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Shawls have been worm and used as a warm protective garment since ancient times. However, the Mughal emperor Akbar experimented with various styles and encouraged weavers to try new motifs, which helped establish a successful shawl industry.

The shawl, or shoulder mantle, has been in existence in India in a variety of forms since ancient times, serving the rich and poor as a protective garment against the biting cold.

Though the history of shawl weaving, with which the history of woolen textiles is closely associated, is rather obscure, references to shawls are first found in the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Atharvaveda. The shawl is also mentioned in ancient Buddhist literature among the recorded inventories of woolen garments.

Derived from the Persian shal, which was the name for a whole range of fine woolen garments, the shawl in India was worn folded across the shoulder, and not as a girdle, as the Persians did. Even today, we sometimes see old Parsis with a shawl tied around their waist during their religious ceremonies.

Though shawls are worn and used as a warm protective garment all over the northern states today, Kashmir has become synonymous with shawls all over the world. There are no earlier indications but around the Mughal rule in India, Kashmir soon overtook the northwest frontier and Punjab, as the center of shawl- making. Akbar was greatly enamored by the Kashmir shawls and the way it was worn, folded in four, captured his imagination. He experimented with various ways of wearing it, and found that it looked good worn without folds, just thrown over the shoulder.

Akbar encouraged the weavers to try new motifs, and also started the fashion of the twin shawl, where two identical shawls were sewn back to back, hiding the rough edges of tapestry weave, and giving the impression of a single, reversible shawl. The royal shawls were richly embellished with precious metals and stones. Incredibly soft, and lovingly and painstakingly crafted, few samples of these shawls survive to date and the handfuls that exist are treated as priceless world heirlooms.

Akbar’s successors too patronized the shawl industry in the valley, but the Afghan rule that followed the Mughal rule almost wiped out this industry of intricate craftsmanship. The Afghan governor Haji Dad Khan (1776-83) imposed such heavy taxes on the shawl industry that the artisans were forced out of their professions.

Many of the weavers moved to friendlier lands, like Punjab, where time and again attempts had been made to establish a successful shawl industry, all in vain. Following the Afghan harassment and the great famine in Kashmir the center of shawl making shifted to Amritsar. Other towns in Punjab too developed their own ‘Kashmiri’ shawl industry due to the migration of the Kashmiri workers.

Ludhiana developed as a major shawl weaving centre. The wool for all this was brought all the way from Kashmir, but somhow, the shawls woven outside that state were not a patch on the original masterpieces from Kashmir.

Shawls used to be made in Punjab earlier too-hand spun and hand woven khaddar of different weaves and textures, and dyed in different shades which were transformed into beautiful, multicoloured shawls using the traditional phulkari embroidery. When the woolen shawls from Kashmir found a home in Punjab, phulkari, which means flower work, was used to decorate the plain woolen ones. Embroidered with soft untwisted silk floss and using darning stitches done from the back, each stitch being about a quarter of an inch in length, the phulkari shawls often have different pallas (ends), in different designs. The phulkari embroidery covers almost the entire length and breadth of the shawl, giving it a rich appearance.

Though the Afghan rule had almost wiped out the shawl industry in Kashmir, it wove a new life for itself during the ensuing Dogra and Sikh period. The ‘tapestry’ shawl is a gift of the Dogra period. This rich material was used not just as a protective garment, but also made use of the rugged and practical fabric for costume dresses, tents, saddles and as decorative curtains. Shawl styles, in terms of designs and motifs, was greatly influenced by foreign events during the Sikh rule, during which time the industry prospered.

But the greatest boost of this industry was received during the British period. Totally enamoured by the Kashmiri shawls, the British took piece after piece back home where they found a willing market. Their fame spread to France too, and portraits of the period often show ladies wearing these colourful shawls with beautiful motifs. The popular paisley print has its origin in these Kashmiri shawls. Their tremendous popularity abroad ushered in enduring fame for the Kashmiri shawls.

