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Weaving

Traditions in Himachal Pradesh


Nisha Subramaniam

In the village of Maling in Upper Kinnaur, Tashi Chhering and his extended family sit at their pit
looms weaving the most intricate and breathtaking designs on Lengchas and Chhanlis – types of
Kinnauri shawls worn around the shoulders and fastened in front with a brooch. The weaver
community at Maling, consists of 3 or 4 weaver families living as a community a little away from
the rest of the village. While Chhering has little idea about when and where his ancestors came
from, history traces the origin of Kinnauri weaving to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. From there, this
craft travelled along the trade route through China and Tibet and finally settled down in the little
village of Shubnam, Kinnaur, more than 5000 years ago.

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The “Wool Road”

Similar to the “Silk Road”, but not as famous, the Wool Road was a little donkey trail which
connected the plains of Punjab to Tibet, China and Central Asia. This trail facilitated the transport
of wool and semi-precious stones from Tibet and other goods from Central Asia into the plains of
Punjab for exchange with salt and other necessities. Recognising the importance of this trade
route, the British widened this trail and renamed it The Hindustan-Tibet Road, which is what it is
known as today. Kinnaur, being strategically situated in the middle of this trade route, benefitted
from and was influenced by the intermingling of various cultures and faiths which passed through
and sometimes settled down in its beautiful valleys along the Sutlej River.

Spinning of wool and this particular style of weaving had been quietly practiced by Kinnauris for
hundreds of years, but it acquired fame only after getting royal patronage from the Mughal
Empress, Mumtaz Mahal who is credited with having “discovered” the weavers of wool from
Kinnaur. An expedition into the hills in early seventeenth century returned with shawls and
blankets woven with such intricate design and artistry that the queen declared them to be as fine
as the shawls from Kashmir and Turkistan which had so far held first place worldwide for fine
woolen shawls.

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From Kinnaur, this particular style of weaving went into the Kullu region in 1840 along with a
group of weavers from Rupa village of Kinnaur who fled to Kullu to escape persecution from a
local king. Over time the original Kinnauri designs and motifs acquired their own aesthetic under
various influences from the Kullu region. These more geometric, simpler, larger and bolder
motifs then attained their own unique identity as Kulluvi designs. Since weaving was practiced
only by a particular caste, the Chamangs, designs acquired a level of specialization and intricacy in
Kinnaur. By contrast, weaving was more functional in Spiti and practiced by all strata of society
for their own household requirements, hence it remained simple and utilitarian there, with no
distinctive weaving tradition.

Traditional Motifs and Colour Palettes

Kinnauri shawls have Buddhist spiritual ideals as the core to their colour scheme and motifs used.
The five colours red, blue, yellow, green and white which represent the five elements form the
colour palette, with red being predominant. The weavers draw inspiration for their motifs from
Buddhist philosophy and religious traditions and temple carvings. Kinnauri symbols which have
deep religious meanings are Chortens (Buddhist temple which keeps evil spirits away), Mandal

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(sacred structure), Tanka and Palpay (symbol of welcome found on Buddhist temple gates) to
name a few1. More playful designs like Panma (Flower) and Diwar-e-Chine (Great Wall of China)
have come from their surroundings and tales told by Tibetan traders respectively. But on the
whole, Kinnauri shawls have deep religious significance blending spirituality, truth, wisdom and
aesthetics in such a way that they are much more than mere decorative pieces.

The Kullu Valley was well known for its dyeing craft. Using their dyeing skills, the Kulluvis
expanded the 5 colour Kinnauri palette to 7 colours – to include pink, orange and sometimes
black. The colours also tended to be much brighter than the Kinnauri colours. Traditionally
vegetable-dyed colours from walnut, nettles and roots of plants were used. But as brighter,
chemically-dyed yarns started entering the
market, use of these became more common. The
Kulluvi motifs were simplified Kinnauri symbols or
inspired by day to day objects and nature like
Kanghi (comb), Kenchi (scissors), Kirah (snake),
Chidiyan (birds), etc. The Kullu Pattus –
traditional draped woolen dress of the women –
and shawls usually had a simple base in twill
weave with the natural wool colours of white,
grey, beige or black. The base would have large
checks with borders in traditional designs. The
size and intricacy of the borders depended on
whether the Pattu is for daily wear or a special
occasion. All the seven colours would be used in
equal amounts. More recently, due to outside
influences, exposure and interaction with
designers from Delhi and other places and tourist
market demands, more floral motifs and other

1
See Appendix for more details on motifs and their meanings

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types of designs have started proliferating in the market. Unlike Kullu shawls, the Kinnauri
products largely cater to local markets and are still mainly traditional in design and colour.

