The Story of the Pashmina: Trade, Colonialism and the Kashmiri Shawl

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By Aindrila Chakraborty 

Who is the Pashmina? Prologue

There are certain commodities in the present world which are intrinsically linked to the region from which they originate and tend to symbolically represent the region, its history, its culture. By tracing the history and the journey of certain commodities, one may get an insight into not only the region to which it belongs, but also into the socio-cultural and economic systems of the region(s) that it travels to, delineating certain characteristics of the societal structures where it is consumed. Critical engagement with the history and journey of a commodity can bring interesting and germane insights about the past, which oftentimes gets obscured in the present’s notion about the past, obscured in the idea of the past as one knows it in the present. One such commodity, the history of which unravels the societal structures of its production and consumption centres, is the Pashmina, or the Cashmere Shawl. The Pashmina is made of fine wool obtained from the hair fibre from the undercoat of the Changthangi goat.[1]

The history of Pashmina, which today is globally consumed as an item of luxury, as an item symbolic of Kashmir and Kashmiri culture, is inextricably linked with commodity fetishism,[2] in one of its early forms, entangled with the larger processes of colonialism and European consumption of and market for ‘Indian’ goods. The story of the Pashmina is that of a fascinating one, which not only underscores the economic linkages between Kashmir and the rest of the world, contrary to the present idea of Kashmir’s historical and sedentary link with India, but also highlights the influence the Pashmina had on the society associated with its demand and consumption. “A variety of Victorian narratives on Kashmiri shawls, including travelogues, novels, journal articles, poems, pamphlets, and so on, literally brought the empire home by attempting to place that remotest of regions – Kashmir – within the geography of the British empire” (Zutshi 420).[3] This essay aims to trace the history and journey of this commodity, the Cashmere Shawl, the commodity fetishism which developed for the Pashmina in Europe, especially in England during the early years of colonialism. It also aims to probe into the question of Indian fetishism with the Pashmina, and whether and/or what symbolism is associated with it in the Kashmiri society.

The Pashmina is born: Her glory at home and her early movements

The Pashmina had an enormous share of popularity across the globe, at a time when global fashion trends did not homogenise the attire of the masses as witnessed in the present globalised world marked with a blind following of trends. Its reach ranged from Kashmir to Delhi, from Europe to the USA, from Egypt to Tibet. As Maskiell (2002)[4] notes its magnificent demand and reach and writes about “their widespread popularity in Europe and the United States… Luxurious Kashmiri shawl fabric was  wound as men’s turbans in Egypt, stitched into wealthy Iranian women’s jackets, prized for men’s coats in Turkestan, worn as sashes in Tibet, and gifted to both “dancing girls” and male nobles from Delhi to Istanbul.”

The above observation provides a glimpse into the large market that the Pashmina had captured in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, the germane question is regarding the genesis and the origin story of the Pashmina. How was the Pashmina born? How was it introduced in the economic system of Kashmir which dominated and continues to dominate the global market as a commodity of luxury and symbolism?

The birth of the Pashmina or the Kashmiri shawl is a domain of contesting origin stories. Though there are misconceptions and inaccuracies regarding the origin of the Kashmiri shawl as written in the accounts of Austrian diplomat and explorer, Baron Charles von Hügel, who wrote about the origins of the Kashmiri shawl during his travels in the nineteenth century or in the accounts of John Irwin, author of The Kashmir Shawl and curator of the Indian collections at the Victoria Creative Commons and Albert Museum from the 1940s to the 1970s, its origins can be traced back to the fifteenth century when Kashmir was under the reign of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-70) (McKenna 2018)[5]. The central Asian cultural influence is thus witnessed in the Kashmiri shawl.

Kashmir’s advantageous geographical location which facilitated trade networks and the extensive economic links reflect on its socio-cultural systems. In this regard, McKenna (2018)[6] notes, “Kashmir had long been a region on the border of civilisations: Persia and the Islamic world to the west; Tibet and the Himalayas to the north and east, and India to the south. Towards the close of the 1700s and into the 1800s, Europe would join this list…From these influences, Kashmir absorbed a variety of religious, cultural, and economic practices whilst always retaining a distinct character.”

