Shawl: The Mantle of Warmth


The shawl has been in existence in India in a variety of forms since ancient times, serving the rich and poor as a protective garment against the biting cold.

Though the history of shawl weaving is rather obscure, references to shawls are first found in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Atharvaveda. The shawl is also mentioned in ancient Buddhist literature among the recorded inventories of woolen garments.

The word shawl is derived from Persian "shal", which was the name given for a whole range of fine woolen garments. The shawl in India was worn folded across the shoulder, and not as a girdle, as the Persians did.

Shawl Making The Mughal Patronage

Though shawls are worn and used as a warm protective garment all over north India today, Kashmir has become synonymous with shawls all over the world. At the time of Mughal rule in India, Kashmir overtook the North-West Frontier and Punjab, as the center of shawl making. The Mughal emperor Akbar was greatly enamored by the Kashmiri shawls and the way it was worn, folded in four, captured his imagination. He experimented with various ways of wearing it, and found that it looked good worn without folds, just thrown over the shoulder.


Akbar encouraged the weavers to try new motifs, and also started the fashion of the twin shawl, where two identical shawls were sewn back to back, hiding the rough edges of tapestry weave, and giving the impression of a single, reversible shawl. The royal shawls were richly embellished with precious metals and stones. Incredibly soft, and painstakingly crafted, few samples of these shawls have survive to date and are treated as priceless heirlooms.

Akbar's successors too patronized the shawl industry in the valley, but the Afghan rule that followed the Mughal rule almost wiped out this industry of intricate craftsmanship. The Afghan governor Haji Dad Khan (1776-83) imposed such heavy taxes on the shawl industry that the artisans were forced to quit their professions.

Exodus From The Valley

Many of the weavers moved to Punjab, where time and again attempts had been made to establish a successful shawl industry. Following the Afghan harassment and the great famine in Kashmir the center of shawl making shifted to Amritsar. Other towns in Punjab too developed their own 'Kashmiri' shawl industry due to the migration of the Kashmiri workers. Ludhiana developed as a major shawl weaving center. The wool for all this was brought all the way from Kashmir, but somehow, the shawls woven there were no match to the original masterpieces from Kashmir.

Adding Variety To The Kashmiri Craft

Earlier shawls used to be made in Punjab too --hand spun and hand woven khaddar of different weaves and textures, and dyed in different shades, which were transformed into beautiful, multi-colored shawls using the traditional phulkari (flower work) embroidery. When the woolen shawls from Kashmir found a home in Punjab, phulkari, was used to decorate the plain woolen ones. Embroidered with soft untwisted silk floss and using darning stitches done from the back, each stitch being about a quarter of an inch in length, the phulkari shawls often had different pallas (ends), in different designs. The phulkari embroidery covered almost the entire length and breadth of the shawl, giving it a rich appearance.

International Recognition

The greatest boost to this industry was received during the British period. Totally enamored by the Kashmiri shawls, the British took piece after piece back home where they found a willing market. Their fame spread to France too, and portraits of the period often show ladies wearing these colorful shawls with beautiful motifs. The popular paisley print has its origin in these Kashmiri shawls. Their tremendous popularity abroad ushered in enduring fame for the Kashmiri shawls.

Bringing In The Change

In the 19th century, a change was brought in the weaving of the traditional kani shawls of Kashmir, the demand for which was ever increasing. Instead of being woven as one piece, now the shawl was woven in long strips on small looms. Due to the large areas of design to be woven, the pattern was broken down into fragmented parts, each woven separately, at times on separate looms, and then all these pieces were put together, and stitched by a rafoogar. The beauty of this shawl was that the stitches were almost invisible, and the completed shawl looks like one complete unit.

This period also witnessed another far reaching development in Kashmir. It was advent of the amli or embroidered shawl. The kani shawl was further embellished, or in some cases, the plain ones beautifully decorated by a kind of parallel darning stitch.

Shawls From Other States

While the Kashmiri shawls were making news abroad, the shawls from the other states were quietly and beautifully doing their jobs of keeping the people in those areas warm. The intricately embroidered kantha shawls of Bengal are a case in point. The ornamental growth of the shawl industry is closely associated with the textiles, weaves and prints of the particular areas that spawned it. Shawls from Gujarat have the traditional bandhini prints. Bandhini shawls have vibrant colors, though the background may be of a neutral color. They are often decorated with embroider, mainly chain stitch, and with mirror work for a richer and prettier look.

Such embellishments are almost never seen in the shawls from Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and the other north-eastern states. The shawls from these areas have a primitive charm of their own. Black and maroon are the favored background colors, and the designs in red, white and yellow, are chiefly abstract and highly conventional representations of human and animal figures. Not very popular outside these states, these shawls nevertheless do a very effective job of keeping the inhabitants of that cold area in warm comfort.

The same cannot be said of the pretty Himru shawls of Aurangabad and Hyderabad. Himru is an inferior type of brocade in which both silk and cotton threads are used to produce the multi-colored designs. The actual ornamental design is formed on the principle of extra weft figuring - the silk weft used for patterning is thrown over the surface only here and there, were the actual pattern appears the rest of the weft is left hanging loosely underneath. Because of this extra layer of loose silk weft, the Himru shawls are soft, and almost feel like silk. It is believed that Tughlak, the eccentric ruler, settled weavers from Ahmedabad, Banaras and Gujarat in Aurangabad, which led to the start of the Himru industry.

Closely linked with the climate and conditions of the region, the warmth and popularity of the shawl decreases as we travel from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In fact, to the south of the Deccan plateau, there is hardly any shawl weaving industry.

There are shawls to suit every budget. The pashmina, kani and amli shawls from Kashmir, are a costly affair. Same goes for the rich brocade shawls from Banaras. The Himru shawls are moderately priced, so are the shawls from the northeast. These different varieties of shawls are popular in India as well as abroad.