Tools, Techniques and Raw Material

The pit loom is the loom of choice in Kinnaur and Kullu. Products woven for the local markets are
generally woven on pit looms using handspun yarn as this makes them denser, warmer and more
durable.

The spinning is done on wooden handheld spindles called Takhli. The weavers depended on their
own flock or had ties with the Gaddis – nomadic tribal communities who travelled with their flock
seasonally from lower to higher altitudes. Once the sheep was sheared by the shepherds, the
cleaning, carding and spinning was done at home. Thus pit looms are found installed in the
verandahs of almost every home. Workshops which cater to national and international markets
use imported fly-shuttle looms or frame looms as production on these is more standardized and
uniform in nature and much faster than that on the pit loom.

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Earlier, pure wool from local sheep was used to spin yarn and weave from. Bihang was from
herds of lower altitudes and Deshkar was fleece procured from higher altitude sheep. Imports
from Tibet such as the fine quality Pashmina and yak wool were also used. In recent times, cross-
breeding indigenous sheep with merino has produced yarn which is easier to spin in the mills. As
mill-spun yarn and acrylic yarn in bright colours entered the market and became easier to
procure, shawls are now a mix of pure wool and acrylic, where the base is usually mill-spun,
chemically-dyed merino or a blend such as Cashmilon and the borders and motifs are in brighter
colours from acrylic yarn. Angora rabbits are also bred for commercial shawls of softer fibre. But
products meant for household use and the local market such as Pattus and Dohrus are still
handspun with Bihang and Deshkar wool.

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Appendix: Motifs and Names

Weavers rarely documented their designs. The designs were embodied knowledge where the
flowers, swastikas, and eternity knots just flowed from their fingers and training to apprentices
was imparted orally and through making. In recent times, in a bid to document designs and
preserve and continue the tradition, designs are drawn on graph paper. These are then also used
as teaching aids by government-funded training institutes to teach young women the craft. Many
of these woven motifs were derived from wooden temple carvings.

Name Motif

Kinnauri Designs Tanka – Coin, fulfilment


of wish (found on
temples)

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Name Motif

Palpay – Eternity (found


on temples)

Chorten - temple

Yungrung – swastika,
immortality (found on
temples)

Mandal – temple motif


symbolizing 8 sacred
structures

Chalo Panma – flower


(also carved on temples)

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Name Motif

Ratmi – jewels enclosed in


a diamond shape

Saanp – Snake or’S’

Changri or Diwar-E-Chine
– Wall of China

Gurgur-waves or sharp
teeth

Kullu Designs Kira - Snake

Kenchu - Scissors

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Name Motif

Kanghi - Comb

Rani Bel – Border fit for


queen

Mandir - Temple

Gulab - Rose

Bulbus Chashm –
Nightingale’s Eye

Chiriyan - Birds

Source: Bansal, A. (1994). Traditional woven shawls of Himachal Pradesh: A comprehensive study.

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References
Bansal, A. (1994). Traditional woven shawls of Himachal Pradesh: A comprehensive study.
http://hdl.handle.net/10603/58812

Copley Patterson, Suzette R., "Weaving Traditions along the “Wool Road” in India" (2002). Textile
Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 417.

Sanan, Deepak, Swadi, Dhanu. Exploring Kinnaur in the Trans-Himalaya. (1998). Indus Publishing.
New Delhi.

Sharma, N. et al. “Traditional Handicrafts and Handloom of Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh”
(2008). Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge. Vol 7, pp 56-61.

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