The Kinnaris have been weaving shawls for centuries, with the sole purpose if intra-familial requirements. The shawls are not woven for commercial purposes, but to suffice the needs of the family members. To weave a pashmina wool shawl, they wait for two-three years to accumulate the wool and prepare it for weaving. They need just enough wool to weave shawls and coats for their own family members. They do not feel the need to sell the shawls. The basic twill weave shawls are for everyday use, whereas the ones bearing design are worn on special occasions such as weddings and festivals, and hence is passed on from one generation to the next. The intricately woven shawls are also made as offerings to Parvati and Shiva, Indian mythological Gods worshipped extensively in the area. The shawls are also used as basis to judge the boy and his family by the girl’s family when the two get together for wedlock. The more abundance of shawls and the precision of work define a boy’s patience and manhood and hence, are very important in their socio-cultural norms.
Today, the usage of these shawls has not changed much. A few households in the administrative headquarters of Kinnaur, Reckong-peo, have little shops where they sell them locally but most of the households still weave them for their own requirements.
Each Kinnauri family keeps a small quantity of wool to meet its own requirements. After sheep is sheared, its wool is washed and dried. Combing is done with wooden combs. During leisure, especially in winter when there is no agricultural work, families spin wool on ‘takli’, a local spindle which later banuras or julahas weave on traditional looms. The Kinnaris have immense respect and love for their art form and have strived through the years to retain its beauty, exclusivity and honour. The intricately designed Kinnari shawl is supposed to be an article of festivals and auspicious occasions. When a baby is born in the house, he/she is first wrapped in a soft pashmina shawl. The kids of the house start helping their fathers out in weaving shawls from when they are toddlers and slowly they too grasp the knowledge and become skilled weavers by the time they reach their teens. The boys weave shawls and fabrics till marital age with much care and precision, because these are shown to the girl’s family as a basis to judge the boy’s character and also given as dowry to the girl’s family. Shawls are gifted to the girl for her wedding by her parents, woven by the father usually. These shawls are worn on special occasions and the family makes sure that every member own one of them at least.
Hinduism houses the cult ‘Shaivism’, worship of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva’s abode is said to be the Kailash Mountain. One peak, visible from all of Kinnaur, is the Kinnar Kailash and this is supposed to be where Shiva lives. For years, Shivaratri has been celebrated with much dedication in Kinnaur. However, Buddhism has had a major influence on the culture of the religion. There is a particular tale which exists in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology, which is said to have given Kinnaur its existence:
“In Buddhist mythology and Hindu mythology, a kinnara is a paradigmatic lover, a celestial musician, half-human and half-horse (India) or half-bird (south-east Asia). Their character is clarified in the Adi parva of the Mahabharata, where they say: ‘we are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate. We are eternally husband and wife; never do we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved ever embracing. In between us we do not permit any third creature demanding affection. Our life is a life of perpetual pleasure.
They are also featured in a number of Buddhist texts, including the Lotus Sutra. An ancient Indian string instrument is known as the Kinnari Veena. In Southeast Asian mythology, Kinnaris, the female counterpart of Kinnaras, are depicted as half-bird, half-woman creatures. One of the many creatures that inhabit the mythical Himavanta, giving birth to a land called Kinnaur. Kinnaris have the head, torso, and arms of a woman and the wings, tail and feet of a swan. She is renowned for her dance, song and poetry, and is a traditional symbol of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment.
Kinnaur remains cut-off from surrounding valleys during its long snowy winters. So the hazards of severe cold weather and long distances to remote, almost inaccessible, villages nestling in its mountains have made Kinnaris develop a largely self-supporting economy. Weaving is a way of life with Kinnaris.
