It would indeed be surprising if a region with a history as interesting as the subcontinent’s, did not have any memorabilia to showcase and represent its rich and varied culture. Pakistan is very lucky in this context that it is home to the cultures and traditions of a historical people. Be it the local music, the clothes or the handicrafts; every note and creation tells a story that goes back thousands of years.
Photo Credit: Tayyab Mir
Present day horror stories: terrorist attacks, sectarian violence, extremism and the law and order situation have indeed eclipsed the actual identity of the country. One only has to delve into the pre-partition history of the region to discover that the actual foundation stones of the country have a different story to tell; one of a strong cultural identity that is open to slow assimilation, parallel to historical events one reads about in history textbooks. One learns that it is this assimilative nature of these cultures that have allowed them to stand the test of time, a lesson that is perhaps lost to us today.
To a connoisseur of handicrafts, Pakistani creations offer an intriguing study. From the Ajrak designs of Sindh, blue pottery (Kashi) of Multan and Gujraati pottery, to Rilli, the craft of making patchwork quilts mainly in Sindh and Balochistan and Chinioti woodwork, handicrafts provide a view of Pakistan’s kaleidoscopic culture and traditions.
The Indus Epilogue
The story begins with the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed roughly from 3000 to 1700 BCE. The people of this place and period showcased a rich tradition of craft, and possessed an enviable level of technical mastery in weaving, jewelry-making and other handiwork. History tells us of a demand for their products in Arabian lands, which was fulfilled via ancient sea routes.
Craftology Spread in the Suburbs
These techniques and skills are evident even today in the handiwork of potters from the regions of Bahawalpur and Multan in Punjab and Hala in Sindh. The type of clay unique to these areas is used to make delicate but elegant pottery noted for their blue decorative designs.
Even more interesting and more well-known is Chitrali embroidery, made using skills passed down from one generation of Chitrali women to the next. The design is known for its bright and sometimes garish use of color, often used to make textiles and now even purses and handbags. As with most Pakistani handicrafts, the beauty and uniqueness of Chitrali textiles lies in the weaving process that has changed little since ancient times.
Shawls from Upper North
What has truly gained international recognition is the humble Kashmiri shawl, which comes in various patterns, each made in its own unique way. The most well-known is perhaps the Pashmina shawl, made of Pashmina wool and comes in floral designing. The Shatoosh is the most expensive, made from the beard hairs of the ibex. It is said that the shawl is so fine; it can be passed through the width of a finger-ring.
Exoticness of the Ajrak
The color and design of Ajrak shawls have gained recognition and popularity throughout the country. The shawls are indeed considered an important item by even the most fashion-conscious. Ajrak shawls tell the story of early settlements along the Indus River that flows through the province of Sindh. The people of the settlements devised a way of cultivating and using tree cotton to make clothing.
The design of the garment comes from woodblocks carved into various patterns. The color is inspired from nature, as the early makers of the cloth were limited to using dyes they could make from natural materials. The process for making Ajrak has changed little over the centuries, and is now considered an integral artifact of Sindhi culture.
Khussa: Art on Shoes
It would be a grave mistake to not mention the Khussa, a type of hand-stitched leather shoe that can be traced back to ancient Indian and Chinese cultures. Popularly worn by people of the Punjab in both Pakistan and India, the khussa has grown in popularity in Pakistan and is making inroads into the international fashion scene as well.
A quick trip to any handicrafts shop in Pakistan is enough to showcase the skill of marble and onyx artisans from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two provinces that are oddly as different as they are similar. It is said that the skills used go back to the Paleolithic age, and the refinement of these skills over the ages results in some truly eye-catching sculptures and decoration pieces.
The few examples of Pakistani handicrafts talked about in this article are not enough to extol the hidden beauty of these cultural gems that have transcended the barriers of time, possible only through an amalgamation and assimilation of practices and traditions that in a way continues even today. As in the saying, ‘diamonds are forever’, these gems are the true exponents of the county’s cultures and norms, and one can only hope that just as we look to these artifacts for a sense of identity, future generations too will consider these, and not the tales of extremism and violence, to learn of their historical identity.
Here’s to a Pakistan that is rarely shown or seen!