On the wool trail...

On the wool trail...

On the wool trail...

Pashmina brings magic to our winter wardrobe as it stands for sophistication and connoisseurship. But its journey from wool to the snug shawl is a long and arduous one, through craggy mountain passes, beginning at the Changtang area in southeastern Ladakh.

Today, this age-old route is facing hazards with changes in its environment. The area experiences harsh and arid climate with very little vegetation for cover. This induces the animals to produce an undercoat in order to insulate themselves against the chilly conditions. This soft coating under their bellies is six times finer than human hair and is used for making the expensive Pashmina wool.

Razza Abassi,  district chief husbandry officer, Kargil, says, “Pashmina goat is not a specific breed; all the local white coloured goats of Ladakh region produce the undercoat if exposed to severe cold conditions.” Around 22,000 of these goats reportedly died due to a scarcity of fodder owing to unprecedented snowfall in the Changtang area of Leh in the past months. The villages affected were Nyoma, Tsagha, Nider, Muth, Chumathang, Kordzoq, Manmirak, Chhusul, Phobrang and Kargyam. Abassi clarifies that Ladakh has two districts — Leh and Kargil — and the livestock deaths occurred primarily in Leh.

Unexpected cold weather, inability to transport fodder from Srinagar, dry pastures, and a severe winter have made a difference to the production of wool even though the Pashmina goat is quite resilient. Tsewan Morup from the department of sheep husbandry, Leh, says, “Changtang is a huge area covering 42,000 sq km, and the temperature varies between -43 and -45 degrees. The enormity of the problem is clear only if one visits this place. The pregnant goats have been having miscarriages and the young ones, up to one-year-old, have been dying because of the cold.”

The Leh district of Greater Ladakh produces around 30,000 kg of Pashmina fibre every year, which is harvested from about 0.15 million goats in Changthang. With the numbers going down fast, production stands at a crossroads. Naturally, the artisans and the middlemen who are involved in the trade are affected. “I may have to relocate to Srinagar or Jammu to find a job for myself as I have incurred huge losses. Future seems to be dismal unless strong steps are taken by the state government,” rues Ghulam Rasool Dar, a trader in Pashmina shawls.

Cloning effort

To preserve and propagate this soft fur species, a team of scientists at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST-K) cloned a Pashmina goat named ‘Noori’ through a simplified, hand-guided cloning technique. “It is an advanced, assisted reproduction technique that does not manipulate or alter the  animal’s DNA,” claims Riyaz Ahmed Shah, principal scientist in the cloning project. This project is funded by ICAR under the National Agricultural Innovative Project. It is a two-pronged approach to infuse new life to Pashmina — first, by cloning of  the goats, and second, by enhancing the productivity and profitability of the fibre.

Besides the shortage of wool due to environmental reasons, a man-made one has been threatening the famous woollen shawl for some time now. Many fake Pashmina outlets have found their way into the markets. Today, though pashmina products are in demand at home and abroad, experts say that the future is bleak unless appropriate action is taken to preserve the goats as well as the authenticity of the art. Only time will tell to what extent any efforts to preserve this rare wool will succeed. At the moment, however, it may be said that this soft fleece is going through a hard time.