The younger generation in Kashmir is unwilling to learn the ancient code of carpet making because the industry is struggling to survive in light of a poor economy and changing market dynamics.
Two decades ago, the Hyder colony in northern Srinagar was abuzz with pattern singing, a melodious chanting of a 500-year-old carpet code. The weavers rhymed in a hypnotic chorus, changing their tone while wrapping the threads on wooden looms. Ending the verse meant cutting the end of each thread with a hook knife, which created a gentle thud.
Tucked away in the northern corner of Srinagar, the capital city of India-administered Kashmir, the Hyder colony has now fallen silent. Almost every house in the neighbourhood has a carpet loom but most of them are now defunct. The only life visible there on a recent June morning was children chasing a bicycle tyre rolling down one of its bylanes.
Jan Mohammad, a 55-year-old carpet weaver, laments about the condition of Kashmir's carpet industry. His neighbourhood is a stark piece of evidence portraying its decline.
“This craft has passed down from my ancestors to my father and through him to me,” he told TRT World.
Hearing the screams of the children playing outside, he recalled the time when his neighbourhood was "buzzing with activity and exporters would jostle to get to the craftsmen here."
"But now, like the craft, the neighbourhood is dying too."
He walks up the stairs that lead into a small room under a rusted tin roof. In it, there is a small loom which he operates on rare occasions to weave carpets on demand. Gone are the days when Mohammad and his neighbourhood was part of an industrial-scale carpet churning.
“Everyone now has a small loom. This is no longer a neighbourhood of carpet weavers, shawl makers and dye specialists. All those machines are gathering dust.”
The three decades of political violence coupled with fast-changing market dynamics, with Chinese carpets flooding India, has crippled Kashmir's carpet manufacturing.
“Most of the youngsters here have left the craft and now they sell clothes in the flea (Sunday) market at the city centre.”
Lack of opportunities, poor wages and exploitation at the hands of big exporters have further eroded the carpet industry from the inside.
Mohammad is paid a daily wage of $2.7 (INR 200). Although being an underpaid artisan has pushed him to desperate margins, his commitment to his craft has never wavered.
Like an obedient student, he still sits behind his loom, reads the symbols of the paper in front of him, and runs his fingers following the same pattern his father and forefathers followed, singing the direction, working with the threads over the loom.
The symbols he reads are a codified carpet language indigenous to Kashmir’s carpet weavers.
“This is a code developed by our ancestors centuries ago - the master sings the directions and the workers follow the direction singing like a choir.”
In the decades of 70s and 80s, the city of Srinagar was famous for the abundance of carpet showrooms that catered to a diverse group of customers coming from all over the world. But now only a few are left.
Ali Shah Emporium is one of the oldest and among the last carpet showrooms.
Inside the emporium, the scene is vibrant, in total contrast with what's left of the Hyder Colony. As you enter the lobby, you walk through hundreds of stacked up carpets and flanking the corridor. At the end of the corridor, a group of weavers sang Sufiyaan - a devotional Islamic music indigenous to Kashmir — as they worked behind a cluster of large looms.
The emporium’s history goes back to 1860 and is currently run by the fifth generation of the Shah family.
Ghulam Nabi, a 74-year-old frail man, sat in the corner of the workshop. He was working on a carpet with Quranic calligraphy.
“Take a good picture, nobody has taken any decent picture of mine, I want to show it to my wife,” said Nabi while speaking to TRT World.
Nabi was 14 years old when he started working at the emporium. He says despite the conflict and the decline of the industry, his employers never let him down.
“They even helped me with the marriage of my daughter, they also pay 20 percent higher wages than the market wage.”
Rafiq Ahmad Shah, 73, started working as an artisan when he was a teenager. But his talent and craft promoted him to become the manager of the old company.
His work involves creating the Taleem, carpet designs based on the old code. He can produce both original designs and copies of whatever customers like to be printed on the carpet. To codify any pattern, all he needs is a photograph.
“There are three sections on the code, design, and we graph it on paper. We then add colours to it and the code writer has three things - number of knots, colour, the direction of knot - left or right.”
Kashmir’s carpet industry began in the 15th century when the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur set his sights on the region. The ruler of the valley at that time Sultan Sikandar Shahmiri pledged allegiance to him. He sent his son Shahi along with the tributes to his court in Samarkand. After Timur passed away, Shahi returned with craft masters from woodcarving to carpet making. Shahi ascended to the throne overseeing what is known as the golden era of the Kashmir region.
He was crowned as Zain-ul-Abidin and earned the title of the Budshah - the great king. Under his rule, Kashmir became prosperous. Its craftsmanship achieved global fame. His reverence still rings in the region today, even in the songs the Kashmiri weavers sing 500 years after his death.
Invented by the Kashmiris, the Taleem is not an alphabet or numbers but a symbol-based language.
Before the Taleem came into existence, the weavers followed the instructions fixed by a designer. But Kashmiris went a step ahead by creating the design in the form of a matrix. It helped reduce the margins of error in carpet production.
“If there is a 100 knotted carpet, we keep it at 99 only because the only thing that is perfect is God’s creation. We do not want to challenge him.”
Rafiq, who has a white well-kempt beard, asked his assistant to roll one of the carpets he had designed. It is called the Khusrau-Shirin, an ode to the old Iranian love story. He found the picture of its torn original version on the Internet. “Due to my managerial role, I looked for a challenge and went on a hunt on Google.”
Rafiq found a picture of a torn carpet woven in Tabriz, Iran. It depicts the story of Persian Emperor Khusrau falling in love with Shirin. It also shows the life of Khusrau, his reign and the kings who ruled the country before his time.
“It took me three years to design and code the matrix,” Rafiq says. It took him five more years to make three versions of it.
Rafiq has an undying love for the craft as he cares for every meticulous detail of the carpet.
“Every time I sit for prayers, I always ask Allah, before this art dies, kill me first.”