Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Kaghan Shari

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The shari came in all colours as long as they were black or a few shades of brown. When the arctic wind of winter drove down sleet and snow from the high slopes of Kaghan Valley, this three metres long and a metre wide shawl would completely wrap a grown man in its lamb’s wool warmth. Weighing no lighter than three kilograms, it contained enough wool to keep a body warm on any freezing day.

The counterfeit shari that is now passed off as the real thing. No buyer is aware that the original woven from raw lamb’s wool came in black and a few shades of brown
And it was always a man that the shari kept warm: traditionally and strictly it was part of the man’s attire. Understandably it radiated no bright colours; its signature being black and varying shades of tan. The only embellishment the shari bore was the arrangement of tassels along the two narrower borders.

Mushtaq Khan’s workshop in Jared village, Kaghan Valley
Mushtaq Khan of Jared in Kaghan claims to be the last expert weaver of the traditional shari. By his account, the old loom was designed to produce a width of thirty centimetres only. Consequently a finished shari was three stitched pieces to acquire the prescribed width. Austere as the shawl was to suit a man’s taste, it was simply not acceptable for different colours to be stitched together to allow any variation in its uniformity.

Processed bleached wool, material for the most preferred white shawls
The wool, says Khan, came from lambs not older than four months. Any older and it turned hard and prickly and useless for the shawl. He asserts that while the product was prized for its warmth for one, it was valued also for its fleecy softness lent it by the virgin wool.

Shuttles at rest as the weaver pauses
He recounts how he would walk from summer pasture to summer pasture three months after lambing in May when the herds were in the uplands. There he carefully selected his lambs: the whitest of white or the darkest of black. The trek between pastures, selection of lambs and shearing would last over a fortnight to produce enough material to keep his loom turning for the summer.

Detail of a coloured shawl
Back in the valley, the fleece had to be carded by hand. Delicate as it was, the strands, each about eight to nine centimetres long, were prone to damage if worked by machine or even hand-held brush. Thereafter they were carefully spun into thread on the traditional wheel.

By Mushtaq Khan’s account, time was when entire families were engaged in shari production. He remembers seeing withered old matrons spending their livelong days carding fleece and elderly men turning it into thread at the spinning wheel. Younger ones assisted the master weaver of the family setting the warp on the axles. Thereafter the master worked the loom entirely by himself.

The white shari, woven to length and stitched to the prescribed width, was then bathed in a wooden tub filled with a brew of thoroughly boiled red kidney beans. In this mash it was left for three days to be periodically pounded with hands and feet until the fleecy white took the brown of the beans. Walnut bark, similarly cooked, sometimes made for an alternate to the bean brew. Though the preferred shade was dark brown, variations were created by the strength of the colouring brew. On the other hand, pre-selected black wool made for black products. Between the time the carded fleece went on the spinning wheel to the time a finished and coloured shari was put on the shelf, a full month had elapsed.

Khan says a government-sponsored handicrafts centre was established in an elaborate building in Jared in 1952. Here local artisans congregated daily to practice their various crafts. Among these were several shari makers and their apprentices. In 1992, the forty year-old centre was shut down for reasons unknown to Khan. Some years later, he leased the premises to establish his own workshop in it. There he continued until the devastating earthquake of October 2005, brought the building down and put paid to a good thing. Since then he operates a loom in a small roadside hovel as well as one in his home high up the slopes above Jared village.

The master’s materials. Since only processed yarns are now used, the spinning wheel seen to the left is now redundant
Under government auspices, the centre trained men in the various traditional crafts of Kaghan Valley. By Khan’s estimate, there are even today no fewer than five hundred men trained in shari making. However, in view of the dwindling market, not one of them has followed the profession of weaving. Most of them have moved away to the plains to work as menial help; others have flown abroad to earn petro-dollars in the Middle East. He alone, he claims, is the shari maker for the entire Kaghan Valley.

The reason is simple: the compensation is just not commensurate with the long hours of tedium at the loom. Khan says it is no longer possible for him to go to the pastures to collect virgin wool to produce a shari that should, if it has to be worthwhile, fetch upward of Rs 15,000 – a price no buyer wants to pay nowadays. Instead, he works with manufactured woollen threads whose price varies between Rs 65,000 to Rs 145,000 per forty-five kilograms.

Mushtaq Khan, last shari weaver standing in Kaghan Valley
As the last remaining craftsman of the traditional shari, Mushtaq Khan is occasionally approached by a buyer with a demand for the real item. But it is next to impossible for him to procure the right material for just one piece. When he tells prospective customers that an order of at least three pieces and about two months’ time to craft them will make the exercise profitable for him, they balk.

On the other hand, says Khan, a common shawl with coloured patterns made with manufactured wool can come off a handloom in just under a week. Consequently, tourists passing through Jared who have heard of the traditional shari but have no clue regarding its reality happily lap up the counterfeit item at prices ranging from Rs 2000 a piece to three times as much.

The loom that produces the non-genuine shari. For the authentic article, the traditional loom was just 30 centimetres (1 foot) wide. In order to finish the one metre-wide shari, three widths had to be stitched together
As the last shari maker in Kaghan – and one who finds few takers for the traditional product – Mushtaq Khan feels that the craft will die with him. Still many years shy of his fortieth birthday he may have many winters still to sell his shawls. But without institutional support and an outlet, the shari will be slower coming off his loom again. One day it will cease altogether.

Mushtaq Khan can be contacted at: 0344-956-3804 and 0323-902-1364

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

10 Comments:

At January 3, 2016 at 4:03 PM, Blogger AHMED BAJWA said...

In the autumn of 1976 I trekked from Balakot to Batakundi on foot along the opposite side of kunhar. In those days the vocational centre of sarhad govt in Juraid was functioning in full swing, training and manufacturing Shari as well as wooden crafts. In those golden days Kaghan valley was very unspoiled place. The youth hostels in Naran and Batakundi were fully functional. It was so safe that I was camping across the river for about 2 weeks solitarily at different places and was always welcome by the locals.The Devastating change got ignited especially from The Dracula Zia'regime

 
At January 4, 2016 at 9:27 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

That's true. Haram ud Dahar Zia has undone the beauty of Pakistan.

 
At January 4, 2016 at 11:02 AM, Blogger Muhammad Athar said...

A way back in 1981 I bought one Shari and pair socks from Haramosh village located on road Skardu. Still i am keeping them as souvenir

 
At January 4, 2016 at 11:02 AM, Blogger Muhammad Athar said...

A way back in 1981 I bought one Shari and pair socks from Haramosh village located on road Skardu. Still i am keeping them as souvenir

 
At January 5, 2016 at 6:40 AM, Blogger Ali Gohar said...

Mentioning his contact number was very thoughtful of you; it might get him a few orders. Has Chitrali woollen patti from Chitral region the same quality and texture.

 
At January 5, 2016 at 10:51 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ali Gohar, the quality of the wool is a little different. Though I am certain the original that is hard to come by now would have been quite like the Chitrali or Hunza patti.

 
At January 30, 2016 at 12:33 PM, Blogger Memoona Ali said...

Is Loi another name for Shari? My father in law had one and it was so warm that nothing else was needed when he had it on. It was a gift from somewhere in Swat.

 
At January 31, 2016 at 5:17 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Loi is a sort of a generic name. The shari is not called loi in Kaghan. But elsewhere woollen shawls are lois.

 
At February 1, 2016 at 12:31 PM, Blogger Memoona Ali said...

Thank you sir.

 
At February 1, 2016 at 2:38 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You are very welcome, Memoona! Be blessed.

 

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