In Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir, the shawl – or shahtus as it is known locally – represents the epitome of Kashmiri embroidery.
However, owning a shahtus can by quite a trying experience due to new Indian government legislation.
The garment has been declared an illegal possession unless details like the method of its procurement and date are kept.
Further, to comply with an environment ministry notice earlier this year, the owner has to supply the name and address of the person or institution from where the item was acquired.
Details like shape, size and condition must also be included.
All this is to be accompanied by colour photographs of a specified size. Officials are expected to verify the facts and conduct inquiries.
Potential owners will have to agree not to erase, alter or damage identification marks, which are put on each item, and agree not to transfer an item through any mode other than inheritance.
All this has been necessitated to offer the highest degree of protection to what is believed to be the highly endangered Pantholops Hodgsoni or Tibetan antelope, also called chiru.
It is alleged that the animal is killed for the wool of its soft undercoat used for ‘shahtus’ shawl.
Chiru was given legal protection more than two decades ago. “But,” says animal rights activist Anirudh, “many people did not realize, or care, till much later that their shawls could be considered illegal possessions.”
Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistress
He adds that global trade in ‘shahtus’, woven only in Kashmir, has continued, but the blanket ban on the shawl has left about half a million artisans and others thriving on the trade in the lurch.
They ridicule the charge that three chiru are killed in the Himalayas for a single shawl to be made.
They insist that the “rumour” is actually a part of conspiracy to wreck the exquisite and thriving Kashmiri trade in India as well as in Europe and America.
Hashmat Allah Khan, spokesman for Kashmir Handicrafts Traders’ Welfare Association, points an accusing finger at China where Indian tiger bones and flesh have been used to prepare medicines.
According to Khan, the Chinese, in order to divert attention from the random killing of endangered spices over the years, apparently misled the WWF and other wildlife organizations that shahtus trade is responsible for the killing of antelope in Tibet.
“Unfortunately, certain quarters in India, willingly or unwillingly, fell into the Chinese trap.”
Another possibility, he says, could have been business rivalry within India or outside it as China and some other nations were trying hard to sell their own similar products in the international market.
“This was a conspiracy to destroy our trade by wrongly linking it with terrorism or wildlife,” Khan protests.
Notwithstanding the ban, Kashmiri artisans still maintain that the fine wool for shahtus is collected by shearing or from bushes with which the goats come into contact in Ladakh.
“This was a conspiracy to destroy our trade by wrongly linking it with terrorism or wildlife”
Hashmat Allah Khan,
Traders insist that only wool collected from live goats gives the fine texture of the shawls whereas the wool from dead animals has been found to be unsuitable for the purpose.
“Who would kill the goose that lays golden eggs,” Khan asks and then answers the question himself. “We who depend on this trade cannot be that foolish.”
But not everyone believes artisans are telling the absolute truth.
Environmentalist, Dr Iqbal Malik, does not agree with the three Chiru to one shawl ratio, believing that as many as seven to ten antelopes are killed.
He adds that traditionally wool gatherers would collect the fur that the chiru leave behind on bushes and shrubs when they shed their winter coats at the advent of summer.
However, times are changing and there is no doubt that animals are being shot for their skins.
The days when garments were made from the wool collected when the animals scratch their necks and limbs on the branches are long gone.
There are three fibres from which Kashmiri shawls are made – wool, pashmina and shahtus.
The prices range widely. Woollen shawls are within the reach of a modest budget, but shahtus are a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition.
“The entire shahtus market is illegal and purchases are made without receipts”
The legendary Shahtus ‘ring shawl’ (it is so soft and fine that it can be passed through a finger-ring quite easily) is incredible for its lightness, softness and warmth.
Yarn is spun either from shahtus alone, or with pashmina (derived from the ibex found at 4000m above sea level), bringing down the cost somewhat.
In the case of pure shahtus too, there are many qualities – the yarn can be spun so skillfully it resembles a strand of silk.
A few years ago, the then chief minister of Indian-administered-Kashmir, Dr Faruq Abd Allah, vowed, “As long as I am the chief minister, shahtus will be made and sold in Kashmir.”
But he soon gave in and the trade was declared illegal in Kashmir, as well.
A large number of shahtus shawls still tumble out of cupboards not only in the Valley but also in neighbouring Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Mumbai and Kolkatta.
A true classic
Meanwhile, the Say No to Shahtus campaign in India got a designer makeover when Maneka Gandhi, chairperson of People For Animals, brought together six of India’s finest designers to weave their magic on pashmina shawls.
“Pashminas are a more effective substitute for the shahtus which are derived by brutally slaughtering chiru, which is almost extinct today, said the former Indian minister at the launch of new products recently.
Designers Rohit Bal, Monapali, Hemant Trivedi, Neeta Lulla, Manoviraj Khosla and Reetika Mehra Dalal helped Gandhi in her latest venture.
Mumbai-based Neeta Lulla, who has added a contemporary touch to these shawls, remarks: “A pashmina is a true classic and I have endeavoured to ensure that each shawl is different from the other.”
Rohit Bal who has been actively involved with the PFA for the last three years adds, “We share our planet with animals and we must show compassion towards them. So if people want an expensive shawl they should opt for a pashmina as it’s as soft and warm as a shahtus.”
Gandhi who created headlines when, as a minister in the Indian government, she confiscated a large number of shahtus shawls in the possession of the American ambassador’s wife in 2001, has since then been a strong crusader for the cause.
She criticizes the government for “creating more confusion” by passing a meaningless notification.
“This requires people who own shahtus to procure an application form and declare their ownership, besides specifying from where they obtained it. How can one do this when the entire shahtus market is illegal and purchases are made without receipts?”
Kashmir’s handicrafts are a major contributor to India’s foreign exchange earnings, bringing in tens of millions of dollars annually.