In the heart of Kashmir, where the Himalayas cradle ancient stories and the rivers sing melodies old and young, lies a treasure revered by many: the Pashmina. Also referred to as ‘soft gold,’ this fine wool comes from the underbelly of the Changthangi goats native to the high-altitude regions of Tibet and Ladakh. Back in the Mughal era, pashmina shawls were a symbol of royalty and nobility, coveted for their exquisite beauty and intricate designs. Today the legacy continues, as pashmina remains a coveted item for those who appreciate its elegance and history.

Pashmina is a living thread in the cultural tapestry of Kashmir, embodying the heritage of its people. For generations it has been a cornerstone of Kashmiri artistry, a craft passed down through the ages with reverence and pride. Artisans pour their skill, devotion and souls into transforming this delicate fibre into exquisite shawls, wraps and scarves. This weave is not just about the elegance of its drapes and lines but the hands that spin and weave magic into its threads. It is a story of tradition echoing through the looms and fabrics of time, a narrative of meticulous craftsmanship and dedication, enhanced by the rich history of Kashmir.

The journey of Pashmina begins in the rugged terrain of the Himalayas, home to the Changthangi goats. Muzaffar Andrabi, founder of Rivayat Pashmina, explains that all pashm wool comes from Changthang and it is not even a decimal of the entire Pashmina produced in the world. The goats’ wool, known for its extraordinary softness and warmth, is combed and collected with care, in a process that harmonises with nature’s rhythm. This wool then embarks on a transformation through the skilled hands of Kashmiri artisans. These craftsmen and women, custodians of an age-old tradition, imbue each fibre with the richness of being.

The unique quality of Kashmiri Pashmina comes from a tradition that values the humane treatment of Changthangi goats and a deep understanding of the art. Andrabi shares, “I have personally gone and seen them. I have followed the herders for a week and believe me, it’s really fascinating what these goats do. They lick onto these stones, the pebbles, and they eat fresh, little grass which is invisible for a person like me from a distance. What they eat is what they produce at the end of the day,” he says, highlighting the natural and traditional methods that contribute to the unparalleled quality of pashmina wool. This meticulous attention to the natural habits of the Changthangi goats, coupled with the traditional practices of the local herders, underscores the unique ecosystem that contributes to the production of the world’s finest pashmina.

In the bustling markets of Srinagar and the quiet villages of the Kashmir valley, pashmina is more than a commodity, it’s a lifeline, a source of sustenance for entire communities. The art of creating pashmina provides not just financial stability but a sense of identity and pride. Yet the tradition faces challenges in an age where speed and efficiency for consumers and business owners dictate working conditions and dynamics. The rise of machine-made imitations and changing fashion, often sold under the guise of genuine pashmina, threatens the livelihood of these artisans and the survival of their craft. These challenges are not only economic but strike at the very heart of the artisans’ heritage and cultural identity.

Amidst these challenges blaze beacons of hope, and the spirit of pashmina endures. Artisans and local brands, deeply rooted in their love of the craft, strive tirelessly to preserve their tradition. They pass down their skills and knowledge, ensuring that the legacy of pashmina continues for generations to come. This commitment to preservation is also about keeping alive a vital part of their cultural identity. Meanwhile, commercial initiatives aimed at preserving the authenticity and legacy of pashmina are also taking root. The Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Kashmir Pashmina is a significant step towards protecting its heritage. The emergence of cooperatives and organisations dedicated to fair trade practices ensures that artisans are rightfully compensated for their labour and skill, fostering a sustainable future for this age-old artistry.

A new chapter in the story of pashmina is also being written with the advent of sustainable and ethical practices. The delicate ecosystem of the Changthangi goats, their wellbeing, and the environmental impact of pashmina production are integral to this tale. Andrabi’s experience underscores the contrast between practices traditional and modern. He says, “There is a big difference between Mongolia, China, or other places. They raise these cattle which are goats in captivity. Whereas when you look at Ladakh and especially in the Changthang region, you will see that these goats are roaming around with their shepherds, and they’ve been doing this for thousands of years.”

This new, emerging momentum towards social responsibility and ethicality is adding another layer of depth to the pashmina story. The sustainable practices extend beyond the care of goats to the methods used in harvesting their wool. According to Andrabi, “In Mongolia they shave goats, but in Ladakh we only comb them, and that’s why we get maybe 100, 150, max 200 grams. The difference is that when you shave them, you get almost 1,000 grams of wool or maybe sometimes even 1,200 grams per sheep, per goat,” he explains, highlighting the ethical and sustainable approach that contributes to the rarity and value of Kashmiri Pashmina.

“To obtain the best wool, you have to graze a goat at an elevation of 14,000 feet, which is where the Changthang range lies in that area. The second thing is that you cannot do any other way of getting the wool out of it by combing it. So how much combing and when you see the quality of the wool, that is where you get it because that you don’t find in any other animal in the world. No other animal is as soft as this one. And for the first two years, the babies, they will never trim them, or they will never comb it. For the first two years, they never, they don’t touch the goat because she’s going to die. The goats are going to die because of the cold climate, which goes up to minus 50 to 60 degrees. That is what makes this luxurious,” Andrabi adds, emphasising the unique conditions and care that go into the production of Pashmina wool.

The resilience and ingenuity of the Kashmiri people and their love for Pashmina stand unmatched and undeterred. With its elegant folds, the legacy of a culture, the warmth of a community’s heart and mind, and the promise of a sustainable future, pashmina stands strong and with its lasting shine. It is a symbol of hope and perseverance, a bridge connecting the past with the present, and a testament to the beauty that emerges when tradition and innovation are woven together.

As the Himalayas stand guard over the valleys, the art of pashmina will continue to be a beacon of hope and a reminder of the enduring power of tradition and identity. It will keep alive the identity of the countless individuals who cherish and recognize the value of this ‘soft gold,’ and each fold of Pashmina will uncover a new story, of a new weaver, of a new human being. With the continued dedication of artisans, the support of initiatives aimed at preserving its authenticity, and a commitment to sustainable practices, the future of pashmina looks as warm and bright as the exquisite shawls it produces, ensuring that this precious thread of Kashmiri heritage will continue to weave its magic for generations to come.