The world has long been entranced by Kashmir. From the magnificent himalayas, to the tradition of art and shawls, the history of Kashmir is unlike any amongst ancient eastern cultures. It’s a story of four different periods of foreign rule: the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras, who once ruled this ancient valley. Each culture made its own unique contribution and the designs we see today are a result of ideas and traditions introduced by them.
This feature is about the journey of an art, the inspiration and different traditions that influenced the creation of Kashmir Shawls. Its also a story of monarchs and how Kashmiri shawls defined their visions of grandeur.
The golden era of shawl making dates between the 16th and 19th century. In the west, it was a time of renaissance; the east was going through great artistic achievements. The Mughals, a dynasty famous for the construction of ancient monuments like the Taj Mahal, were ruling India. Although the tradition of shawls already existed in Kashmir, it was the passion for these beautiful masterpieces that led the great emperor Akbar to further revolutionise this art.
Persian weavers, called by Emperor Akbar, introduced handlooms to the shawl industry contributing to a unique weaving technique that would merge the designs during the process. Inspired by the floral carvings seen even today in the Mughal architecture, craftsmen first started designing shawls with flowering patterns. This fusion of cultures led to the creation of the most flamboyant shawls ever designed: the Kani shawls.
As the Mughals lost control, Kashmir came under the rule of the Afghan dynasty in 1747. Historically documented as a period of poverty, high taxes and slavery that lasted for over 67 years, the suffering of this time was captured in the designs woven by craftsman from this era. The soft and delicate lines of flowering plants were transformed into hardy and more rigorous plants. The flower patterns that earlier were filled with colour were left only with an outline and were further filled with a floral mosaic.
But the end of 18th century would bring new changes to this art, with unprecedented creativity and new styles were born. In 1819, the conquering armies of Sikhs, a dynasty from the north western part of India, overtook Kashmir. That’s when the Sozni and Ari styles of embroidery started to gain popularity and the designs on shawls changed from rugged flowers to bold sweeping patterns that were larger in size and a lot more colourful. The Sikhs loved shawls so much that they made them a crucial part of their daily lives. Besides wearing them, the beautiful shawls were also used to decorate their tents, the ceilings, the alleys and streets!
This was also the time when this exquisite art was first exported to Europe. The first link between Europe and Kashmir is said to have been established by a French general from the time of Napoleon, who was serving the Sikh ruler. As the european trade expanded and more shawls were exported, Kashmiri designs also started influencing western fashion. This exchange of cultures helped transform the techniques of wool spinning and weaving to speed up the production. And the european tastes were also incorporated in the designs as new orders from Europe came with design instructions from French merchants.
The demand for shawls still continued in Europe during the second part of the 18th century. However, the Dogra prince that was handed the rule of Kashmir by Great Britain imposed low wages and high taxes, making it very hard for the craftsmen. This, combined with a sudden change in European fashion and one of the most devastating famines in its history led to the shutdown of hundreds of shawl ateliers across this valley around the end of the 19th century.
Although times changed and several traditions went extinct, the legacy of Kashmir shawl still continues and is brought to you through our online store. The designs that evolved over centuries even today continue to be the heart and soul of our shawls.
Source and photo credit: The Kashmir Shawl and its Indo-French Influence, Frank Ames