“The Silverwork of Kashmir is extremely beautiful and some of the indigenous patterns, the Chinar and Lotus lea are of exquisite designs.”
- Robert Lawrence
Of the myriads of Indian silver forms, Kashmiri Silverware was and remains the richest. It is said that silver artistry in Kashmir dates back to the Mughal Era and was inspired by the picturesque beauty which surrounds. The craft contributes to the rich cultural history of the Valley and made its way into the Durbars (courts) of the royals. Ksemandra and Kalhana both bear witness that Kings and nobles took their meals in vessels made of gold and Kashmiri Silver. In fact, Muslim rulers used certain silver articles like Huqqa Bases, spittoons and rose water sprinklers which later became objects of heritage among the people of the Vale. Legend has it that the last ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh had specially designed utensils and tableware handmade by Kashmiri Silversmiths, which included a Thaal (rounded plate) with a hot water steam chamber to keep his food warm.
The tradition of using Kashmiri silver was rich. From the elite class, locally known as “Khojje” to the lower classes, each had a unique way of ornamenting in Silver Jewels for some articles of the craft were luxuries which only the rich could afford. The women of the elite would wear the ancient headgear, Kasaba paired with exquisite Taal Razz and would be laden in heavy silver necklaces and cuffs. On the other hand, the lower strata of the society would wear light jewels. The same rules of the society would apply for objects of décor and utility. Silver would hence act as a key element in defining and shaping the society.
The craft of silver making contributes to interesting rituals within the Kashmiri society. For instance, a typical Kashmiri bride walks down the aisle wearing sandals of pure silver, the believers encapsulate their talismans within Silver Dolna necklaces and the Begums use a Surma Daani made into a silver necklace for a handy Kohl storage.
The art form, however, did not remain confined to the Valley where it was made. It was in primitive Dogra tradition to gift the bride a set of utensils, a few of which – plate, cups, and a Lota had to be in Kashmiri Silver. For religious rites too, a “Chandi ka Chattar” (a silver umbrella) was made for the Goddess.
The Process of Being
The precious silver undergoes a meticulous process of hammering, shaping, engraving, and refining before it manifests its beauty in the art forms it is molded into. Thick blocks of silver are first hammered into sheets which are heated to an extreme temperature by a silversmith. The excessive heat melts the precious metal for the silversmith to mould and shape it with the help of a tool called “Onguch” into the article of his choice.
Meanwhile, a designer prepares the Naqsha (design) over an iron trace. These designs are inspired by the floral landscape of the Valley and include Chinars, lotus leaves, and poppy plants. Arabesques or paisleys are also made to resemble famous Kashmiri shawls, reflecting the influence which one rich craft casts over the mind of other craftsmen – in this case, the engraver.
The silver is then softened for it to embrace the design which is about to befall its essence. The mould is hence heated for the second time and cooled to the desired temperature at which the iron trace is hammered to cast its imprint. The design is repeated over the entire surface for it to exude resplendence. After the engraving, any bends in the mould are removed using an Eran. Finally, a fixture of copper and silver called Taanka is inserted, which completes the object of silver in making. This is followed by brief spells of cleaning, polishing and gilding the metal which brings out the inner beauty of the metal to make a dazzling display of its beauty.
As an old craft of Kashmir, silver artistry defines the deftness of Kashmiri craftsmen behind its making – silversmiths, engravers, polishers, cleaners, and gilders. However, the craft that was once at its pinnacle has seen a decline in the number of artisans who actually craft it in remote villages and the Shehr –e-Khaas of Srinagar.
The culture of carrying and using silver has always been so revered in the Valley of Kashmir that it has been cherished and preserved carefully by each passing generation. Its articles are of European as well as Indian forms and range simple household items to decorative ones. Tea sets, goblets, jewelry, trays, kashkuls and sandals are some of the commonly crafted pieces - and each narrates a tale of tradition, culture and rich artistry when used. Objects of silver age gracefully, acquiring a timeless antique look with each passing year.