Said to have its origins back in the remote village of Zari in Iran, the craft of Tilla Dozi made its way into Kashmir when the revered Muslim saint, Shah –e- Hamdan (RA) migrated into the valley along with his group of 700 craftsmen following Taimur’s invasion. The craft was uplifted by the Mughal Badshahs (rulers) who saw its exquisiteness and grandiose and used epoch pieces of Tilla in their royal courts, thus setting it into timeless fashion.
The craft is essentially an embroidery done using a thread of silver or gold on needlepoint. The classical ornamentation has been a taste of royalty since times immemorial and has been chosen by the women of elite across centuries. Its glittering hues have been used to cast their spell over traditional Phirans, shawls, stoles, sarees and more.
Originally, Tilla embroidery was done using real silver or gold. The precious metals were hammered and flattened to form wires of threads and these were used for bejeweling apparel and accessories, especially for the brides. The silver or gold would age like an artifact, acquiring an antique look with each passing year. “Only the Khojje could afford its luxuries”, says Abdul Majeed, a renowned master artisan of Tilla.
However, this glory was to remain till precious metals were affordable, even for the rich. There came a time when pure silver reached an exorbitant price of Rs 60000 per kg. With a negligible number of people left who could incur such costs, the artisans of the craft decided to evolve it. It was at this time that silver and gold dust began to be used in the embroidery. Gradually the art of Tilla witnessed further changes with metals like gold and silver plated copper replacing the precious metals altogether to make the embroidery affordable to all.
The process of Tilla Dozi begins with the Naqash or the designer, who draws the design over the trace paper, and perforates this paper with the help of a specialized needle, the process known as “Trombun”. Meanwhile, his assistants prepare the white and blue inks, by mixing sand from the river of Jhelum with some kerosene. The trace paper is placed carefully on the cloth and a paper weight placed over it. It is then that a duster dipped in ink (blue for dark shaded cloth and white for light shaded ones) is passed. The result causes prints of chinar leaves, paisleys and different types of Kashmiri flowers to befall these pieces of plain cloth. This, “Chaamp Traavun” is the second step in casting the beautiful embroidery.
This imprinted cloth is then passed onto a Tilla artisan who uses two threads – one of staple and the other of Tilla and embroiders the plain canvas awaiting his strokes. The technique involves threading the Tilla over the fabric using a specialized needle and fastening this embellishment with a camouflaging cotton thread for a perfect and long lasting finesse. The thread of Tilla is altogether a new dimension, where malleable copper is used as an underwire and coated with silver or gold hues to achieve the desired thickness for the embroidery to be done. The Tilla threads hence obtained are of varying types – the Angora, Hiran, Murga and Peacock. Of these, the most commonly used thread is of the Hiran for it does not age, its sheen remaining unaffected across the folds of time. Once embroidered, the apparel or accessories are sent for washing and ironing for the finished piece to reflect elegance. Special care is taken that a hot iron does not come in direct contact with the Tilla, lest its sheen gets damaged by the heat.
Tilla and Zari – Synonymous or Not?
Often used synonymously, Kashmiri Tilla and Zari stand a world apart. The former uses a metallic underwire coated with gold or silver while the latter uses a silk thread as its base which is covered by silver and golden hues. The usage of the metallic underwire makes the tilla thread much thicker than the Zari one. Once embroidered, the Tilla gives of a bold, embossed and multi-dimensional look while Zari sticks to the fabric looking more delicate. Whats more, the technique of Tilla is such that each stroke of the embroidery is fastened which makes the embellishment last an eternity. The same cannot be said of Zari.
Because of their undiminishing class and sheen, Tilla embroidered pieces form an integral part of every Kashmiri bride’s trousseau. A typical Kashmiri Muslim bride is often seen wearing a “Tille Daar Pheran” (Tilla Worked Phiran) on her Nikah ceremony and carries treasure troves of the craft into her new home.
The craft of Tilla Embroidery is witnessing a decline with the next generation wanting to opt for other occupations. The total number of Tilla Kaarigars in the valley has witnessed a drastic decline with the intervention of machinery. However, the people of the Valley see Tilla as a legacy investment which is passed down from generation to generation and the true admirers of this art do not settle for anything less than the finesse achieved by hand.