Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Stewards of the Ring

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The art of crafting rings from the horns of wild goat became popular because it was soon seen that such a ring worn on leprosy-stricken fingers cured the dreaded disease. There may be no scientific confirmation of this but many believe in the therapeutic quality of these unique rings. Others wear them for their striking and vibrant colours.

Islamuddin of Chitral town claims his father was the creator of the first-ever such ring. Except the claim is contestable on the grounds that the art of fashioning rings from horns is known to have been practiced in Chitral from a time much before that time. What is true, though, is that these delightfully colourful rings are made only in Chitral. Nowhere else across the district or swathe of Gilgit-Baltistan are they to be found.

By Islamuddin’s account, his father stumbled upon the craft while experimenting with different mediums such as wood and stone. Once he perfected the handling of horn, he passed on the skill to two of his sons. With their father dead, Islamuddin and an older brother continue to be its only practitioners to this day.

The best raw material comes from the horns of the markhor (Capra falconeri cashmiriensis) with that of the Himalayan ibex (Capra ibex sibirica) being a close second. In bygone days when hunting was permitted, local hunters provided a ready supply of raw material for the ring makers of Chitral. With fewer and fewer markhors and ibex and resulting restrictions on hunting, horns of all kinds of wild ungulates are hard to come by. Procurement is rather a struggle now with supply trickling in from all over the northern mountains from as far away as the remote corners of Baltistan and Shimshal.

Sawed into easy-to-handle pieces measuring 40x40x20 millimetres, the horns are soaked in water for a full year, says Islamuddin. Though the duration may be an exaggeration, the soaking softens the hard keratin making it easier to work. The water-steeped nodule is then drilled through with a hole as big as the girth of a finger. Held fast on a wooden rod tapering to thickness in the middle in order to take rings of varying size, the nodule is sawed around the edges to a rough octagonal shape.

Changing to a paring knife, the octagon is shaved into a circle and later rendered to perfect circular smoothness with a fine rasp and sandpaper until it becomes a rather wide ring. Sliced with a very fine blade, there emerge two rings from this single piece. A series of holes is now drilled around the circumference of each ring.

Pieces of coloured lac, heated on fire, are drawn out into fine strands and threaded through the holes. The ends of the strands, heated again, are tamped into little lumps. With a precision knife, tiny flower-shaped incisions are cut on the cooled and hardened lac. These incisions are filled with lac of varying colours. With precisely measured strokes of the fine rasp, the artisan grinds off excess lac to leave behind tiny multicoloured floral designs.

Once again on the tapered wooden rod, the ring is polished to smoothness with fine sandpaper. Finally, a brisk rubbing with rapeseed oil gives it a nice sheen.

At 38 years of age, Islamuddin has no apprentice. Childless despite two marriages, he says he has no one for the art to be passed on to. His brother, on the other hand, has trained two youngsters. But this is an art that needs utmost precision and few young men care to create the refinement that Islamuddin and his brother strive for. Ring making, says Islamuddin, is too tedious for youngsters of the high-speed modern world.

That said, there are takers for his great variety of designs among men, women and children. Even as he works in his cubby hole of a workshop, men wander in and sales are transacted. Ranging in price from Rs. 1,000 to five times as much, his rings are a popular item of adornment among both genders and a must for bridal couples.

Besides the local market, the rings sell in stores in Gilgit and Peshawar. Islamuddin also claims to have a large market in Germany, Korea and Japan. When the district enjoyed reasonable tourist influx, summers were a busy time. Nowadays, only the occasional mountaineer comes in to make bulk purchases. But despite a virtual blackout of tourists in the country these days his wares continue to trickle out of the country.

Islamuddin believes he still has many years to go before he retires. But after him? He shrugs. His brother may leave behind a trained apprentice or two. But the way things are it is unlikely others will follow suit.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:02,


At 21 December 2020 at 05:04, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank You for Your exciting article.I still have 2 rings from
1974 when I visited Chitral as a hippie and 2 rings from 2000.
I knew that they were made from goats horn but not more.
Chud Hafiz


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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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