Although the “Silk Road”‘ is by far the most famous network of trade routes connecting China, Central Asia, and India, there are other significant, ancient trade routes between these regions of which many may not be aware. One such trade route, known informally as the “wool road”, connected the plains of the Punjab in India to Tibet, Central Asia and China. This route, and several others, passed through the Kullu and Kinnaur regions of the northern Indian state known as Himachal Pradesh. The “wool road”, which was really merely a donkey trail, was the traditional main trade route in the region, and was so important that it was later widened to motor able width to boost trade in the region and came to be known as the Hindus tan-Tibet road”. Two groups of artisans that can be found along this important route are the weavers of Kullu and Kinnaur. Their strategic location on these routes caused their weaving to be greatly influenced by the ancient trade and traffic along it. Their weaving traditions have a long and intertwined history and their shawls are quite famous throughout India; however, their distinct and skillful weaving is nearly unknown to the outside world. With the existence of the wool road, there has been a virtual extensive interaction of various cultures, religions and people. This is where the interesting twist to Kinnaur’s folk history lies. Hinduism evolved there a few hundred years before Buddhism. Kinnari language, their style of clothing, their homes and lifestyle have an aura of Buddhism to it and this has, over the years, shone in their weaves, through their motifs.
There is a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture that is largely visible. The Temples in Kinnaur have architecture similar to those of monasteries and the royal palace of Kinnaur too has a very Tibetan feel to it, though the king’s lineage has primarily been Hindu. Today, most of the population is Hindu, owing to an urge to be related to the main religion of the country they belong to, during the years of Independence and constant pushes from the new Government of the Republic, just born. Kinnaris are not villagers, they have always considered themselves to be a tribe and find a mutual sense of belonging there. For years, they have maintained a certain lifestyle and they are content in it. They believe they have their own identity and that is, what they want to preserve, for as long as they can; their art form being the prime of that.
The Kinnauri Shawl is of a very typical kind. It is a blend of two weaves: A basic weave for the ground and body fabric and extra-weft for the design. The basic weave for the body and ground is twill. Twill is used in all its forms: Basic twill, pointed twill, herringbone twill and basket weaves. All designs are done on four shafts. In Kinnauri shawls, it is believed that the finer and the heavier the design, the wealthier and better, the family background. When a boy is to be married, the girl’s family shows the entire range of shawls, the family has woven. It is a criterion by which the marriage is finalized. The extra-weft is done just for the design, where knotting and changing lifting orders do every part of it singularly. The design happens on both the ends and goes on till half a metre towards the main body. The ground fabric is usually naturally coloured wool and includes the basic colours- black, white, cream, grey, brown or a mix of any two. The shawl is usually made of the size: 3 metres in length and 1 metre in breadth.
Weavers across the globe have been calculating the design of their weaves on cross- hatched paper for centuries. Today, it is called graph Paper. It ensures that you know the exact number of wefts per repeat and plays a very essential role in the determination of the smoothest drafting and lifting orders. But in Kinnaur, there is no such definite rule the locals follow to weave the shawls. Since there is no commercialization, they don’t find the need to form new varieties of designs. In every household, the children grow up seeing their parents weave and pick up on the designs hence. The kinds of designs in Kinnauri weaving are limited, but they are used in a variety of way and in a variety of forms. The design is made using the extra-weft technique of weaving. In most handlooms, the extra-weft can be woven along with the ground fabric. In the Kinnauri shawls, every single part of the design is woven using the knotting method where the weft is inserted by hand and to lock the design, the lifting pattern is formed. The Kinnauri design is so fine that it takes over six months to make a shawl with heavy work-. The weavers spend the entire winters inside their houses, weaving these shawls. The room where the design bearing shawls are woven is kept under lock and key for their belief that-it is the wealth they possess. This method of extra-weft weaving is not practiced anywhere else except Kinnaur and Kullu.
1) Kinnaur is the largest producer and exporter of hydroelectric power in Asia. There are 58 hydroelectric projects and dams lined up on the River Sutlej from Tapri in Kinnaur and it carries on till Lahaul. These hydroelectric power projects by the Jaypee Group of Industries are worth billions of dollars every month and to create them, it required large -scale displacement of the locals living along the Sutlej. In the year 2001, there were groups of men who went to every settlement along the Sutlej and negotiated with the locals to take money for their land and in some rare cases, gave them land elsewhere along with money. They were promised that no matter where they settle in Kinnaur, their electric power-cuts would be taken care of. Before the power plants were set up, Kinnaur experienced power cuts, which lasted for a day or two, especially during bad weather. The locals happily obliged. Once the power plants were set up, they realized they were tricked heavily. They experienced power cuts everyday for six to seven hours and every fortnight they experience power-cuts that continue for days. The longest they have experienced is in 2008, for five months in a row. This was a blow to the Kinnaris and they gave up all their faith in modern civilization. This disbelief and mistrust shield them from sharing their crafts and lives with outsiders, making stagnation but it are a good thing, in a way.
2) The elevation in Kinnaur ranges from 9,000 feet above sea level to a whopping 22,000 feet. It experiences snow cover as deep as 20-feet for over six months a year. It lies on the Indo- Tibetan border and 50 per cent of it falls under restricted cantonment area. There are no airports or railway stations. All there is are two highways. One entering Kinnaur through the Shipki-La Pass in Lahaul and the other entering through Tapri. The former highway is shut for over six months a year, leaving just one narrow snaked road through the Greater Himalaya, the only way to enter and exit Kinnaur. Kinnaur’s climate falls on the extreme cold. When it’s not snowing, it is either foggy or rainy. If it is rainy, there are landslides and if there are landslides, the highway breaks from the middle and falls into the Sutlej, blocking Kinnaur for days till the Municipal Corporation arrives and rebuilds the highway. Locals are used to these disturbances and very easily cross landslides with sacks of cereal and other goods. Local deaths by road accidents are plenty and a very usual part of their lives. This inaccessibility to Kinnaur results in minimal tourism and lack of communication with the outside world. It is still unexplored to the core. The craft of Kinnari Shawls hence has vastly remained in the local circuit with hardly any word of it outside
3) The very famous Kullu Shawls, woven in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. They are very similarly done, as the Kinnari Shawls. Well, they were picked up from Kinnaur over a century ago and their technique was used to create a wider variety of designs and shawls for the commercial market. These shawls are also made by hand and are done by artisans and not power looms. But the Kinnaris are deeply affected by it. They are skeptical about talking about it because they feel that their culture and an integral part of their lives has been stolen from them and passed out to the world in exchange for a couple of paper notes. They believe that one winter night, over a hundred years ago, people from Kullu entered Kinnaur and raved it of its wealth. Lore goes, that they broke into homes of innocent people and took whatever they could find. That is when they saw their looms. They found the shawls and learnt their technique of weaving. They left after a couple of days and within a span of a few months, they were wearing and selling filthy commercial versions of the Kinnari Shawls. Soon, the Kullus began to believe it is their pride and began wearing the designs on their caps and socks. For the Kinnaris, this was disrespecting their auspicious beliefs. That is when they decided to guard their heritage and keep the world away from the actual traditional Kinnari Shawls. They today refuse to sell these shawls to any outsider because they feel their culture will be misused again. They say their heart breaks when some tourist sees the Kinnari Shawls and asks them whether they bought it in Kullu. They refuse to share their knowledge with any person they don’t have faith in and hence have become very introvert about their lives.
Its time, that as torch bearers of this generation that we take the onus upon us that the faith of the Kinnari weavers in the world outside will be restored and that they will believe that there are people out there who respect their work and will help them preserve it. If they do not want the weaves to be treated as a commodity. it wont be so. – They are very humane and require a spark of humanity from the vast world outside Kinnaur. They too are waiting for a miracle, just like us. Its time that we make sure that the craft doesn’t die among the snow laden mountains of the Greater Himalayas just like it was born there and has survived for so long.
Owing to globalization, today’s markets are flooded with machine-spun and synthetic wool which are easily affordable and cut down majorly on production costs. These come in handy to meet demands in the growing markets all over the world. Kinnari weaving, fortunately, has not been commercialized, owing to the lack of trust that locals here have in the modern world and inaccessibility to the area. Kinnaris live in fifteen feet of snow for eight months a year. Every family has their own flock of sheep, which they rear as part of their family. It is these sheep that they still derive their wool from. Majorly, the mountain sheep gives them coarse merino wool whereas the handful of pashminas that some families own, is not enough to suffice for weaving even a single shawl in a whole year. They spin yarn to make heedles using cotton, which they get from the local markets and merino wool. For the shuttle, they use a kind of fruit, which looks like a baton and is hollow from inside. They cut it in half and fill the weft yarns inside which when thrown from one end of the loom to the other acts as a shuttle. All the raw material they use is derived naturally for solely home purposes.
This craft, from the raw material to the finished product has no wastage of raw materials, fabric, yarn, electricity or any other added costs. Everything is well devised within the family and well accounted for it. The weaver is aware of the amount of the yarn that would be required for a season and sheds the exact amount of wool off the sheep. This results in no wastage or harming of the environment.
The loom: The first looms made by mankind were Pit-looms. The earliest traces of the pit-loom dates back to the Egyptian Civilization, over 5,000 years ago. With the silk-route forte, handlooms were designed and then only in the late eighteenth century, during the Industrialization Period, did power-looms arrive. Handlooms are time seeking looms but they are pretty fast when compared to the pit-loom. In Kinnaur, they refer to a pit-loom as a ‘Rachh’ and use nothing but that. They believe handlooms are an easy way out of things and are nothing less than power-looms. Hence, with that thought, they still work on pit-looms where every single step is done by hand. The pit-loom has one end of the warp beam tied on top to a diagonal spot on the wall or the roof of the room it is used in while the yarns at the other end were pulled down and tied in front of the weaver. The wood used in the making of the loom is that of fir and deodar and is made by the local wood artisan. The weaver himself ties the heedles of the loom one at a time using yarn. The reed is made by slicing bamboo into small thin strips of 2mm thickness and then nailed to two wooden planks on both ends, closely spaced to get a comb-like structure. The loom, being on the ground is very wobbly and the weave turns out to be a very course, spaced one which in turns traps more air in the empty spaces keeping the wearer of the shawl toasty warm.
Takli (the spindle): Each Kinnauri family keeps a small quantity of wool to meet its own requirements. After sheep is sheared, its wool is washed and dried. Combing is done with wooden combs. During leisure, especially in winter when there is no agricultural work, families spin wool on ‘takli’, a local spindle which is broader and more rugged than the usual spindle, changing the count of the yarn and resulting in a coarse final weave which provides more insulation and warmth to the fabric bearer.
Yarn (Cots wool): The shafts and heedles of the pit-loom are made tying handspun cots-wool yarn in loops, unlike the handlooms and power-looms, where they are made of metal.
The shuttle: The shuttle is made using a locally available fruit. It is hollowed and it is cylindrical, shaped like a one-ended pipe. The wool is looped into it and then used as a shuttle.
Repair tool kit: Every weaver has a repair tool kit consisting of hammers, nails, saws and drills of various kinds (all manual) to fix anything on the loom if it goes wrong. Unlike handlooms and power-looms, these weavers are very much capable of fix that they or their forefathers had built without any exterior help.
The shawl or shawls that were to be woven in the winter months had an auspicious purpose attached for the following year. So, with the fall of the first snow, the weaver would weave a small sample of the shawl and go to pay homage to the local Shiva-Parvati temple for blessings and for the shawl to be made perfect for all the good work it is supposed to do.
Kinnari shawls do not have a motive of greed or money behind their execution, rather a social and cultural outlook in a non-patriarchal society. It is a piece of fabric, carrying generations of hard work, culture, religion, faiths and beliefs in it.Once they spin the wool procured from their sheep, they need to dye it for the shawls with designs. They do not dye the wool for weaving daily use shawls.
To dye the wool, they follow a very estranged process. To give the naturally dull colours a bright tint, they use a juice from the bile of sheep, which they cook in homemade butter for over three months and add it to the natural dyes. The reaction causes the colours to brighten. Bright colours are considered auspicious in their land, which is white for most part of the year and a stale brown for the rest.
The weaving of one Kinnari shawl takes up their entire winter of six-seven months. Weaving is slow and laborious on the pit-loom. For their loom, they use wood from the fir trees downhill and each loom lasts them for about sixty to hundred years.
First the loom is set up, which in itself is the job of about a fortnight. The drafting and denting is done carefully and instead of a reed hook, weavers use their hands to pull the threads through because unlike the metal heedles, the heedles on the pit-loom are made of hand spun cots-wool yarns.
Once the warp is set, the other end is tied to a hook behind the weaver to maintain proper tension. The weft yarns by then are compiled in loops and put inside a hollow pipe shaped fruit found in the region, which is used as the shaft to pass the weft threads through the warp yarns.
The body of the shawls are a simple twill weave. The time consuming part of the weave is the extra-weft weaving that has to be done to make the intricate designs. Each warp and weft end has to be counted to form the designs and unlike other weavers, they do not have graph sheets where they make their designs and set their mathematical counts. They have the designs and all the calculations in mind and they can very easily execute them without much physical calculation.
List of craftsmen.