Motifs of Misery: Weaves and woes of the Kashmiri Shawl  A visit to the Kashmir of 1820s through William Moorcroft’s ‘Travels’

Madame Defarge of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities used her knitting to document the names of those whom she perceived to be the ‘enemies’ of the French revolution. Had someone like her existed in Kashmir, perhaps its history would too have been weaved into its famed shawls. It would be appropriate too, for the Kashmiri shawl has not only been a witness to the miserable history of this place but has in fact at times played a vital role in it.

The Shawl has been Kashmir’s premier export since times immemorial and even Francois Bernier, the French traveler, who visited Kashmir in the 17th century waxed eloquent about it. Nobody however studied the various aspects of shawl manufacture in Kashmir with as much dedication as the English veterinarian-explorer William Moorcroft. Moorcroft’s visit to Kashmir and his extensive study of all aspects of shawl manufacture was in fact largely prompted by his desire to export – some would call it stealing – the materials and the technique of shawl manufacture to his own country. Call him a pirate or a patriot (or both!), Moorcroft did leave a faithful account of his stay in Kashmir which gave to posterity a detailed description of how things stood in this part of the world in the early nineteenth century.

William Moorcroft was born out of wedlock to Ann Moorcroft the daughter of a local farmer in Ormskirk, Lancashire. Baptized in 1767 he was initially apprenticed to a surgeon in Liverpool but destiny had something else in store for him. Around the same time an unknown disease decimated the cattle population in Lancashire and young William was recruited to treat the diseased animals. Impressed by his efficiency the county landowners offered to sponsor his education if he would abandon surgery to attend a veterinarian college in Lyon, France. Thus Moorcroft ended up being the first Englishman to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. His work brought him to the attention of a director of the East India Company who recruited Moorcroft to manage the Company’s horse breeding farm in Bengal. It was his appointment as Superintendent of the stud farm that turned him into an explorer as he travelled extensively in search of better breeding stock. Moorcroft travelled in the northern sub-continent in search of better quality studs and he went as far as Bukhara. Moorcroft’s fascination with the Kashmiri shawl developed after he made his first trip across the Himalayas in 1812. So impressed was he by the quality of Kashmir shawls that he wanted to export the materials as well as technique of shawl making to his native land with the goal of making Britain, the centre of European shawl-making. This desire led him to Kashmir where he stayed for ten months.

It is 3rd November 1822 when Moorcroft reaches Kashmir. Possessed of a scientific temper he does not talk too enthusiastically about the beauty of this place, but his descriptions are detailed and give a vivid picture of the geography, flora and fauna of the place. ‘Kashmir has been often described, but it maybe doubted if any of the descriptions yet published have conveyed an accurate notion of the country; and the designation of ‘valley’, which is ordinarily applied to it, is by no means an appropriate term.’ The course of the Vitastha, or Behut, does, indeed, form one principal valley, extending from the eastern to the western limits of the province; but,the greater part of the country is made up of a similar disposition of vale and mountain, as is observable in all these alpine regions, and consists of a series of mountain ranges, running mostly in parallel lines from south-west to north and east, separated by glens, which are in general of no great breadth… The chief peculiarity by which Kashmir is distinguished from the mountain countries on its confines is the richness of its vegetation. The mountains, although for a considerable part of the year capped in many parts with snow, are coated with rich forests, and at their bases is a productive alluvial soil abounding with verdure, or, where cultivated, with plentiful harvests, especially of rice…’

Now if this brings into mind a beautiful land with a fairly prosperous and thriving population nothing could be further from truth, as Moorcroft goes on to testify. It is 1822 and Kashmir, which has already suffered centuries of oppression first under the Mughals and then the Pathans, has a new set of rulers. Both the Mughals and Pathans had conquered Kashmir at the behest of its inhabitants. Continuing the trend the hapless people of this land had invited a new foreign conqueror to liberate them from the cruel Pathans. Pandit Birbal Dhar and his son Raj Kak Dhar invited Maharaja Ranjit Singh to attack Kashmir and thus four years before Moorcroft’s visit, in 1819, Kashmir had come under Sikh rule. The Pathan rule was terrible but the Sikh rule too brought no succor to the long suffering Kashmiris especially the Muslim population. It was just that the land, which was never theirs, changed hands once more. The inhabitants of this land seem to be doomed to be mere serfs on their own land on which they labour for others and barely manage to eke out their subsistence. ‘The Khalsa lands are now, as heretofore, let out for cultivation. Those near the city are termed Sar-Kishti, those more remote Pai-Kishti ; or head and foot, upper and lower cultivation. When the grain has been trodden out, a division takes place between the farmer and the government; this was formerly an equal division, but the government has advanced in its demands until it has appropriated about seven-eighths of the Sar-Kishti, and three-fourths of the Pai-Kishti crop. The straw falls to the share of the cultivator, but his case would be desperate if it were not practicable to bribe the overseer or watchman to let him steal a portion of his own produce…the cultivators of Kashmir are in a condition of extreme wretchedness, and, as if the disproportionate demand of the government was not sufficiently oppressive, the evil is aggravated by the mode adopted of disposing of the government share. It is sent into the market at a high price, and no individual is allowed to offer the produce of his farm at a lower rate, or sometimes to dispose of it at all, until the public com has been sold…’

