Earth Day Tribute: To Artisans and Nomads of Kashmir and Ladakh

Earth Day Tribute: To Artisans and Nomads of Kashmir and Ladakh

Why fashion and design businesses must get a green card to Kashmir, plus pandemic lessons from the nomads of Ladakh 

Last week, I called designer Zubair Kirmani for a Kashmir conversation. Barely a year back, Kirmani had relocated from Delhi back to Srinagar, his homeland and has since been ‘trying to work from there’ as a designer with a contemporary fashion take on local skills and materials. “Trying to work” is a deliberate phrase here. It is tough as a walnut when applied to Kashmir, its kernel wrinkled from conflict, militancy and loss.

With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (today, April 22) on the horizon, I was curious about Kirmani’s idea of Kashmir in the pandemic, what went on with yarn availability, dyeing, embroidery, crafts and weaving. Also the artisan community.

Earth and sky, man and mountain, wool and warmth, snow and sunshine, skill and human will collaborate in a unique way in Kashmir. Breath-taking natural beauty eclipsed by heart-breaking political disturbances. Yet some of India’ finest luxury products—handwoven pashminas, intricately embroidered shawls, walnut wood carvings, namda weaving, woollen carpets—continue to be made here.

A mindful tribute to Kashmir and its neighbouring union territory Ladakh, also a silvern Himalayan region, with its naturally monastic quietude, called for a COVID-19 dispatch.

The home and workplace of nomadic communities and artisans who anyway practice the “slow life”—Ladakh for climatic reasons and Kashmir due to ongoing political conflict, have never been “industrialised”. Some of this is to the region’s immense loss. Some of it however is a lesson in artisanal survival at a time when the slow life could save the planet and humankind.



An embroidered Pashmina shawl from Kashmir Loom.

Kirmani kept unavoidably referring to the “lockdown after the lockdown” (on August 5 last year, the Indian government revoked the special status to J&K granted under Article 370 of the Constitution) and the subsequent losses to industry, business, motivation and material in Kashmir. He shifted between the resilient continuance of Kashmiri creations and the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the crafts thriving.

Curfew and lockdown are familiar words in Kashmir. As are rationing, saving, homegrown, home nurtured or thrown into testing times. Words that all of us, across the world, are currently learning to adapt to.

Ditto for lessons from Ladakh. Woodcarving, carpet weaving, Ladakhi weaves, namda making, silver filigree, woven and embroidered Buddhist Thangkas, clay objects, all made by a small population challenged by extreme weather. For nomads in Ladakh, weaving (on backstrap looms) and living life go on together. In the writings of Ladakhi textiles scholar and writer Monisha Ahmed (quoted below)—cloth represents ideas of family, networks, class, transformation and evolution.

Perhaps a more attentive understanding of the production and supply chains in the Himalayan region could add to solutions being sought around the world right now for creativity and continuation in the face of adversity.

While creative cycles, economies and crafts of these union territories should not be treated as synonymous, the chain of work in the region towards the creation of an artisanal product is organic. It moves from the Pashmina goat to the goatherds, to weavers or artisans who buy fibre from the nomadic herders, then to dyers, embroiders and traders or designers. Finally, to big or small brands who sell the region’s fine creations to domestic and international markets.

Unlike industrial supply chains, this is a close-knit model of production aided by some cooperatives and some government initiatives. . In the absence of fast, precisely calibrated machines, organised labour, design studios, systematic design direction, lasting leadership in arts and crafts or investments from corporate set ups, Kashmir is a cluster of cottage industries. Yet it creates luxury products.


Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

An artisian works on a woven Kani, or Jamewar shawl, at his workshop on the outskirts of Srinagar.

Ladakh on the other hand attracts global tourists to its wondrous white landscapes and colourful Ladakhi textiles, but also marks an increase in NGOs, women’s groups and projects that enhance local livelihoods.

Is it time then for the world’s top fashion and design houses to insist on a green card to these Himalayan regions for consistent collaboration aimed towards slow and mindful production?

Could a collaborative project like the one started in Kashmir last year by the The Woolmark Company, the Australia based organisation which connects woolgrowers, brands and consumers across the wool supply chain be revived? Could Italy’s storied luxury brand Zegna which works intimately with wool and natural fibres and is committed to environmental nurturance find a “slow fashion Kashmir connect” after the pandemic?

While Ladakh remains largely safe (barring a few cases) from COVID-19, J&K has 368 confirmed cases. Resilience and familiarity with distress notwithstanding, these regions will be affected because demand will be disrupted across the world.

TVOF spoke to design experts, crafts practitioners and scholars to understand the region’s uphill climb in the pandemic. The conversations have been edited and excerpted for clarity and length.


Photo: Behzad J. Larry/Jigmat.couture

A model wearing a handwoven cashmere nambu cape by Jigmat Couture.

Monisha Ahmed, textile anthropologist and co-founder of Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO)

“Most crafts in the Ladakh region have come to a halt. The Government did well early on by sealing border areas including the Changtang area, which has the majority of pashmina goat population. Today, there are only a handful of COVID-19 cases in Ladakh, making it a success story. The people of this region are resilient and ingenious, and back in time when infectious diseases hit the region; they countered it by practicing quarantine. I am sure the Changpa shepherds must be continuing with herding activities and will start shearing and combing activities by June.

