New Delhi: Shahtoosh, the very very name signifies royalty and kingship, a Farsi word meaning `King of Wools`. And each shawl, delicate and ethereal, costs hundreds of thousands of rupees in the illegal market. But can the shahtoosh industry, banned in India, be revived again by rearing the delicate Chiru antelopes in farms and obtaining their prized fur without killing the animals?
While the artisans from Jammu and Kashmir, who are in danger of forgetting the age-old weaving craft for the shahtoosh, say that the ban should be lifted, the state government does not seem to have done much to revive an art form that could fetch it good money.
Earlier, the wool for Shahtoosh was obtained non-violently. The Chiru antelope would shed its hairs, which were procured by locals, who then sold it to weavers. Shahtoosh products were an important cottage industry in the Kashmir Valley.
But, pushed by the lure of modern consumerism, the wait for the Chiru to shed its hairs naturally in the early summer months was bid adieu, and indiscriminate killing ensued. The Chiru became the target of poachers.
"It takes five dead Chirus to make one shahtoosh shawl," Poorva Joshipura, chief functionary of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) India, told reporters.
The numbers of the timid and delicate antelope, found in the desolate vastness of the Tibet, Xinjiang and Ladakh regions, began to dwindle alarmingly.
The killing of the Chiru, a Schedule I animal according to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, is banned in India.
"Processing or wearing shahtoosh is a punishable offence. Chiru is on the Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning that international trade is prohibited. It also means hefty fines or even jail for those who carry the shawls," says Joshipura.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the imprisonment for killing a Chiru is one to three years, with a proposed fine of Rs.5,000 to Rs.25,000, says Bashir Ahmed War, retired senior veterinarian of the Jammu and Kashmir Animal Husbandry department.
"The `Chiru` or Tibetan Antelope (Panthalops Hodgsoni) is an inhabitant of Tibet. It migrates to Ladakh in the summer and remains there from May to July," says War.
But despite the controls, the illegal trade continues.
"Shahtoosh continues to be a high value product in the wildlife market. Seizures of shahtoosh shawls are made regularly by agencies like Customs, CBI and the WCCB, pointing to the fact that the trade is alive," Samir Sinha, head of WWF-Traffic India, told reporters.
And how much does a shahtoosh shawl cost? "All I would say is that they can be worth several lakhs each," says Sinha.
While he could not say how many shahtoosh shawls were being made illegally, he said, "It is likely that stockpiled shawls may be finding their way gradually into the markets". Asked to point out the likely markets, he said they were the "fashion markets in the US, Europe and Southeast Asia".
But while the ban on the shahtoosh continues, the weaving industry in Kashmir has suffered collateral damage.
"We have been hurt the most. The ban has been a kick on our stomachs. We have pleaded to the government of India to rethink the ban. But it has mostly fallen on deaf ears," Gawhar Maqbool, a wool exporter from Srinagar, told reporters.
Can the government not find a middle ground?
Laila Tyabji, chairperson of handicrafts society, Dastkar, says that if procured humanely, shahtoosh would be acceptable. Tyabji told reporters: "Sufficient research has not been done in India on finding ways of domestically rearing the Chiru and shearing and spinning its wool without killing it."
It is not that the Kashmir government has not thought of the idea. "In 2004-2005, the state government had a conceptual plan to make some enclosures in Ladakh for retaining some of the migratory Chiru that would cross over during summer from Tibet and China. The idea was to rear these Chiru for gathering shahtoosh fleece, but the plan has not been implemented till date," Imtiyaz Ahmad Lone, Wildlife Warden (Central Kashmir), told reporters.
But Lone feels the weaving tradition for shahtoosh would be lost forever if the ban continues.
"Shahtoosh shawl-making involves special looms and weavers who were skilled in the family tradition over centuries. After the ban, this tradition has been lost and there is no possibility of its revival as the law stands on it now," says Lone.
Many weavers have switched to pashmina to keep their hearths running.
"We are supporting a campaign to advocate pashmina (another fine Kashmiri wool) as an alternative to shahtoosh. Craftspeople who thus earlier used to make shahtoosh products can now switch over to Pashmina and retain their livelihoods," says Tyabji.
According to Lone, many shahtoosh weavers have fully switched to pashmina. "In 2005, we had estimates of about 45,000 families of shahtosh weavers, who were directly or indirectly connected with the trade. After the ban, the families gradually shifted their livelihoods to Pashmina shawl weaving and have now fully migrated to their new trade," said Lone.
But, in the meantime, the craft form stands in danger of vanishing altogether.
Warns Tyabji: "Something must be done. Or else, India would have lost an extraordinary and unique textile tradition."