About some hundred kilometers away from the hustle and bustle of Srinagar City, is anther remote valley nestled carefully in the lap of the Himalayas. Serene and refreshing, one could spend the entire lifetime in the stillness of what Mother Nature has blessed this particular corner of the world with.
In this breathtaking lies a small Karkhana (workshop) where the famous Karakul caps are manufactured, owned by an old yet extremely skillful man, locally known as “Abba”. Abba has been operating the Karkhana for decades now and has sold thousands of caps from the time he started in his teens. Now, in his old age, wrinkled face and white hair, he still takes pride in manufacturing what is called the crown of the gentleman’s head.
Karakul – the most prized possession of every gentleman is the epitome of luxury in the world of caps. For years together, Karakul caps have been worn by the most elite of gentlemen on very special occasions like public speeches or their own wedding. In fact, the trousseau of a groom is incomplete without the addition of the Karakul. Famous personalities like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Imran Khan and Hamid Karzai were often spotted wearing the Karakul as a part of their regal fashion.
Our quest for tracing the origins of every single craft to have existed in the Valley of Kashmir led us to the very workshop where the luxury cap is made. We reached the remote valley at about 11 am in the morning. Fresh air filled our lungs and as we reached the match box sized workshop, we were made to wait for some 10 minutes outside. Soon Abba himself came to greet us and asked us to join him for a cup of tea. Since the morning was already chilly, we couldn’t say no.
A wise and composed demeanor reflecting in the lines of his wrinkled face, Abba was pleasant and knowledgeable. He could tell you about the history of any craft in a jiffy and knew the mountains like the back of his hand. It was these hands which displayed marks of utter skill which he had developed knitting and stitching Karakuls caps all his life. When asked about his craft and how it all began, Abba started narrating the tale of his life.
“I was just 17 when I learnt the art of stitching Karakul caps. The craft has always been on the pinnacle of glory as far as I remember. It saw certain highs and lows but never lost a tad of its luxurious glamour. In the olden times, only the elite could have afforded the Karakul. The accessory was more than just a cap - it was a symbol of status, pride, honor and dignity. In fact, the soft fur used in making Karakuls did not remain confined to these caps only. International labels and designers would gather it's raw material to make overlays, bedding, bags, accessories and much more. The softness of the fur is non pareil. The skin comes from Afghanistan originally. We just clean, knit and stitch it here into the final silhouette”, said Abba after a few sips of the delicious tea, which seemed to be prepared straight in heaven.
“Our Karkhana has prepared Karakuls for great personalities of Kashmir who were patrons of traditions”. We all agreed because every single child in Kashmir, including all of us, have been raised in the influence of our grandparents, where grand dads would never step out of the house without unfolding the Karakul and placing them proudly on their head. Coming back home, they would again fold it into a flat shape, and caress it on their knees like a young child.
The tea was over and are curiosity aroused. We wanted to know all about the the heritage cap. Where and how does it start? How old is the lamb? How is the wool acquired, and the rest. But to our surprise, Abba was hesitant. His eyes suddenly became distant as if hiding the remorse of a deadly sin. Soon, however, he started narrating facts - facts which took off the furry veils over our impression of the most valued caps of they valley.
"From the past 50 years, my livelihood has been dependent on this business. It’s the only source of my family income and if something happens to the Karkhana, we will have to see the days of starvation. We didn’t know what the old man had started talking about. “Why would the Karkhana shut, Sir”? We asked. He smiled. This grin of his told us much of the story that Abba was hesitant to speak about at first. He led us to the interiors of the dark workshop and showed us some pelts of lambs, which go into the making of Karakuls. And then Abba started narrating the entire process of the making, which we still wish we had never heard."
“Karakul breed of sheep is entirely different. They were anciently found in Bukhara, Afghanistan. The sheep are very unique in the way they eat, drink or survive different conditions. New born Karakuls are very attractive to look at. The curls on its body form a ridged pattern which is as unique as the fingerprints of a human being. But in a few days, the curls get unfurled and rather rough. So the wool has to be acquired before that. Therefore a pregnant ewe has to be slaughtered, her stomach slashed wide so that a worker can remove the foetus. The foetus is then skinned and this skin becomes the raw material for the grand Karakul cap”, Abba said dubiously.
We couldn’t believe what we had just heard. We all stood there dumbfounded, not even gathering the courage to look at each other. Yet Abba continued.
"A new born lamb or just the fetus is chosen for the reason that its skin has never been exposed to sun or air. This keeps his skin extremely soft, with a special sheen that is said to be “as pure as a precious stone”. So young and small in size is this fetus or new born that it takes the skin of just one lamb to make one karakul hat."
The beauty and allure of this place had just turned upside down. We smelled murder. We smelled blood. Abba, still looking into the distance began to give us the first-hand experience of his visit to the slaughter house .
“When I visited the slaughter house, two workers accompanied me in the bloody place, all barren and in the worst of conditions, holding the pregnant ewe from the front and back, ready to be slaughtered by not in any way humane slaughtering techniques. The ewe was dropped onto the floor in the most merciless way, whilst she kept on squirming in agony, kicking her legs, pain in her eyes, but all in vain. One worker controlled her body by stepping on it with his foot, perhaps to make her realise that this is the end for her.
The butcher first slashed her throat with a long knife. The ewe kept wriggling and thrashing her legs with pain, her legs continuing to kick with eventually the movements slowing down. A stream of blood gushed down the floor. The butcher then twisted her head till it came off totally. The lifeless body was now taken and placed over a wooden structure.
Forceful movements in the dead ewe’s abdomen could be felt, which was the unborn lamb kicking, ready to start a life of his own, not knowing what his evil fate would be. But the heartless workers pushed the ewe’s abdomen, many a times, in strong strokes, till there was no more movement. They had killed the fetus too!
Now workers started to skin the sheep, and moments later tore open the uterus and to pull out the lamb, or the fetus."
This fetus was also tossed on the floor, to see the same fate as his parent. But before this tragic scene could occur, Abba had left the place, all teary eyed.
“There have been many times when I decided to quit this work. But since my entire family depends on it, I have to gather strength, muster courage and move on”, Abba said with his head bowed down. "If I and so many others like me had an alternative, we would never dirty our hands to the brutality that surrounds the seeming luxury. At times, I thought of getting into some other craft, but these hands are old now. They have not known any other skill which could fill the empty stomach."
We left the place with the heaviest of hearts, yet determined to bring a change.
Kashmir Box started off with a mission to bring empowerment - to artisans, farmers and customers alike. A business striving for the empowerment of all couldn't bear to be inhumane towards an innocent lamb, who has not even opened his eyes to the world. This wasn’t us! This wasn’t what Kashmir Box does! This wasn’t even humane at the first place. The matter was finally taken to the Kashmir Box management and a collective decision taken to cease the selling of Karakul caps. The orders from customers were cancelled. The vendors were informed. The stock was returned. And the name Karakul was forgotten.
What about the artisans?
As pointed out by Abba himself, if an artisan could, he would never be a part of the brutality which slaughters both the mother and her unborn child. To feed their families, these artisans remain silent and live a life full of remorse.
Do they have an alternative? Yes.
Many Karakul artisans have come up with fashionable and traditional replacements to the luxury cap. These alternatives include Kani print caps, Afghan styled Pakol caps, artisan made golf caps, anchored woolen caps and more, but have failed at bringing them to match the scale and status of a Karakul.
It's time we, the humans of the world come together and stop making, selling and wearing the luxury which is based on a true horror story. A small step towards the cause can save the life of a little karakul lamb and it can live a full life, running merrily and playfully in the lush fields of Afghanistan.