The big question is if they will have a market this year for their fibre. With no market in the current scenario, the retailers might not place more orders, causing a chain reaction that will hit back to Ladakh. Changpas also supply fibre to the local market as Ladakhis weave products for tourists. However, as tourist season would remain dry this year, the possibility of local buying is slim. The Ladakhi nomads will be the most impacted crafts community unlike others in lower areas like Leh who practice agriculture and can sustain. The nomads though have always traded or bartered fibre for food. Pashmina wool, which is sheared in summers, cannot be stored by these nomads due to inadequate storage space and the complications involved. A wool and pashmina cooperative set up some years ago might pick up at discounted rate but it is too early to say as storing, cleaning and carding takes place only in June and July.”

Stanzin Palmo, founder of Ladakh-based brand Zilzom

“The COVID-19 impact on Ladakh and its textile ecology is completely different from the rest of India. Our working season lasts from six to ten months, and production usually stops in October or November. By end of March, creation begins. However, these timelines will now be challenged which will eventually disrupt and break the entire chain of production. The nomads who have the livestock at home and are involved in rearing and shearing will not be directly impacted, and the same goes for the weavers who have looms at home. They may already have some raw material to work with. But since transportation will be an issue, the chain may eventually break. Cooperatives will not be able to provide material to designers like me. Most importantly, even if the entire cycle comes together in good time, the heavily tourist dependent region is likely to see a sharp decline in demand. I may end up creation my collection, but who is going to buy it?  For us, it is like an entire year of lockdown.”


Photo: Shutterstock

A shepherd with his herd of Pashmina goats and sheep in Ladakh.

Asaf Ali, co-founder of Kashmir Loom

“The pandemic has created a lot of panic and uncertainty within all sectors of the crafts community from people in villages of Ladakh, the communities that raise the Pashmina goats to the weavers and us (brands and retailers like Kashmir Loom). The impact in Jammu and Kashmir though is different from that in Ladakh. The latter has had a few cases, but population is thin and people are scattered in mountains and valleys, across the high-altitude regions. Having said that we are at the end of winter. Ladakh opens in summer for tourism, agriculture and our crafts. Pashmina goats come down to the valley, then the process of combing to get raw materials begins until it reaches the valley where it is sold to the artisans. The valley though has already been in lockdown for six months. Now this is another kind of lockdown. Earlier in Jammu and Kashmir, even when the situation has not been good, craftspeople continued to make things. We could bring the products outside and sell be it in India or other parts of the world. Now that itself will be a challenge. Craftspeople have a tendency to create things when they are at home. For example, 200 families work with us. If we were expecting each family to make 10-15 pieces over a month, now they are making 20. They do not have social engagements, and they have to keep busy. But how will we sell these pieces. How do we fund this and support weavers during this period?”


Jigmat Norbu, Leh-based fashion designer of Jigmat Couture

“A big part of our business comes from tourists so those sales are bound to be impacted—but we are mentally prepared. On the crafts level, the timelines are still in place. May and June are the natural shedding months for goats, spinning of yarn is concentrated through the winter and weaving takes place on and off by families at home in a traditional decentralised system. Right now, the processes are scheduled to continue. For us, the stitching department—with a team of ten to dozen people—would be impacted on an operation level but we can recover production in the following months.”


Photo: Sajjad Hussain / AFP

An artisan polishes a box of a wood at a wood carving factory in Srinagar.

Shruti Jagota, Project Head, Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK)

“The people of Kashmir are better equipped to handle this lockdown emotionally and logistically than the rest of the country as they have been under similar conditions through a series of lockdowns, curfews imposed on them. Conflict had made craftsmen shift karkhanas to their homes. For example, yarn and fabric dyeing can take place in a private backyard and products collected within one or two hours when curfew lifts. If an embroiderer has the raw material, it would anyways take him a few months to create the finished product. That said, the people of Kashmir have been suffering continuously since August 5 (2019). The current national lockdown will hamper access to raw material and thus production. COVID-19 will lead to reduction in demand and Kashmir will be hit on both ends: supply and demand. Craft production in the current lockdown is at complete halt because of raw material supply. Larger buyers are not releasing payments, and hence, small traders are not able to transfer money to artisans, daily wage earners, thus affecting the entire value chain. Small traders from across India’s tourist hubs like Goa, Kerala who usually come to Kashmir to place orders are not interested in picking up their orders now as they are not sure of the tourist season ahead. Tourist traffic will be down in Kashmir, affecting domestic sales as well. We have to understand that artisans are like daily wage workers and get money per piece. Handicraft artisans who work with basket weaving, copper fabrication for decorative items, embroiderers will face great difficulty fending for themselves till the lockdown lifts.”


Banner: Kashmiri boatmen paddle a shikara across Dal Lake amid dense fog following rainfall in Srinagar. Image: Tauseef Mustafa / AFP