It is widely believed that wooden latticework began with the making of 'Mashrabiya', in Central Asia during the 12th century. Mashrabiya is the Arabic term given to a type of projecting oriel window enclosed with carved wood latticework located on the second storey of a building or higher, often lined with stained glass. The Mashrabiya is an element of traditional Arabic architecture used since the middle ages up to the mid-20th century. Pinjira, a latticework on wood has remained a novelty of decorations in Kashmir and is done on the fences, doors, railings, ventilators, room partitions, screens and windows partitions in the prominent years of Islam as a veil screen for women as the religious beliefs prohibited them to be directly seen by the public. All the existing buildings in wood have such work in different geometric designs.
There are two theories for its name; the most common one is that the name was originally for a small wooden shelf where the drinking water pots were stored. The shelf was enclosed by wood and located at the window in order to keep the water cool. Later on, this shelf evolved until it became part of the room with a full enclosure and retained the name despite the radical change in use. It may have been introduced during the reign of Sultan Zain-ul-Abadin, for him being the founder and architect of many such works in Kashmir and for which he introduced many craftsmen from Central Asia. It is also used to adorn doors. The Pinjirakari pieces are also used to make ornamental partitions and screens.
One common use of latticework is in a privacy screen. The openings in the lattice allow light and air through, which can be critical in a climate where full enclosure would be stifling. The network of lathes prevents people from seeing inside the lattice, allowing for privacy in the area surrounded by the latticework. Latticework can be seen surrounding compounds and yards, and it is also used for things like window inserts so that people can enjoy fresh air while still feeling relatively private. A lattice also happens to make a great trellis. People training climbing plants may install a lattice so that the plant has something to grow on. When lattice is being used for privacy, training plants on it can increase privacy, as the plants will cover the lattice to prevent people from seeing in while still allowing air through. Plants can also make a privacy lattice more aesthetically pleasing, as people may not enjoy looking at the raw lattice material. Pinjirakari work is a common feature now in most Kashmiri houses. Thick hand-made and oily paper is used to together on these panels. This shuts of chilly winter winds but lets in ample light at the same time. These paper covers are washed off at springtime. This delicate wooden latticework adorns Sufi places of worship and house fronts and creates the lace-like trim on balconies and houseboats, those floating 'luxury hotels' from old times. Such trim is also found on wooden balconies that jut out from the main structure or may cover the entire front of a house.
It was during the Sultanate period that large worship buildings were made, where in wood was used extensively. Thereafter, not only wooden structures were constructed either exclusively or in association of stone and brick masonry to raise huge monumental buildings that exist till date, but also these were decorated with wooden ceilings, walls, doors, cornices and facades on balconies. During the medieval times in Kashmir common houses were built of wood and were most beautifully decorated as Mirza Haidar narrates: "In the town, there are many lofty buildings constructed of fresh-cut pine. Most of these are at least five storeys high; each storey contains apartments, halls, galleries and towers. The beauty of their exterior defies description, and all who behold them for the first time, bite the finger of astonishment with the teeth of admiration-.
Used as a veil screen for women, its design was such that it is see-through from inside the house but not see-through from outside. This is based on the fact that any Jaali can be seen through only when someone is standing close to it and would be difficult to see through from a distance. In Kashmir, wood was a material used by every stratum - by peasants, kings and boatmen. In such a wide variety of uses, specific methods were developed for the uses.
Myths & Legends
With the coming of Central Asian ruler into Kashmir, came with them, their customs, religion, traditions and culture. Islam did not allow for women to come out in public without being fully covered and most of the times, they were not allowed to be present physically for an occasion or celebration. It is widely believed that the king of Persia, in the 12th Century loved his queen to the extent that he could not turn any of her requests down. The queen once told the king that she wanted to see the royal court hearing like he does. Unable to turn her request down, the king spoke to his court and the best architect in the land was called upon. He was offered a huge sum of money and built the king a window, covered with beautiful wooden latticework right above the court hearing hall. The work was such that whoever was on the darker side of the window could see everything on the brighter side, but not vice-versa. The people on the brighter side of the window could only make out a silhouette of the person on the darker side if he or she would be standing very close to the window. The king could not be happier. The morale of his religion and the happiness of his wife were both ensure and soon it became customary to have this work in the queen's quarters wherever she went. The tradition was passed down and when his lineage migrated to India from Persia, they got with them skilled carpenters who brought the craft of wooden latticework along with them and it became widely prevalent in Kashmir as Pinjirakari.