The journey of the Pashmina underscores the various cultural influences the different reigns had on it, its production being undertaken variously and the constantly changing connotations attached to it under various regimes. It was under the Mughals, especially under the reign of Akbar from 1568, when large-scale production of the Pashmina was undertaken (Chandra 1989)[7]. “The nobles lived in urban centres and so the chief centres of production and marketing developed in the cities. It is, therefore, no wonder that the famous industrial centres of shawl manufacture flourished in the city of Srinagar” (Ashfaque 285)[8]. As Maskiell (2002)[9] notes, “The Emperors of the Safavid, Zand, and Qajar empires in Iran (c. 1500-1924) and the Mughal court of North India and its regional satellites (1526-1848) used Kashmiri shawls and shawl cloth within their “established and evolving social relations of consumption.” For example, they bestowed shawls as khi’lat (“robes of honor”) within their political and religious practices.”

The production of the Pashmina or the Kashmiri shawl was developed further under the Afghans (1743-1846). “Afghan rulers of Kashmir through king Nadir Shah, sent them to Constantinople. Later on during the governorship of Abdullaha a shawl was presented to Syed Yaheya of Baghdad who was on a visit to Kashmir” (Naik 498).[10] During the reign of the Sikhs (1819) in the nineteenth century, shawl industries received unhindered state patronage. “Owing to such patronage the shawl became part of fashionable wear throughout the Punjab, and was noted to be especially popular among the dancing girls of Lahore. Trade in shawls was established with west Asia and Europe” (Naik 498).[11] However, it faced a gradual decline owing to the heavy taxation imposed on its production and export under the Sikh regime. When the Dogra rule was established in 1846, the industry was in ruins (Ahmed 2005-06). In 1860, under the reign of Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the revival of the shawl industry was undertaken and for nineteenth century Europe, the Pashmina was every girl’s pride at her wedding (Koul 1972).[12]

Contrary to the Western narrative that the production and consumption of the Pashmina was abetted by its European demand, long before the European obsession with the oriental, exotic, Cashmere shawl, the Pashmina was being widely traded across the silk route, by “merchants and peddlers in caravans carrying finished shawls overland, some going north to Central Asia and east to China, while others ventured west to Russia and the Ottoman Empire” (Maskiell 32).[13] Though Western historiography emphasises on the large volumes of trade between Kashmir and the rest of the world as a result of the existence of European trade routes and sea links, the intra-Asian and African trades in the sixteenth century, prior to the genesis of European trade and eventually the project of colonialism, exceeded in volumes in comparison to its trade with Europe (Tchitcherov 1998).[14]

The Pashmina goes to Europe: From a new name to her influence on their society

The Pashmina reached Europe, particularly England, in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, it became a staple symbol of aristocracy. By the late eighteenth century, there were imitations of the Cashmere shawl in U.K, particularly in Edinburgh (Muir 1962; Whyte 1976).[15] Zutshi (2009) in this regard observes, “Kashmiri shawls made their way to Britain and Europe through a variety of means, primarily as gifts for female relatives brought or sent to Britain by the officials and servants of the East India Company in the late eighteenth century.”

The Cashmere which entered the white woman’s wardrobe as a fashion accessory, soon came to symbolically represent the larger social system of nineteenth century Europe, specifically that of England, especially the gender and class roles and its aspirations and the yet larger project of colonialism. While the symbolic representation of class divisions in mid-Victorian England through the Pashmina, now Cashmere, was observed in its early possessions by the aristocracy, the oriental fetishism of the West and its colonial ideology of the East being sedentary was observed through the idea that “[t]he often-repeated truism available to Victorians was that Kashmir shawls were “immutable,” “designed for eternity in the unchanging East; copied from patterns which are the heirloom of a caste, and woven by fatalists, to be worn by adorers of the ancient garment, who resent the idea of the smallest change” (Daly 246).[16]

