The art of weaving: Shawls from Kinnaur

An Introduction

A pristine blue, cloudless sky wades its way through the irregularly sized snowcaps. A lark flies across it, so absolutely obstacle-less, at peace. A lush green meadow flooded with tiny purple wildflowers. There is the sound of a river gushing through, somewhere in the mountains. A woman with her child tied to her back, walks along a snaked up path, shadowed by huge alpine trees. Two boys skip rocks at the nearby lake. Men chatter over tea and tobacco and discuss the season’s crops and tourists. A typical late afternoon in the surreal state of Himachal Pradesh. One of the northernmost states of the Indian Subcontinent, Himachal Pradesh is a state so rich in geography, culture, history and craft that it finds visitors from not only the country, but from all over the world. “The Land of Celestial Beauty”, as it is often called, Himachal Pradesh is famous for its diversity- diversity of people, cultures, traditions, festivals, languages, terrain, climate, vegetation, wildlife and physiographic conditions.


The most beautiful places on earth are either uninhabited orare unadulterated by civilization. Kinnaur is definitely one of these places. The region falls on the Indo-Tibetan border and is one of the highest places of the country. Kinnaur is known to be the Land of the Gods not only because it houses Kinnaur Kailas, which according to Indian Mythology is home to Lord Shiva but also because of its heavenly beauty. The higher, more beautiful parts of the district have been inaccessible to civilization until the late 1990s and hence, the area is still cut off from the rest of the world, as compared to the other parts of Himachal. Even today, reaching Kinnaur is a challenge in itself with the unending landslides half the year and heavy snowfall the rest half, blocking roads and making travel almost impossible. During summers as well, Kinnaur experiences a very small number of tourists. The only ones it faces on a yearly basis are trek enthusiasts from all over the world.

­­­­Cults in Kinnaur

Hinduism houses the cult ‘Shaivism’, worship of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva’s abode is said to be the Kailash Mountain. One peak, visible from all of Kinnaur, is the Kinnar Kailash and this is supposed to be where Shiva lives. For years, Shivaratri has been celebrated with much dedication in Kinnaur. What the interesting bit about it’s folk history is, Hinduism evolved in Kinnaur a few hundred years ago from Buddhism. Kinnari language, their style of clothing, their homes and lifestyle has an aura of Buddhism to it and this has, over the years, shone in their weaves,through their motifs. There is a blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture that is largely visible. The Temples in Kinnaur have architecture similar to those of monasteries and the royal palace of Kinnaur too has a very Tibetan feel to it. Today, most of the population is Hindu, owing to an urge to be related to the main religion of the country they belong to, during the years of Independence. Kinnaris are not villagers, they consider themselves to be a tribe and find a mutual sense of belonging there. For years, they have maintained a certain lifestyle and they are content in it. They believe they have their own identity and that is, what they want to preserve, for as long as they can.

Raw Materials

Owing to globalization, today’s markets are flooded with machine-spun and synthetic wool which are easily affordable and cut down majorly on production costs. These come in handy to meet demands in the growing markets all over the world. Kinnari weaving, fortunately, has not been commercialized, owing to the lack of trust that locals here have in the modern world and inaccessibility to the area. Kinnaris live in fifteen feet of snow for eight months a year. Every family has their own flock of sheep, which they rear as part of their family. It is these sheep that they still derive their wool from. Majorly, the mountain sheep gives them coarse merino wool whereas the handful of pashminas that some families own, is not enough to suffice for weaving even a single shawl in a whole year. To weave a pashmina wool shawl, they wait for two-three years to accumulate the wool and prepare it for weaving. They need just enough wool to weave shawls and coats for their own family members. They do not sell what they weave because of their fear of losing corrupting their legacy of the craft and also because they believe they do not have a need to sell their shawls. Thebasic twill weave shawls are for everyday use, whereas the ones bearing design are worn on special occasions such as weddings and festivals. They do not dye the wool for weaving daily use shawls. But to dye the wool, they follow a very estranged process. To give the naturallydull colours a bright tint, they use a juice from the bile of sheep, which they cook in homemade butter for over three months and add it to the natural dyes. The reaction causes the colours to brighten. Bright colours are considered auspicious in their land, which is white for most part of the year and a stale brown for the rest. 
For their loom, they use wood from the fir trees downhill and each loom lasts them for over sixty years and hence is passed on from one generation to the next. They spin yarn to make heedles using cotton, which they get from the local markets and merino wool. For the shuttle, they use a kind of fruit, which looks like a baton and is hollow from inside. They cut it in half and fill the weft yarns inside which when thrown from one end of the loom to the other acts a shuttle. All the raw material they use is derived naturally for solely home purposes.

