Weaving Prowess

Wedding day shawls

My head cleared as we descended from the heady heights of Spiti into the moderate ones of the Kinnaur valley. The green Kinnauri caps worn by the local women were indicators that my health would improve. The high altitude of Spiti for the non-acclimatized tourist can be dangerous. Altitude Mountain sickness (AMS) causes more harm than just ruining your experience. Further cause for worry was the local hearsay about the landslide that blocked entry into the Kinnauri valley. We had traveled on some very treacherous roads, battled AMS and could not afford ill luck at this point. So when we entered Nako through an ornate gate, all of us got out of the car for a celebratory dance. 

There we met Dorje and his family, who were very happy to show off their weaving prowess. The weavers worked at their looms oblivious to the most gorgeous views of the Himalayas around them. Like other times, we met Dorje at a chance encounter. Dorje was herding his sheep up the mountains and we stopped our car to enquire about looms. He showed us a dot quite far away and said it was just a small hike up.  As he jogged up the slopes with his lithe young body (in total contrast to his old lined face), we struggled up the path to the looms. 

The weavers used a simple pit loom to weave the shawls. Colorful woolen thread bought from the market was used. The designs are elaborate and are made to order. Winter is the wedding season as the shepherds gather their flock and return to the comfort of their homes and family. So summer to autumn is the time for weaving the ornate wedding shawls. Various symbols for fertility and prosperity are woven into the shawls. The shawl for the groom is longer, while the one for the bride is broader. These standard sizes are made to fit the wedding attire. A special brooch is worn on the wedding day to keep the shawl in place. We were lucky to see some old shawls woven from naturally dyed wool. The designs were the same, but the new generation has opted for the colorful designs over the muted natural dyes.

As we entered the main village, it was heartening to see a Government run weaving institute for women. A joyful and plump Dolma, the master weaver in the institute was happy to introduce her wards. We looked through their little design notebook where they learn the geometry behind the designs. Some of the senior students were busy weaving shawls and stoles. We were surprised that none of them were willing to sell the products. Every piece is made to order and local demand is sufficient to keep them in business. Though the friendly women saddled me with more apples and peaches than I could eat, I was disappointed when they refused to take orders for my designs.  

As we drove out of the ornate gate to tackle another day, another landslide, I knew that the next trip to this heaven was already due. And next time, I’ll make sure to take in the breathtaking views with a warm Kinnauri shawl on my shoulders. 

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