Kashmir is the only place in the world where it is still legal to buy, sell and flaunt shatoosh, the so-called "king of wools".
President Bill Clinton won't be stopping here on his trip to the subcontinent, which begins on Monday, although he might like to. This troublesome region may be the running sore of Indo-Pakistan relations, but Kashmir for shatoosh is like Amsterdam for hashish.
In New York or Washington you can be arrested and indicted for wearing this rarest of fabrics. Stores that surreptitiously sell it are raided and prosecuted. But in the visitors room of a weaving factory in Srinagar, a great bulk of woven shatoosh - enough to make four shawls worth at least $3,200 in a shop in the West - is tossed on the carpet at my feet as casually as if it were cotton.
Although Kashmir's chief minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, has refused to implement India's ban on shatoosh, that doesn't help the weavers much. You may be able to buy or sell it, but you cannot take it with you without risking arrest and confiscation at the other end.
Shatoosh shawls have been banned because their trade is leading to the extinction of the animal from which the wool comes - the chiru or Tibetan antelope. Unlike the pashmina goat, from which a slightly less valuable wool comes, the chiru is a wild animal which roams the Tibetan plateau. It was long believed that shatoosh came from the winter coat which the chiru discarded insummer by rubbing against fences and bushes. Intrepid Tibetans were believed to rove across the plateau, stuffing these leavings into sacks.
It was only a little over 10 years ago that the true facts emerged: chiru were being shot dead on the hoof by hunters in jeeps, who shaved their underbellies for the wool. As shatoosh shawls grew from being a largely Indian taste to the subtlest assertion of wealth and style, the chiru seemed to be on the way out. At the turn of the last century there were believed to have been 2 million chiru. Today there are fewer than 75,000.
The ban on shatoosh may have come in time to save the chiru, but for the weavers of Srinagar it was a body blow. The people of the Kashmir Valley have seen their livelihoods disappear in the 10 years since the insurgency broke out and the tourist trade collapsed. The ban on shatoosh, the way the weavers tell it, has changed them from modestly prosperous to downright poor.
Fida Hussain is a typical craft weaver in Malapora, the quarter of old Srinagar where the weavers live and work. He is one of some 700,000 crafts people in the Kashmir Valley who depend on the weaving trade. Fida's business is a family operation: their four-storey home is almost completely given over to the work. Father, mother, sister and both brothers are involved. The women card and spin, the men weave.
The house is spacious and very clean. But Fida is unhappy. He spells out the arithmetic: the work on his loom, which will make four shawls each 2m in length, will take one month to complete. If it was shatoosh, he would be paid 5,000 rupees - about £71; not much, but in India not an impossibly low income. But as it is pashmina, he will be paid only 1,500 rupees - about £20 - which is the salary of a badly paid menial. "I work very hard but I'm paid very little," he says. "This ban is a big problem."
Fida works for a weaving factory nearby, which gives him the yarn and takes his shawls. Nine big, old-fashioned electric looms clatter away in the shop, turning out silk pashmina shawls. Mohammad Dewani, one of the partners in the firm, gives the usual line about shatoosh being scavenged from Tibetan bushes, but when pressed admits that in modern times at least, the animals are being killed. "We stopped making shatoosh shawls four years back, when Indian dealers stopped buying them," he claims. "Our financial position is very bad as a result. Nowadays shatoosh just trickles into the valley and dealers hoard shawls so they can sell them at three times the price, but today there are few buyers."
Fida adds: "The only people who suffered as a result of this ban on shatoosh are poor workers. The big dealers just changed to different lines. I've heard that in America there was a protest campaign against force-feeding turkeys before Christmas. It's amazing to me. They care more about animals than they do about people."Reuse content