries like the UK, the USA, France and Germany where they have a solid customer base. Yet, the majority of the weaving community which lives in the rural areas of Budgam and Baramulla and lake-adjacent areas like the Dal has very little idea of the true value of their products in these markets. The urban middlemen who buy these products from them and sell them to the consumers make exorbitant amounts of profit at the expense of the community whose talent and toil bring the carpets to life in the first place. The global market today is inundated by machine-made, counterfeit ‘Kashmiri carpets’ whose obviously affordable prices are bringing down the overall value of the authentic carpets in the markets and there is a lack of a strict method to ensure that these counterfeit products are held at bay. The Indian institute of Carpet technology’s efforts to train enthusiastic Kashmiris in the art of carpet weaving while giving them a slim pay, the setting up of Tourism and Handicraft centers both in and outside the UT, the development of an app called ‘Nakaash’ to provide the weavers with design suggestions, the promotion of the carpets worldwide seem to minimally affect the abysmal life conditions of the artisans and their families. Long periods of engagement in the craft takes its physical toll especially on the artists’ tendon and their eyesight; and in an environment when extreme training and dedication towards an industry that pays its true masters diminishing returns, many artisans have already made the decision to not pass down their art to their children and condemn them to a life of fruitless labor. Hence, many now believe that we might be looking at the very last generation of active Kashmiri carpet weavers.
Kashmiri carpets are truly manifestations of marvelous magnificence, symbolizing both the culture’s trans-regional character and unique identity and exhibiting its ability to speak to a global audience. The human cost of the industry, however, does not reflect in the elegant design of the carpets themselves. The dedication and love for the craft that show themselves in the finished products mask the sufferings of those who produce them so well that their voices do not reach those who buy them to admire their beauty. The immediate and most urgent threat to the Kashmiri carpet industry is not perhaps the counterfeit carpets that are marring the market, but the sheer lack of agency and benefits the artisans themselves face as key stakeholders. If this imbalance is not addressed in a decisive and long-lasting manner, one of the most iconic aspects of the Kashmiri identity may fade into obscurity.