When Pashmina shawls began to be woven in the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh regions, they were essentially for the royalty. Pashmina was considered the 'gold' fibre and was worn only by the king's family and was highly patronized by the Mughals, especially, Akbar.
These shawls have also been used in trade all over the world, India being the only highest exporter of pashmina in the world for a long time. From the 19th Century, pashmina has been in high demand as 'cashmere' all over the world and even the exorbitant prices have never been an obstacle in the sale of these luxury shawls.
It has been an object of desire for Mughal emperors and Sikh maharajas, Iranian nobles, French emperors, Russian and British aristocrats and eventually for the increasingly prosperous bourgeoisie created on both sides of Atlantic by the industrial revolution.
Found in the snows and Hills of Himalayas, this wool comes from the Goat called Pashmina or 'Changthangi'. This breed of Goat is found in Ladakh and Kashmir, usually raised for Meat or Cashmere/Pashmina Wool. The Pashmina Goat survives on the Grass grown on the lands of Kashmir and Ladakh where the temperature can go as below as -30 Degree Centigrade. Changthangi Goat sheds an approximate of 3 - 8 ounces of wool/ winter coat every spring. This wool is then collected and used for making Pashmina Shawls.
Myths & Legends
In Ladakh, it is said that wool or pashmina has compassion because it eases man's suffering regardless of whether he is a king, queen or shoe maker, wool serves the same purpose for everybody. The shawl weaving industry of Kashmir is as old as its hills.
"It is to be believed that the industry flourished in the days of the 'Kauravas' and 'Pandavas' (Mahabharata) and that the shawls of Kashmir reached as far as Rome wherein, they adorned the local beauties particularly those in the Caesar's court.
Syed Ali Hamadani, who introduced Islam in Kashmir, brought with him nearly 700 pious and saintly disciples mostly artisans and craftsmen - who were spread all over the valley, not only to popularize Islam as a faith, but also to teach and train the local people in the making of various arts and crafts, which would one day be world famous. His arrival in Kashmir was the beginning of a total & complete revolution, encompassing all aspects of life in the valley, and its requirements - social, economic & cultural."
"It is said that, once the Saint was asked how the womenfolk could be gainfully employed & his reply was, that "Moon"(wool) would come from the eastern side of the mountain (Eastern-Ladakh), which would provide a livelihood to the locals especially, the women folk who would contribute very significantly to the growth of the art, as it would involve a great deal of spinning and weaving. It is believed to be blessed pursuit to the people throughout, after the tradition of Fatima, the beloved daughter of the prophet of Islam, was given a spinning wheel on the occasion of her marriage as a part of her dowry."
Till 1959, pashmina of western Tibet was exported to Kashmir through Ladakh. : Ladakh and Kashmir had sole monopoly over the purchase of pashmina from west Tibet under an agreement of 1684 concluded between Tibet independent and Mughal Kashmir. Pashmina has a long chequered history. British India was very keen to import pashmina from western Tibet and Ladakh. In this connection, British India's governor general Warren Hastings had deputed George Bogle to Tibet on a political and trade-mission. Lord Dalhousie, another governor general conceived a great project to build Hindustan-Tibet highway to encourage and accelerate the flow of pashmina between the Gartok area of Tibet and British India territory.
Pashmina shawls were freely available in St. Petersburg than capital of Russia in the 1790's. The pashmina shawl reached west Asia be sea and land routes. At certain times, the use of rashes of pashmina material was confined to princess and a few other great noblemen by the special permission. In Iran Royal edicts purporting to have at least limit, the use of pashmina shawls in the interest of encouraging Iranian industry seem to have ineffective.
Gilman's agent was followed by British official William Moorcroft, who visited Gostok in 1812 in disguise as a gosain to buy pashmina. Moorcroft persuaded Garpon, the governor of Gastok to sell some quantity of pashmina at an exorbitant cost. The secret deal between Garpon and the British officer leaked out. The Garpon was taken to Lhasa in Chains and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment.
The Dogra general took stringent action to crush the export of pashmina to Rampur and Bashahr of Himachal Pradesh and five traders of region were excented and several other traders were imprisoned. In 1890, an Englishman john Gilman sent an agent to Gartok, summer headquarter of west Tibet to explore avenues for importing pashmina in British India. He bought a pashmina goat and a shawl. The Ladakhi ruler strongly protested against this and the governor of Gartok was punished by the Tibetan govt. Kashmir has been manufacturing shawls for centuries. In the second quarter of 19th century there were 40 thousand to 45 thousand weavers and one-lakh spinners in Kashmir valley on an average one-lakh pieces of pashmina shawls were manufactured annually. Of these 80 thousand were exported to Europe, Iran, Magnolia, Russia, Central Asia, Asalica, Turkey, Africa and Other parts of India.
Tradition says that the transparent veil worn but the Monalisa is in reality one of the earlier pashmina fabrics that could be drawn through a lady's ring as a test of fineness.
According to Ain-I-Akbari, Mughal king, Akbar the great encourage in every possible way the manufacture of shawls in Kashmir, Akbar coined a new name for pashmina as Paremnarm meaning supremely soft. The custom of presenting shawls is also recorded in the rage of Shah Jahan.
Most of the Pashmina Shawls have only one colour throughout. However, there are varieties of Pashmina Shawls which are being woven these days - pure pashmina, pure ring pashminas, silk blended pashminas, two tone pashminas, ombre/gradient pashminas, pashmina with furs, beaded pashmina, aristocrat pashmina and brides pashmina.
Though most of the Pashmina, which are sold in the market, are of pure wool, still for those who cannot afford the high ranges of Pure Pashmina, can go for Viscous Pashmina. Viscous Pashmina have a blend of Viscous, which is an artificial silk look giving agent. However, one should avoid buying these, as the Viscous does not have the warmth, which pure wool has. The Price range of Pashmina Shawl begins from Rs 4000/ - and can go as high as Rs 20,000. The very high ranges can be for bedsheets and curtains made out of pure Pashmina found only in Kashmir and Ladakh.
The value addition of pashmina shawls is being done by designing and embroidery work, which is highly scarce in the Ladakh region. Pashmina shawls are mainly dyed in various natural colours for embellishment. The Ladakhi pashminas do not have any intricate designs or motifs. The weavers' here work around the various twill weaves: herringbone twill, pointed twill, plain twill, basket twill etc. The shawls in the Ladakh region are usually loosely woven and the weaves are very distinct, creating beautiful patterns as embellishments.
Shahtoosh Shawls, the legendary 'ring shawl' is incredible for its lightness, softness and warmth. The astronomical price it commands in the market is due to the scarcity of raw material. High in the plateaux of Tibet and the eastern part of Ladakh, at an altitude of above 5,000 meters, roam Pantholops Hodgosoni or Tibetan antelope. During grazing, a few strands of the downy hair from the throat are shed and it is these, which are painstakingly collected until there are enough for a shawl. Yarn is spun either from shahtoosh alone, or with pashmina, bringing down the cost somewhat. In the case of pure shahtoosh too, there are many qualities-the yarn can be spun so skilfully as to resemble a strand of silk. Not only are shawls made from such fine yarn extremely expensive, they can only be loosely woven and are too flimsy for embroidery to be done on them. Unlike woollen or Pashmina shawls, Shahtoosh is seldom dyed; its natural colour is mousy brown. To get this fibre, the goats have to be killed and hence, with time, the government banned the making of these shawls.
The pashmina industry of Ladakh is not as commercialised as its counterpart in Kashmir and since it is made for local consumptions, the industry in Ladakh does not face much challenges. Their technique is authentic, raw materials are natural and the product has not changed in today's times.