The Weave, the looms

The first looms made by mankind were Pit looms. The earliest traces of the pit loom date back to the Egyptian Civilization, over 5,000 years ago. With the silk-route forte, handlooms were designed and then only in the late eighteenth century, during the Industrialization Period, did power-looms arrive. Handlooms are time seeking looms but they are pretty fast when compared to the pit-loom. In Kinnaur, they refer to a pit-loom as a ‘Rachh’ and use nothing but that. They believe handlooms are an easy way out of things and are nothing less than power-looms. Hence, with that thought, they still work on pit-looms where every single step is done by hand. The pit-loom has one end of the warp beam tied on top to a diagonal spot on the wall or the roof of the room it is used in while the yarns at the other end were pulled down and tied in-front of the weaver. The wood used in the making of the loom is that of fir and deodar and is made by the local wood artisan. The weaver himself ties the heedles of the loom, one at a time using yarn. The reed is made by slicing bamboo into small thin strips of 2mm thickness and then nailed to two wooden planks on both ends, closely spaced to get a comb-like structure. The loom, being on the ground is very wobbly and the weave turns out to be a very course, spaced one which in turns traps more air in the empty spaces keeping the wearer of the shawl toasty warm.

The Kinnauri Shawl is of a very typical kind. It is a blend of two weaves: A basic weave for the groundand body fabric and extra-weft for the design. The basic weave for the body and ground is twill. Twill is used in all its forms: Basic twill, pointed twill, herringbone twill and basket weaves. All designs are done on four shafts. In Kinnauri shawls, it is believed that the finer and the heavier the design, the wealthier and better, the family background. When a boy is to be married the girl’s family is shown the entire range of shawls, the family has woven. It is a criterion by which the marriage is finalized. The extra-weft is doing just for the design, where knotting and changing lifting orders do every part of it singularly. The design happens on both the ends and goes on till half a metre towards the main body. The ground fabric is usually naturally coloured wool and includes the basic colours- black, white, cream, grey, brown or a mix of any two. The shawl is usually made of the size: 3 metres in length and 1 metre in breadth.

The Weavers: An experience

Shri Kumar Prajapati is 55 years old, has a wife who is his strength and has three sons, all of whom he has educated enough that they are all well placed in MNCs in the major metropolitans of the country. He weaves twill fabrics and his wife stitches them into coats. They sell them around Kinnaur and during summers, do some farming. He is a man who has lived his life on his own principles and terms and believes in his origin and family to have given him his identity. He is a master craftsman and loves what he does. He did not even hesitate once sharing his knowledge. He hates it, that his sons don’t weave but he believes in this century, life can’t go on by just weaving. He tells us how his society is not a male-dominant society. “We cant live without our wives, can we now?” he says in a jolly way. The men give shawls they weave as dowry to the bride and her family. 
While he weaves, his wife makes him tea and keeps the furnace burning. She is a weaver herself but prefers taking up the chores of the house while her husband handles that. She often does the drafting and denting for him and wraps up weft yarns. She chatters about her children and how proud she is of them. She tells us how they are very trained and capable weavers and whenever they come home, they fight over who is going to weave next.Prajapatiji loves smoking the local beedi but puts it down everytime his wife would start coughing. They are very humble people and for them, this craft is a part of their lives, hence it comes without any arrogance of talent. They have a tiny house and the ground floor is filled with sheep and three pashmina goats, which they are mighty proud of.
They tell us that for six months a year, their duplex wooden house is completely buried in snow and that is the time they weave. They celebrate Shivaratri and Diwali with much ecstasy and every Sunday they visit the Durga Temple with a small swatch of the weaves that were to be done that week. When we ask them why they don’t wear caps with the traditional Himachali design, Prajapatiji makes a face of disgust: “Those atrocious caps are worn by those hooligans in Kullu. We keep it subtle”. Kinnaris wear the traditional grey caps with the green flap. Prajapatiji stores his beedis in the flap. He hates the people who live downhill. “They stole our culture. They came one night, raved Kinnaur of its shawls and sneaked into our houses. They saw our method of making shawls. They went down and now are selling such a disgusting version of it. They thought they would get away with it. But this is Devnagari. Shiva won’t tolerate injustice. It’s stopped snowing in Kullu ever since. I pity them.” He feels alienated from the world outside of Kinnaur. He said that for the time he is alive, he would work towards keeping his culture alive. Before leaving, I asked him whether he would sell a shawl. He said, “36,000 Rupees Beta.” I smiled at his wit and took leave, a temporary one indeed.


Abhinanda Lahiri

Student, Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur