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PHOTOS: A Centuries-Old Craft Is Under Threat by COVID-19

A look at the artisans behind a rich cultural heritage and a coveted international good.

The textile craft of Kashmir, the disputed region that hugs India and Pakistan, is woven deep into the valley’s cultural heritage–a rich legacy of tapestry that was imported from Persia in the latter half of the 15th century. Over the centuries, Kashmir carpets and shawls have borne testimonies of extraordinary artistry, with their meticulous geometric and calligraphic designs. The beauty lies in the detailed needlework, a skill handed down by generations of weavers.

The art flourished during the Mughal period that lasted into the 18th century. The tradition continued even during the troubles that followed under the rule of the Afghans and Sikhs. The British arrived in the early part of the 19th century and commercialized the woven products. And soon Kashmiri carpets and shawls became known across the globe.

But sadly, this art is dying a slow death. Problems began in 1989 when the valley was embroiled with insurgency operations, and a long-drawn-out conflict between the Indian armed forces and militant outfits has continued ever since, with brief interludes of peace. As a result, many artisans fled from the valley. The industry has been plagued with other social and economic problems: the cost of quality wool has become prohibitively expensive, the market is flooded with counterfeit products churned out of power looms, and the younger generation of the valley has been generally uninterested in pursuing a career in weaving due to its low pay.

Despite all of this, Kashmir exported roughly $125 million worth of handicrafts since 2019. But the pandemic has once again jeopardized the future of this ancient craft. In an effort to boost spending, state-run councils have been assisting local artisans with participation in virtual fairs and trade shows.

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A Bakarwal With His Flock of Sheep

A nomadic tribe rearing their flock of sheep and Himalayan goats, the bakarwals (shepherds) alternate with the seasons between high and low altitudes in the hills of the Pirpanjal range of the Kashmir Himalayas. They are the chief suppliers of raw wool to the weaving artisans in the valley.

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A Tuft of Wool Taken From the Downy Undercoat of Domesticated Pashmina Goats

A couple of very heavy winters in the upper reaches of the Kashmir valley have led to the deaths of thousands of pashmina goats. This has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the cost of raw wool, leaving many weavers in the lurch.

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A Weaver and the Blueprint of Weaving

Faiyyaz, 41, has been working as a weaver since he was a teenager. His eyes are set intently on the signs and letters scribbled across the brown parchment hanging across the threads of his loom. These are the design and color codes, the confidential blueprint of weaving that has been handed down over generations.

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The Intricate Designs of Kashmir Carpets

Kashmir carpets and shawls still follow the tradition of intricate geometric and calligraphic motifs, an artistic legacy that was imported nearly five centuries ago from Persia. But the weaving industry has been facing stiff challenges in the form of continuing unrest in the valley, low pay, and a glut of cheap machine-made substitutes. And now the pandemic has posed a serious threat to this ancient craft.

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An Ustaad of Carpet Weaving

Mohammed Sultan Khan is an ustaad (mastercraftsman) of carpet weaving. He opines that the future of the weaving industry is threatened and the art may be lost altogether if the economic slump continues. The weavers are making a last-ditch effort to revive the craft by participating in the virtual fairs and trade shows, which seem to be the only viable solution amid the COVID-19 crisis.

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A Look Inside a Workshop

Production in Kashmir takes place in small family workshops. Aslam Khan sits at his family loom, the same that has been used for three generations. He says that 20 years ago, there were around a hundred weaver families in his neighborhood. Now there are only two.

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Hand-Knotted Carpets

Kashmiri carpets are always knotted, and never tufted. With anywhere from 200 to 900 knots per inch, it is one of the most intricate forms of weaving in the world. The retail price of an authentic hand-knotted carpet can be as high as $100 per square foot, depending upon the fineness of material and knot density.

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An Artisan Busy With His Needlework on the Dal Lake

A handspun Kashmiri shawl can take up to four months for a single weaver to complete, depending on the intricacy of the design and motifs. This artisan works on his from his workshop on the Del Lake.

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The Financial Reality of Weaving

The traditional hand charka wheel is still used to spin the yarn. Kashmir weave-craft is a labor-intensive process. However, since the sector is unorganized, there is no strong wage policy and the low pay makes a career in weaving an unviable choice for the present generation of Kashmiri.

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The One-of-a-Kind Work Done Only by Hand

The yarn is hand-woven into a wonderfully supple, soft, yet warm fabric; and experts say that the distinct impression of the human hand can never be replicated in the products churned out by power looms.

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The Tool Used to Create Kani Shawls

Special wooden needles called Kanis are used to make Kani shawls in a highly specialized weaving technique. It can take a year in making a Kani shawl, with its minutest details of miniature floral motifs.

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Weavers at Work With Kani Needles.

The state government has granted a geographical indication to the Kani shawl, making it illegal to sell shawls made outside the valley as Kani shawls. However, there are only a handful of Kani artisans in the valley now.

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An 85-Year-Old Kashmiri Shawl

Sadiq Mohammed Wani, who owns one of the oldest handicrafts businesses in Kashmir–started by his ancestors in 1840–displays a Kashmiri shawl made 85 years ago. Wani says that government subsidies and drawbacks are needed to support the weave-craft businesses and exporters.

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A Neighborhood With Weaving Tradition

Yarns hanging over the railings of a house in an old quarter of Srinagar. The old working-class neighborhoods have traditionally been the areas where weavers had lived for generations.

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A Weaver in a Mahalla

A weaver in front of his home at Idgah district, one of the weaving mahallas (neighborhood) in Srinagar. The weavers welcome the government initiative to provide a digital platform to merchandise their art, but at the same time, they are asking for a hassle-free credit system and a strong wage policy to revive this ancient craft of Kashmir, which they say is hanging by a thread.