It's that time of the year again when the nip in the air forces us to wrap ourselves in warm shawls. As I wrapped myself in a Kullu shawl that was not only warm but also soft, I was reminded of my visit to Kullu, where I had interacted with the simple, ever-smiling and friendly natives of the small hilly town who weave shawls in breathtaking designs and colours.
The story goes back to the late 90s when I was on an official trip to Naggar, Himachal Pradesh. I had a day to spare, so I decided to head to Kullu and hired a taxi. Fortunately for me, my driver Rabta, a middle-aged local, was talkative and engaged me in an interesting conversation about the many specialities the scenic Himalayan state had to offer. However, on top of his list was the Kullu shawl.
On our many stops on the way for hot cups of chai and beautiful scenery, Rabta showed me these shawls in not only elegant designs but in soft textures, too. I knew I wanted them, and also learn more about their weaving.
I was in luck. For, Rabta's cousin Sobha was married to a weaver family, and they resided in a village on the outskirts of Kullu. He drove me to Sobha's place. On the way, I saw men chatting with their friends and shearing sheep as naturally as drinking chai.
At Sobha's place, too, in the courtyard, a few elderly men were either shearing wool or cleaning it, or wrapping different-coloured wool on bobbins, or spinning yarn on wooden spindles. I saw loom with a weft- and-warp arrangement. Sobha told me the entire family participates in the weaving procedure, off and on, throughout the day.
While the young ones actively sit at the loom to weave, the elderly help out in other related ways, depending on their physical abilities.
Rabta shared that since it's peak winter, their fields were barren, and nobody steps out fearing the cold, and the only way they can keep themselves engaged is by weaving. No wonder, the village was teeming with people, and every courtyard bursting with activity.
The raw materials for Kullu shawls are mostly sourced locally but sometimes sourced from the neighbouring states and countries, too. For instance, Merino, Angora and Pashmina are imported for variety. The weaving, Shoba said, begins with the preparation of the warp frame on the loom. The weft runs across the warp and is responsible for the shape of the design.
Talking of designs, a typical Kullu shawl has geometric designs though floral ones are not uncommon. Some common motifs are trishul, swastika, crosses, and 'V's. According to research, Kullu shawl designs owe their origin to Kinnauri woven patterns. However, Kullu weavers have given Kinnauri designs their own touch of creativity, modified them, and made them their own.
The traditional colours are the natural wool shades of white, cream, beige, brown and grey. According to Sobha, customers ask for bright colours, and so they have started dyeing wool in chemical colours.
Like they say, every mountainous region of India has its own weaving customs and traditions. And Kullu is no exception.
Where to watch
What sets the Kullu shawls apart from the variety of shawls available across India are their vibrant borders in striking patterns. It was fascinating to see them weave intricate decorations deftly on their looms. There were stoles, men's shawls locally known as lohis, traditional women's wear known as pattu, blanketsâ€¦ Watching the family at work was so engrossing that I had lost track of time and the number of chai cups I had consumed. The friendly banter, the warmth of their hospitality, and their innocent ways had clearly floored me. I quickly made my purchases and headed back to Naggar, proud of the fact that I was taking a piece of Kullu with me.