Moorcroft devoted a lot of energies to studying the process of shawl making. He describes the shawls and the process of their manufacture in great detail. ‘The manufacture for which Kashmir is celebrated throughout the world, is that of the light, warm, and elegant article of dress which, from its native appellation, is known as shawl… The wool that is employed in this manufacture is of two kinds — the fleece of the domestic goat called Pashm Shal (or shawl- wool), and that of the wild goat, wild sheep, and other animals named Asali Tus…’

The various processes of shawl manufacture seem to be providing livelihood to a major portion of the population. ‘One hundred and twenty thousand persons, it is said, are employed in the shawl manufacture alone…’ The Kashmiri shawl might be in great demand and fetches a good price too, but very little of that falls to the lot of those who are involved in the making of these shawls because this industry is taxed even more heavily than agriculture. ‘A much larger revenue than that which is obtained from the land is realized from the shawl manufacture, every shawl being stamped, and the stamp-duty being twenty-six per cent, upon the estimated value. Besides this a considerable sum is raised by duties upon the import of wool, and a charge upon every shop or workman connected with the manufacture.’ But then the Sikh rulers and their officials ensure that the heavy taxation amounting to extortion spares nobody ‘…butchers, bakers, boatmen, vendors of fuel, public notaries, scavengers, prostitutes, all pay a sort of corporation tax, and even the Kotwal, or chief officer of justice, pays a large gratuity of thirty thousand rupees a year for his appointment, being left to reimburse himself as he may.’

Like other travelers from the West, Moorcroft too is not favorably impressed by the Kashmiri population though he does admit a grudging admiration for them. ‘The natives of Kashmir have been always considered as amongst the most lively and ingenious people of Asia, and deservedly so. With a liberal and wise government they might assume an equally high scale as a moral and intellectual people, but at present a more degraded race does not exist… In character the Kashmirian is selfish, superstitious, ignorant, supple, intriguing, dishonest, and false: he has great ingenuity as a mechanic, and a decided genius for manufactures and commerce, but his transactions are always conducted in a fraudulent spirit, equaled only by the effrontery with which he faces detection.’ Being of a scientific temper, Moorcroft is perhaps the only traveler from the West who does not indulge in mere disparagement of the Kashmiri character but actually puts forth a rational explanation for its being the way it is. ‘The vices of the Kashmirian I cannot help considering, however, as the effects of his political condition, rather than his nature, and conceive that it would not be difficult to transform him into a very different being…’

Indeed the people of Kashmir are facing a tough time under the oppressive regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh so much so that disease and misery are evident everywhere. ‘…the people are in the most abject condition; exorbitantly taxed by the Sikh government, and subjected to every kind of extortion and oppression by its officers. The consequences of this system are the gradual depopulation of the country; not more than about one-sixteenth of the cultivable surface is in cultivation, and the inhabitants starving at home, are driven in great numbers to the Plains of Hindustan. In like manner the people of the city are rapidly thinning, though less from emigration, than poverty and disease; the prevalence of the latter in its most aggravated forms was fearfully extensive… I had at one time no fewer than six thousand eight hundred patients on my list, a large proportion of whom were suffering from the most loathsome diseases, brought on by scant and unwholesome food, dark, damp, and ill- ventilated lodgings, excessive dirtiness, and gross immorality.’

The Sikh rulers and their officials rule with an iron hand and political dissent is ruthlessly suppressed. Even the city’s most celebrated structure, the Jama Masjid, remains shut up at the time of Moorcroft’s  visit ‘by order of Ranjit Sinh, lest the plea it afforded for the assemblage of large bodies of Mohammedans should afford opportunities of plotting against his rule.’

William Moorcroft died of fever on 27th August 1825 at Andkhui in Afghan Turkestan and lies buried at Balkh. His papers saved by his loyal secretary were obtained by the Asiatic Society and published in 1841 sixteen years after his death. The editor H H Wilson in his preface remarks that the papers were ‘not quite so amusing as those of some more modern voyagers’, but while it is true that Moorcroft stuck to his observations without coloring them with his personal feelings, his impersonal notes provide a factual account of his travels and the times.

Book: Travels in the Himalayan provinces of Hindustan and the Panjab; in Ladakh and Kashmir; in Peshawer, Kabul, Kunduz, and Bokhara

Author: William Moorcroft with George Trebeck

First published: 1841

Publishers: John Murray, Ablemarle street, London

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