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, the Cashmere could be seen influencing Victorian society by creating certain aspirations in the English societal structures, enmeshed with the larger colonial psychology. The Cashmere came to be associated with the image of a respectable English woman, commonly found in the wardrobe of those women whose sons, brothers or spouses were inducted into the colonial project, who brought the Cashmere to England on their return for the female members in the family (Daly 2002). This was symbolic of distinct social structures and processes, enmeshed with the ideology of colonialism. First, it created an aspiration for belonging to a certain class which had access to this exotic good, which indirectly fuelled aspirations of men to be inducted in the colonial service. The second was the gender images, the image of a ‘respectable Englishwoman’ associated with the possession of the Cashmere. It perpetuated the idea of femininity, gender conformity and women’s respect associated with her opacity and her closeted life (the shawl serving the purpose of covering), furthering an aspirational feminity of such nature. Furthermore, it was associated the Englishwoman’s respect in her ability to possess the mystic, inferior East. It also represented the aspirational masculinity among Englishmen that it created, that had arisen precisely from the idea of possession. The possession of oriental mysticism, the symbolic possession of a piece of the East; the psychology of imperialism.[17] In Prem Misir’s The Subaltern Woman (2018),[18] Indrani Sen, in her essay, observes the varied constructions of the colonised subjects (the Indians) by the colonisers. It is interesting to observe how the colonisers constructed the image of the colonised Indian women through their pathologised, fantasied, oriental notions. On the one hand, they were viewed as the translucent, easily obtainable, saree-clad colonial Bibi. On the other hand, they were viewed as the opaque, behind a Purdah, hard to penetrate into and possess, objects of fantasy. The possession of and fetishism with the Cashmere, and bringing it to England with them, as one may argue, also represented their fantasy of possessing not just the colonised land but the colonised subjects as well (the colonial Indian women). Therefore, the fetish that had developed for Cashmere in Victorian England, symbolically represented the social dimensions of the English society, along with its psyche of imperialism, which had penetrated into the society’s subconscious. When the Cashmere became widely available in the English markets, the gendered connotations associated with it also diversified. From the works of Suzanne Daly[19]  and Jennifer Ann van Schoor,[20] the reflections of the Cashmere in Victorian literature and art can be observed. Van Schoor (2019), in this regard, notes, “the Cashmere shawl would appear in a large number of British portraits and narrative paintings, representing a wide range of British women, from royalty and noblewomen to bourgeois wives and daughters, society hostesses, farmers’ wives and even fallen women.”

Although one may argue the very change in name, from Pashmina to Cashmere, could be identified with the idea of the colonial project of civilising the East, it can be observed that the increased demand for the Cashmere and the intense fetish associated with it contradicted the imperialist idea of imposing the Western culture on the East. In this context, Daly (2002)[21] quotes John Keay from The Honourable Company, “Eastern fashions, Indian cottons were about to invade English domestic life. Napkins and table-cloths, bed sheets and soft furnishings, not to mention underwear…A new vocabulary of chintzes and calicoes, taffetas, muslins, ginghams and cashmeres entered everyday use. Having first invaded the larder, Eastern produce was about to take over the linen cupboard.”

Therefore, it can be argued that the commodity fetishism associated with the Cashmere was a part of the larger fetish associated with orientalism, with the imperialist ideology and the project of colonialism.[22] It would be interesting to note the symbolisms the colonisers attached to the Pashmina in colonial Kashmir and India.

The Pashmina’s journey continues: Epilogue

The Pashmina’s voyage into the daily mundanities of her colonisers has not only unraveled socio-cultural and economic systems prevalent in that society, it has also underscored the colonial psychology and the symbolism associated with the possession of a commodity produced by the colonised. The Pashmina’s journey does not end here. Since 1947, her coloniser has changed and the Indian colonial oppression is getting clearer with every passing day. A similar study, tracing the journey of the Pashmina into the Indian households and the Indian fetishism associated with it, might open up interesting avenues for gauging the colonial psychology of India with regard to Kashmir, the fetish and obsession with Kashmir as observed through the apparatus of the Indian (Hindi) cinema.[23] Furthermore, where there is oppression, resistance also develops as a countervailing force. It would be interesting to note whether and/or what symbolisms are attached to the Pashmina in the Kashmiri society, especially whether it is or can be regarded as a symbol of resistance. 

