The crown jewel of Kashmir’s textile realm, jamawar is birthed from an enriching mix of fabrics. ‘Jamawar’ is believed to have been derived from the word ‘jam’, which means a shawl or robe and ‘war’, which implies the chest, in either Persian or Kashmiri.
The fabric is believed to have found its way to Kashmir from Persia, and reached its peak during the heyday of the Mughal dynasty in India.
Men and women of royal Mughal families as well as court officials held the regal jamawar shawl in high regard, and donned it with much pride and pomp. During this time, jamawar enjoyed a high stature, and was endorsed greatly by not just Mughal emperors (emperor Akbar is believed to have brought skilled jamawar weavers from myriad Arab nations to Kashmir) but also by historic heavyweights across the globe, such as Sikh kings, French monarchs, British aristocrats and members of Iranian nobility, among many others.
Owing to the elaborateness that goes into the making of the weave, it takes months on end to craft a finished jamawar piece, and sometimes, even years, depending on the level of intricacy involved. This process, however, picked up pace in the 1800s when power-based jacquard looms entered the scene. This move may have helped the weave to tap into a larger consumer base, but it also led to the original, handmade jamawar losing its appeal.
Jamawar is traditionally woven with a rich blend of Pashmina wool, cotton and silk (the base was most often wool, with silk and cotton embellishments woven into it). Given the generous use of colours and motifs, the finished weave is highly iridescent. One of the many distinguishing factors of jamawar is that it is so intricately woven that its front and back, both look identical, with no stray thread sticking out of its surface. A dominating design element of the weave is paisley, which derives inspiration from Persia; other motifs of flora and fauna, too, are seen adorning the fabric. Jamawars also feature a wide use of hand embroidery, which is carried out with unfettered attention to detail. Traditionally, a single jamawar piece was woven with up to 50 varying hues, the most common among them having been sufed (white), mushki (black), ferozi (turquoise), gulnar (crimson), uda (violet) and many more.
However, as the Mughal empire in India toppled, so did jamawar’s primary patronage. Adding to this, the onset of industrialisation meant the inundation of cheaper fibres that were relatively easily accessible—all these factors collectively lead to jamawar losing a solid consumer base, and with the introduction of its machine-made counterparts, it almost started edging towards disappearance.
In order to aid this situation, the Government has been launching several initiatives such as introducing jamawar-weaving centres across Kashmir, Punjab and Delhi. Today, to reach a diverse audience base, jamawar is woven to craft a multitude of products—from shawls, kameez and lehengas to curtains, saris and blouses.
Over time, jamawars shawls have undergone osmosis, and are now woven by artisans settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh. Today, approximately 500 weavers of jamawar shawls, along with some 1,000 jamawar rafoogars or darners, remain, Atique Ahmed, Israt Ahmed and Wasim Ahmed being a few of them.
As winter descends upon the nation, shawl merchants, colloquially known as ‘pheriwallas’, who are not originally from Delhi or Kashmir, migrate to these regions to sell handmade, painstakingly crafted jamawars. Considering its time-consuming, back-breaking process, finding a worthy buyer for these weaves is highly imperative, but one that rarely ends up happening, despite the efforts taken by the Government. As a result of which, today, it remains a mere remnant of a once-thriving past.