Pinjirakari is deeply embedded in the Kashmiri aesthetic. It appears in romantic folklore of Kashmir and in it's verses. For example - 'Zaile pinjre tile nazar trav, Bali asimi tamblav' translates to 'Bestow upon me one glance from behind the Pinjira. Oh young beauty, pray do not tantalize me'.
Woodwork was an essential part of lifestyle from time immemorial. The carpenter made not only household items but also items for temples and royalty. The art of carpentry was recognized as an essential part of community work. Ancient texts like the Brihat Samhita and Shilpa Shastra provide detailed instructions on woodwork - how to work with the different kinds of wood and even how to fell the various trees.
Jammu and Kashmir is known for its woodwork, stemming from the wide variety of trees growing in the region. It has a rich history of woodwork and carving, popularly seen in the architecture of the place. History mentions 12-storeyed palace in Srinagar made of woodwork. This was destroyed during the reign of King Harsha, when invaders set fire to it. Woodcraft flourished post 1028, especially in architectural elements. The new palaces called the Razdanis were set up on the banks of river Vitasta or Jhelum. These banks were close to the rich forests of Tashwan where the wood could be sources easily.
The palace, moved to the left bank during the reign of King Ananta (1028-1063), was beautifully crafted in wood. Bihana mentioned the wooden architectural elements, the great 11th century Kashmiri author. He wrote about them with awe in his courtly epic, Vikramankadeva Charitam. King Jayasimha (1128-1140) allowed his citizens free supply of wood from the forests, which led to many wooden houses being built in this region.
Although less known outside Kashmir, the region boasts numerous other acclaimed crafts, many of Persian origin. In the 14th century a Sufi saint, Sayyid Ali Hamadani, from the ancient city of Hamadan, arrived in Kashmir with a band of about 700 followers. He had a profound influence on the valley, convincing large numbers of people, including the king, to convert to Sufi Islam, thus leaving a lasting imprint on the valley's culture. With him came a number of Hamadan's famous artisans who brought many new handicrafts to Kashmir, including fine woodcarving. The Kashmiris proved to be apt pupils and have practiced and refined those skills to the present day. There is one example on stone at Srinagar's 15th century Madin Sahib Tomb, which has carved lattice scrolls instead of the geometric designs. This work on the tomb built during the reign of Zain-ul-Abadin indicates that the lattice craft was known at that time even though there is no work left in wood of that era and it might have served as a forerunner to the wooden craft. During the reign of King Zain-ul-Abadin, woodcraft flourished and is said to have reached its artistic peak. Sultan Zain-ul-Abadin also got built a palace for himself, all of wood, in Naushahr. It has twelve stories, some of which contain fifty rooms, halls, and corridors. A golden dome surmounted it, and its spacious halls were lined with glass. This tradition of wooden architecture and craft seems to have developed and flourished under the Sultans in particular under the fostering care of Sultan Zain-ul-Abadin whose patronage attracted master artisans for various crafts from different parts. According to the Sultans court chronicler Pundit Srivara, the great king provided all amenities of life to such craftsmen and they popularized their arts and crafts among the Kashmiris. He had constructed another palatial building, the Zain Dab in Zainagiri, which the Chaks burned down. His palace was a testimonial for the richness of skill and heritage. During the Mughal times, stone architecture was reintroduced into Kashmir for monumental architecture and in their buildings stone screens instead of wood have been used on the Mughal patterns as in the Madrassa and mosque of Mulla Akhun. However, it seems that wooden screen works did not suffer as Bernier who visited Kashmir during the reign of Aurangzeb makes a special mention of the latticed doors of the houses of kings and nobles, which screened from view the beautiful ladies of the harem. The Jamia Masjid in Srinagar rebuilt on the earlier pattern during his time has retained the lattice designs that existed earlier. Latticework is a highly developed craft in Kashmir. In authentic Pinjira work, glue and nails are never used. The pressure the pieces exert on each other holds them together. The zali-Pinjira or acchi-dar is a recent term for Kashmiri latticework. In a later time, walnut woodcarving became popular, with designs with heavy European influence. It is believed that the complexity of the woodwork in Kashmir evolved from the boat making craft. Much like what happened in Rangoon and Peshawar. The reason being that much of the main roads connecting the big towns of the region were only built in the 20th century. Till then, all the commercial and private traffic were dependent on the boats.
