Afghan Interiors devotees will be familiar with the marvellously warm and soft hand-woven cotton throws sold in our Sydney store. Ideal for picnics, or cosy nights on the couch, they are in fact articles of clothing. The ‘chador’ is the traditional men’s winter shawl, and the best of all are made in the Frontier town of Charsadda.
Hand-woven cotton cloth has been a speciality of the area from time immemorial. It mainly consists of the hand-spun variety commonly known in both Pakistan and India as ‘kaddi’ (famously mobilised by Ghandi as an economic weapon against the British and their imported Manchester cottons, and subsequently symbolised by the spinning wheel at the centre of the Indian flag).
However, Charsadda’s speciality is a super-heavy weight version known locally as ‘karandey’.This has the warmth of wool, but is softer. The fact that this developed here is much to do with Charsadda’s position at the junction of the cotton-growing plains of the sub-continent, and the mountains of North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan. Winters are severe, and a warm, washable alternative to wool is highly prized.
Weaving in Charsadda is the traditional occupation of a clan of the Mohmand tribe, the Matta Moghul Khel.It is still very much a cottage industry. Most businesses are single weavers with sons and apprentices working on handlooms or small power looms, using a mixture of local hand-spun and imported machine-spun yarns. Production facilities are basic. At present there are around 55 workshops with a total of about 280 looms.
The benefit of hand looms are that they are simply constructed, don’t require electricity and are easy to transport. However, they impose production constraints; eg, it is not possible to tension hand-spun yarn tightly enough to produce bed-sheet width cloth. This requires high quality machine-spun yarn and power broadlooms.
Afghan Interiors has been supporting this local industry for 15 years, and buys both traditional chadors and the hand-woven striped cloth used to cover our range of mattresses (toshaks) and bolsters, and also for sale by the metre.
We are also developing new products, such as dyed and sewn bedcovers, that are possible to produce within the limits of the existing facilities.
We would like to go much further, and scale up this cottage industry into a serious export earner and a provider of jobs. Our associated charity, FDS, has a project to do so, but the peculiar problems posed by Charsadda seem to have so far placed it in the too hard basket with potential donors.
The issues broadly revolve around its strategic location. The Charsadda district contains roughly 1.5 million people and is situated on a parallel with the Afghan border 17 miles north of Peshawar. It borders Mohmand Tribal Agency to the west, Bajaur Tribal Agency to the north-west, and the Swat valley to the north-east. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charsadda_NWFP.svg
All of these regions have been the scene of heavy fighting between radical Islamist groups and the Pakistan Army in recent years, with high and largely unremarked civilian casualties. The two agencies are also now subject to regular American drone-strikes.
As a result, Charsadda is inundated with refugees. Unfortunately, the local economy has simultaneously suffered a sharp contraction due to this same continued insecurity, and the nationwide collapse of the electricity and gas supply. In addition, the area has been hit twice by major flooding in the last three years. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/7935485/Pakistan-floods-disaster-is-the-worst-in-the-UNs-history.html . Unemployment is high, arms are plentiful, and Charsadda can be rather dangerous at night.
In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that aid agencies tend to run a mile when projects in this area are suggested.
However, for those familiar with the local human terrain, the tribal Pathan is mainly conspicuous for his embarrassingly profuse hospitality rather than his supposed surly fanaticism. In the game of smoke-and-mirrors that currently comprises politics on the Frontier, the only real threat of radicalisation is a continued dearth of jobs.
Sadly, it was not always so. Charsadda, along with the rest of the Vale of Peshawar, is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Its four-season climate, and the fact that it marks the eastern geographical limit of European flora, (elms and oaks grow alongside bananas and mangoes) make it unique.
One of the most vivid memories of those on the overland trail in the 70’s who, like me, travelled from west to east over the dry Iranian plateau, is of descending the Khyber Pass into this lush green paradise, where every conceivable variety of fruit seemed available.
Little wonder that there were hundreds of hippies, plastic or otherwise, living semi-permanently in the Swat Valley during this golden interlude, before the wars began. Now the guesthouses and hotels have long closed, and no tourists have been seen in the region for many years.
Indeed, going further back into history, this same agricultural richness made Charsadda and its environs a famous name, and a seat of empires.
It seems to have been founded around 1400BC by the Aryans as they poured down the Indus valley on their way to occupy India, and is mentioned in the Rig-Veda. Its position at the confluence of three rivers, the Jindi, the Swat and the Kabul, gave it special spiritual significance to these water-obsessed people, as it did later to Buddhism. An excellent book on this subject is ‘Empires of the Indus’, by Alice Albinia http://www.soas.ac.uk/csp/events/seminars/06dec2012-empires-of-the-indus-the-story-of-a-river-.html
Later, Charsadda formed one of the eastern satrapies of the Persian empire, until it was besieged and conquered by Alexander the Great in 324BC on the final phase of his march to the Indus.
Subsequently Charsadda entered into its golden period as the capital of the Gandharan empire, an entity that existed under various dynasties from the 6th century BC to the 2nd century AD. An early (actually the original) centre of Buddhism, during its later phases it produced a remarkable artistic synthesis by incorporating Buddhist iconography with the Greek classicism of the Seleucids, Alexander’s successors in Central Asia. The Art Gallery of NSW contains some fine examples of these startlingly beautiful Buddhas with European faces. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandhara
To this day, the area around Charsadda is littered with Buddhist monuments. There is actually a major stupa in the middle of the Khyber Pass.
We seem to have strayed a long way from the subject of chadors. But they represent a connecting thread, via the artistic and practical genius of its people, to one of the most attractive yet most neglected regions on earth.
Afghan Interiors will continue to do its bit to maintain an economic lifeline, and I look forward to being able to offer anyone interested tours to the region as soon as events permit, which is presumably when those orchestrating the current military pantomime find themselves something more constructive to do.