We’ve all been fascinated with Aladdin’s magic carpet at one point or another. In the 1992 Disney feature film called Aladdin, the magic carpet is described as Persian. In fact, known as Carpet in the film, it could even talk in addition to its ability to fly.
Now, just as Siam was to Thailand or Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Persia was to Iran. And while carpets from Persia have been a coveted luxury item through the ages, the skill was also shared with regions afar. Interestingly, Kashmir in Northern India was one such region. Over the centuries, Kashmiri carpets have also acquired global fame. But what is less commonly known is how Kashmir’s carpet industry came to be.
From Persia to India
The origins of Kashmiri carpets can be traced to the period of Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (1341-1385), a prominent Sufi saint from Persia. When he arrived in Kashmir, he brought with him the faith of Islam as well as extraordinarily skilled artisans. This laid the foundation for Kashmir’s carpet economy.
Kashmiri carpets became famous as long ago as the 15th century during Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin’s (1420-1470) reign. The sultan is also credited with training local carpet weavers by bringing in craftsmen from Persia and Central Asia to Kashmir. These carpets were hand-knotted, and they gradually acquired a high degree of perfection. Ever since, Kashmir’s carpet heritage has thrived, receiving support and patronage from both royalty and tourists to the valley. The carpet weaving skill has, meanwhile, been passed down the generations.
Showcased in Europe
Following Sultan Zain-Ul-Abidin’s reign, the industry suffered a serious setback. There was a fairly long period when this industry was almost but non-existent. However, carpet weaving was resurrected during the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s reign, in the 17th century.
Thereafter, in the mid-18th century, an exquisite Kashmiri carpet was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in London. It was highly regarded by Europeans, and it gave the Kashmiri carpet industry a much-needed boost.
Kashmir’s carpet weavers then began to customise carpets according to the demands of European buyers. But despite patronage from the west, the industry once again faced major setbacks during the global recession of 1902. Thereafter, while the industry continued to operate on shaky ground, it was dealt a further blow during India’s independence and the woes of partition that ensued.
The intricate process
I have had the privilege of witnessing how carpets are made at Pandith Kashmir Art Emporium in Gulmarg. The process begins with talim sheets that contain colour codes for the weavers who, in turn, learn these codes in talim school. The code script, unlike the English or Arabic scripts, is read from the centre rather than from the left (such as in English) or right (the Arab way). These colour codes are unique, and are used only once.
Kashmiri carpets–known locally as kalbaaf waan–are woven using a loom. This hand operated machine consists of two horizontal wooden beams, where the threads are stretched in between. This process is called knotting, and is performed in two layers – one for the front and another for the rear.
The yarn is cut using a curved knife, and the knots and weft are pushed tightly together using an iron comb. Weavers also call it the ‘magical comb’ since it determines if a carpet will be expensive or inexpensive. They explained that the number of knots per square inch, pattern and the material used determine the finished carpet’s price. Carpets that range from 200 to 900 knots per square inch, and are made of silk and wool yarn, are highly regarded for their quality and durability.
Meanwhile, the Kashmiri terms for designers, weavers, and dyers are nakaashkari, kalimba and raangar, respectively.
Kashmir has been compared to the heavens
Like all culturally rich places, the craft mix in Kashmir is as diverse as it is rich. In addition to carpets, handicrafts like embroidery, shawls, crewels, woodwork, and papier mache products are also popular.
Apart from the region’s expertise in the arts, Kashmir’s natural beauty is stunning. It has attracted visitors from across the world and has also served as inspiration for poets, authors and philosophers. The 13th century Indo-Persian Sufi singer Amir Khusro immortalised the place when he described it as “gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, hameen ast-o, hameen ast-o, hameen ast.” It meant, “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”