[1] A native of the high plateau of Ladakh

[2] In Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, commodity fetishism is the perception of certain relationships (especially production and exchange) not as relationships among people, but as social relationships among things (the money and commodities exchanged in market trade). As a form of reification, commodity fetishism perceives economic value as something that arises from and resides within the commodity goods themselves, and not from the series of interpersonal relations that produce the commodity and evolve its value.

[3] Zutshi, Chitralekha. “”Designed for Eternity”: Kashmiri Shawls, Empire, and Cultures of Production and Consumption in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Journal of British Studies 48, no. 2 (2009): 420-40, p.420

[4] Maskiell, Michelle. “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History 13, no. 1 (2002): 27-65.

[5] McKenna, Christopher. “From India to Europe: The Production of the Kashmir Shawl and the Spread of the Paisley Motif.” (2018).

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Chandra 1989 in McKenna, Christopher. “From India to Europe: The Production of the Kashmir Shawl and the Spread of the Paisley Motif.” (2018).

[8] Ashfaque, Farzana. “SHAWL AND CARPET INDUSTRY IN KASHMIR UNDER THE MUGHALS.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 70 (2009): 285-96.

[9] Maskiell, Michelle. “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History 13, no. 1 (2002): 27-65.

[10] Naik, Showkat Ahmad. “SHAWL MANUFACTURE IN KASHMIR DURING EARLY DOGRA PERIOD (1846-1885).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 71 (2010): 497-507.

[11] Ibid.,

[12]  Koul,G.L. Kashmir Now and Then. Kashmir, 1972.

[13] Ibid.,p 32

[14] Tchitcherov, Alexander I. India: Changing Economic Structure in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: Outline History of Crafts and Trade. Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1998.

[15] Meta Muir, “The Edinburgh Shawl,” in A Century of Scottish Shawl Making, Edinburgh 1777-1847, Paisley 1805-1877 (Edinburgh, 1962), 5. In Zutshi, Chitralekha. “”Designed for Eternity”: Kashmiri Shawls, Empire, and Cultures of Production and Consumption in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Journal of British Studies 48, no. 2 (2009): 420-40. Whyte, Dorothy. “Edinburgh Shawls and their makers.” Costume 10, no. 1 (1976): 16-28.

[16] Daly, Suzanne. “Kashmir Shawls in Mid-Victorian Novels.” Victorian Literature and Culture 30, no. 1 (2002): 237-55.

[17] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

[18] Sen, Indrani. 2018. “Devoted Wife/Sensuous Bibi: Colonial Constructions of the Indian Woman, 1860–1900.” In The Subaltern Woman, by Prem Misir, 47-72. Palgrave Macmillan.

[19] Ibid.,

[20] Van Schoor, Jennifer Ann. “The Indian cashmere shawl and social status in British art, 1760-1870.” PhD diss., Birkbeck, University of London, 2019.

[21] Ibid.,p 237

[22] With associating colonialism to the notion of ‘respectability’.

[23]  Kabir, Ananya Jaharana. Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir. Minneapolis, 2009, 93.

References

Ahmad, Parvez. “Shawl Industry and the Institution of Daghshawl in Kashmir (1846-1947).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 66 (2005): 809-17.

Bio:
Aindrila Chakraborty is currently pursuing her Masters in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is interested in fiction as well as academic writing, with love for visual content analysis and the impact of commercial content on knowledge production and the masses. Her research interests range from critical engagement with history to global Islam to migration, diaspora and gender negotiations. She is currently researching the plight of South Asian women in diaspora.

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