Kashmir, the picturesque valley nestled carefully between majestic Himalayan ranges is known to possess a non pareil legacy in crafts, some of which date back to the Mughal Era, some date even further while others remain forgotten in the folds of time.
Our quest to revive the long lost art forms of Kashmir led us towards the interiors of Dal Lake, where the last of Waguv makers reside.
For those who’ve never heard of it before, Waguv is an ancient Kashmiri craft of mat making which dates back to the 18th century. The 300 year old craft involves entwining reed and rice straw together in perfect harmony to create a piece of flooring which provides warmth in winters and a cooling effect in summers. The unique matting is known to have a cooling effect during summers and a warming effect in winters.
Wading through the unperturbed waters of Dal Lake in a battered Shikara, we reach a swampy area which is known to bring forth the grass forms required in Waguv making. Weavers in the Dal locality laboriously gather their raw material from this half land - half water and take them to their own homes where they will be transformed into the coziest and breathtaking mats ever.
After the men have collected this grass, locally known as “Peich” in their Shikara, the women of the house spring into action. Traditionally, it was the women who would actually plaid reed into a Waguv. The mat would sell in the markets at a good cost and enable them to be financially independent. The womenfolk essentially dry the grass to perfection and tie the reed with small wooden poles parallely.
They then entwine dried rice straw into the reed verticals and tighten them. After a thorough process of this plaiding, tightening and cutting into desired shapes, the Waguv is finally ready to be sent and sold in the market. The craft involves an entire family where the males are responsible to gather raw material and sell in the marketplace while the women are responsible for weaving the reed into mats.
The Waguv is not just a craft, it is a legacy carried forward by generations altogether. There was a time when it was in such a boom that over 500 families only in Srinagar area of the Valley were engaged in its making. Out of these 500, 51 families lived in Akhoon Mohalla alone. Its earthy feel being cozy would yield warmth in the winter and bring cool in the summer. These weavers were located around the swampy areas of Chak Bagh, Aakhoon Mohalla, Dal Lake, Ganderbal and Aanchar. Such was the glory of the craft that people made it a point that their children knew the intricacies of their craft right from the early days of their childhood. In certain communities, it would be considered shameful if a fellow did not know how to weave a Waguv. “My parents were worried what my in-laws would do when they will come to know that their daughter-in-law cannot weave a waguv. It was a kind of insult in our community,” says a 70 year old Waguv weaver, Fatima staring at her creased palms.
However, the glorious craft witnessed a sudden downfall with the advent of plastic foams, wooden flooring and a change in society. With decline in demand, the waguv makers would barely make Rs 50 per day. It wasn’t sufficient to sustain their families and hence they began relying on other jobs in order to sustain themselves. Some became laborers, some took to carpentry and beyond.
It was in this process of survival and change that Kashmiris lost an indigenous skill which furnished their homes for centuries. On one hand, people adopted new and contemporary modes of furnishing while on the other, Waguv weavers began to see their craft as a burden which starved them to poverty.
Today, there are only 15 families across the entire Valley of Kashmir who know the craft of Waguv Weaving. Even the last of these weavers do not pursue the craft as their primary occupation. It is only their older generations who occasionally weave the mats. Newer generations have found their peace and mode of survival in other occupations.
However, there is still a ray of hope. The Waguv, which was uptill now a closed chapter now looks forward to some revival with a few weavers stepping forward and making use of modern technology to sell the craft to a global audience.
With this initiative, The Lost Mat may be rediscovered again, it may still be revived again. The womenfolk may be empowered again, the craft may breathe yet again.