In the 19th century, there was a minor revolution in the weaving of the traditional kani shawls of Kashmir, the demand for which was ever increasing. Instead of being woven as one piece, now the shawl was woven in long strips on small looms. Due to the large areas of design to be woven, the pattern was broken down into fragmented parts, each woven separately, at times on separate looms, and then all these pieces were pieced together, rather like completing a jigsaw puzzle, and then they were stitched together by a rafoogar. The beauty of this shawl is that the stitches are almost invisible, and the completed shawl looks like one complete unit.

In the beginning of the 19th century, there was yet another far reaching development in Kashmir, and that was the advent of the amli or embroidered shawl. The kani shawl was further embellished, or in some cases, the plain ones beautifully decorated by a kind of parallel darning stitch, the thread being made to nip up the loops of the warp threads, but rarely permitted to go beyond the whole texture of the cloth, which made the embroidery look as if it was made on the loom itself!

While the Kashmiri shawls were making hot news abroad, the shawls from the other states were quietly and beautifully doing their jobs of keeping the people in those areas warm. The intricately embroidered kantha shawls of Bengal are a case in point. “Woollen shawls or plain Kashmiri shawls were first covered with a silk cloth and then using running and darning stitches, occasionally also chain, satin, and herringbone stitches, intricate designs were embroidered,” says Mr. Bhupinder Singh, manager of the Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India Ltd., Bombay, displayed one such shawl, which had a rich, sensuous look

The ornamental growth of the shawl industry is closely associated with the textiles, weaves and prints of the particular area that spawned it. Shawls from Gujarat have the traditional bandhini prints. “The basic patterns of that area are adapted on wool, or silk for the shawls. Bandhini shawls have vibrant colours, though the background may be of a neutral colour. Often they are decorated with embroidery, mainly chain stitch, and with mirror work for a richer and prettier look,” says Mr. Puneet Acharya, manager of Gurjari in Bombay.

Such embellishments are almost never seen in the shawls from Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and the other north eastern states. The shawls from these areas have a primitive charm of their own. Black and maroon are the favoured background colours, and the designs in red, white and yellow mainly are chiefly abstract and highly conventional representations of human and animal figures. Not very popular outside these states, these shawls nevertheless do a very effective job of keeping the inhabitants of that cold are in warm comfort.

Though the same cannot be said of the pretty Himru shawls of Aurangabad and Hyderabad. Himru is an inferior type of brocade in which both silk and cotton threads are used to produce the multi-coloured designs. The actual ornamental design is formed on the principle of extra weft figuring-the silk weft used for patterning is thrown over the surface only here and there, where the actual pattern appears the rest of the weft is left hanging loosely underneath. Because of this extra layer of loose silk weft, the Himru shawls are soft, and almost feel like silk, and it is believed that Tughlak, the eccentric ruler settled weavers from ahmedabad, Benaras and Gujarat in Aurangabad, which led to the start of the Himru industry, which are usually 3 feet by 6 feet or 9 feet by 12 feet, in size. Sometimes the shawl, especially the smaller one, is confused with a dupatta. But there is a distinct difference between the two. Says Bhupinder Singh, “The dupatta is worn for modesty by women only. Worn across the breast, the dupatta sometimes also covers the head, as in Punjab. In colder climes, the shawl is also worn across the head to keep out the cold. The essential difference is that the shawl is a protection against the cold, and is worn by both men and women.”

Closely linked with the climatic conditions of the region, the warmth and popularity of the shawl decreases as we travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari; in fact, south of the Deccan plateau, there is hardly any shawl weaving industry. There are shawls to suit every budget. The warm and absolutely soft pashmina shawls of Kashmir, made from the soft wool from the underbelly of the Tibetan mountain oat, sell for above Rs. 4000/-per piece. The expensive kani and amli shawls again from Kashmir, beautifully reflecting the chinar leaves, and other natural beauties of the state; the rich brocade shawls from Benaras the moderately priced ‘Himru’ shawls, and shawls from the north-east. The different varieties of shawls are popular in India as well abroad.