Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Clove Necklaces

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The swashbuckling Alexander Burnes, soldier, explorer and philandering spy for the British East India Company, sailed up the Indus from Thatta in 1836. In the vicinity of Dera Ismail Khan, he reported upon the adornment of local women. Among other items he noticed some of them wearing necklaces of cloves. Strangely, he did not make any further inquiries regarding this somewhat odd piece of bodily decoration.

At that time the clove necklace appears to have been a prized and everyday item of feminine adornment along the Indus from the vicinity of Rajanpur (south of Dera Ghazi Khan) all the way to Kalabagh and westward as far as Kohat and Bannu. In the course of time, Dera Ismail Khan may have lost this tradition, but it lives on from Rajanpur through Dera Ghazi Khan to the two cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. All along, the artisans of this peculiar craft are strictly women.

Though Baloch women living along the Indus in the districts of Rajanpur and Dera Ghazi Khan are the most avid practitioners of this art in Pakistan, it is not restricted to our country alone. We find examples of clove necklaces among the Palestinians and, closer to home, among the nomadic Kuchis of Afghanistan. However, there is little similarity of design among the three cultures.

The belief among the makers of clove necklaces of the Indus was that the spice wards off the evil eye and sometimes also illness. There being none other more in need of keeping away the evil eye than a new bride, this piece became a standard and essential part of bridal attire. It is said that in those far off days, the clove necklace was preferred above its gold counterpart. The reason, they say, was that while gold only glittered, the cloves in addition gave off a pleasing fragrance. And so, to this day, the clove necklace preserves the bride from envious eyes with its magical power and fragrance.

The original design as practiced by matrons in remote valleys of the Suleman Mountains west of the Indus consisted only of cloves strung together sans any other material. There could be four, five or seven strands making a single item with colourful tassels at the end to break the monotony of brown. But over the years, shiny beads have been added to the clove string and have become the preferred design.

The cloves are softened by dousing in water for several hours. With a strong needle and brightly coloured cotton thread they are strung transversely through the stem with an arrangement of four or six brightly coloured beads alternating between the cloves. Every maker has her own notion of the way each strand must look. While the simplest can be a straight single strand, the more elaborate ones alternate from single to double and back to single through the length of the whole strand.

Though it is rare nowadays to see the clove necklace worn in everyday life, for the bride it is still an absolute essential; it being the standard among rich and poor alike. While the rich are weighed down by gold jewellery in addition to the clove, the spirit of the less fortunate, so they say, is buoyed only by the luxurious fragrance of the spice.

From hearsay modern craftswomen know that the clove necklace was valued as highly as one crafted from gold. Among the less privileged, this was the main piece of bridal adornment and was considered as precious as its metal counterpart. Now, clove is a native of Indonesia which was naturalised to the subcontinent about two centuries ago. Long years ago when the clove was imported from those far off islands, it was an expensive spice that flavoured the food and drink of the very rich. To use it as part of bodily ornamentation was a statement of one’s own means. It was doubly so when the not so privileged could afford to do so.

But rather than make the gauche statement concerning one’s capacity to purchase an exotic and expensive spice to wear on the body, the myth of the clove’s supernatural powers was devised. And of course there was always the pleasant and everlasting fragrance to clothe its magical powers in.

Under the stark brown loom of the Suleman Mountains, northwest of Rajanpur, Zainab Bibi of village Miranpur is a maker of clove necklaces. Speaking from behind her hijab, she says she can complete a seven-strand piece in three days if she alternates this work with household chores. If she keeps at it, which is rare, she can do it in a day and half to sell it for Rs 400. She is aware that the store keeper in Fazilpur town makes a neat profit of about Rs 150 which is somewhat over her net profit from the three days of labour.

Though the work is hard and the monetary gleanings from it meagre, Zainab will not give off this – her only – professional skill. Weddings will never go out of vogue nor too the envious hurtful eye and brides will always wear the traditional clove piece, she says. The demand for her craft will thus never die and as she had learned the art from her mother, she has passed it on to her eldest daughter.

She admits that demand is not what it used to be in her mother’s time. In those days four decades ago, steady orders from stockists in Rajanpur and Dera Ghazi Khan kept the elder woman busy. But the passage of time alters cultural preferences and the rich are slowly moving away from the traditional. Now mostly rural folks indulge themselves in the custom to keep her working.

Zainab Bibi has one fear, however: if rural folks, following the example of the urban rich as sometimes happens, abandon the clove necklace, the art will die. Until then the fragrance of the clove will uplift the soul of the wedding party.

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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