Pinjirakari has many popular designs, which are both traditional and contemporary. The latticework called the rising sun and cobwebs are the most sought after. The other well known ones are Posh kandur, Chahar Khana, sadah kandur, shash-tez, shash-sitara, shash-pahlu, dwazdah sar, shekh sar, jujjari, shirin, totah shesh tez. All these designs however do not differ from the mathematical designs of the Arabs or that used by the Central Asians in limited form.
It is believed that all Hindu/Buddhist buildings of Ancient Kashmir are of stone, on the other hand many of the mosques and shrines that were built subsequently, are either made wholly of wood or are decorated finely in wood. Many such splendid buildings still exist as models of the carpenter's craft such as Khanqah-i-Mualla, Makhdum Sahibs shrine, Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, Khanqah-i-Naqashband, Srinagar etc. Their facades even though partly built of brick masonry have yet eloquent use of wood in the form of structural material as well as decorative element. The wood has been utilized to build the pyramidal roofs, balconies, verandahs, arcades, porticoes, paneled walls and painted ceilings. Their super structures in the form of arcades and porticoes, their opening filled with latticework, Pinjira, and enriched carved wooden insertions enhance charm and accentuate the stylishness of this architecture.
The Pinjira work of Kashmir is basically an intricate piece of Jaali made out of small pieces of wood held through various joints inside a frame and mostly in traditional practices without the use of glue. Pieces are fixed only using dowel joints, mortise, and tenon joint and halved joint with very rare use of wooden screws for larger pieces. The pieces are so precisely made that they fit into each other perfectly. Though the pieces are not glued together, they stay in place and are quite strong and can stand huge pressures. They are fixed in their place due to the stress, strain, weight and force they exert on each other. An extra outer frame may also be used for further strength but traditionally made Jaali can stay together even without the use of such frames. The precision and design of this latticework was passed from one generation to another along with the knowledge of geometry and mathematics taught in Islam. Geometry, calligraphy and vegetation are used as sources of ideas. Out of these, the artisans only used geometry as their knowledge of mathematics helped them to make many complex designs which could be tessellated."
Classically, latticework is available in a diagonally crossing pattern. Pieces of lattice can be fitted together to create a continuous pattern, or oriented in different directions to create more visual interest. It is also possible to find checkerboard lattice, which uses a vertical and horizontal pattern of lathes. There may be some settings in which checkerboard latticework is more aesthetically appropriate, depending on personal taste. Highly ornamental carvings may also be referred to as latticework. In this case, instead of making a pattern with lathes or strips, a pattern is pierced or cut into a solid sheet or wood or metal. The pattern may depict a scene, or take an abstract geometric form. In the Middle East, floral privacy lattice is very common, and similar styles are also seen in India. Some very fine designs done in this style can be seen on display in museums, which celebrate Middle Eastern and Asian art.
These techniques were passed down from generation to generation-in clan- based, closed shops. However, in the mid- 90s rising costs and a lack of interest from younger clan members threatened the survival of these traditions. The craft has now almost disappeared and even the existing works are vanishing from the old houses. The ruined and neglected houses of the old city of Srinagar exhibit a pathetic view of these glorious screens. As the things stand, the revival of the art in this modern age looks very difficult. However, few spinners of the art visible on the Muslim shrines and on traditional houses of old city could be saved if required steps are taken. The shrines and olden houses and building carrying these artifacts need to be preserved and conserved on modern and scientific lines.