Charsadda – following the threads of tradition

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.

How to wear your Charsadda chador.

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.

Buying Chadors in Charsadda

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.

Hand-looms – small scale but greatly adaptable

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.

Afghan Interiors’ toshak material on the loom.

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.

Discussing our order with Haji Sahib. AI customers will recognise the material samples.

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.

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. . Unemployment is high, arms are plentiful, and Charsadda can be rather dangerous at night.

Ruined houses in Charsadda after the floods of 2010

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.

By 2050, Pakistan’s population will exceed 360 million – most of them unemployed.

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

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.

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.

A warm Pathan welcome from children in Charsadda.

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.

Light and shade in Multan Part 2

The handicrafts of Multan match its cultural and agricultural richness. In addition to the ceramics, tilework and lamps mentioned previously, furniture and embroidered women’s shoes (khussa) are also famous, but the chief glory of Multan is derived from the ‘white gold’ of its rich cotton crop.

Bleached cotton yarn drying in Multan

Multan is celebrated for its traditional cloth-making and embroidery, particularly of the intricately worked women’s shawls known as dupattas. AI has imported large numbers of these in the past. In more tolerant times, the same ‘lacework’ technique used for these diaphanous shawls was used to produce Italian-designed beach dresses.


Detail of hand-embroidered dupatta

This traditional industry remains based on outwork. The workshop owner makes or buys in the plain cloth, which, together with the sewing thread, is then sent out to village women in the surrounding districts to finish at home. They return with the finished goods and are paid on a piece-work basis. The income derived by women from piecework embroidery often forms a very important contribution to the family budget.

The southern Punjab, like neighbouring Sindh, is afflicted by severe rural poverty despite its agricultural wealth. This is due to the persistence of a feudal land tenure system in which a small number of families own huge estates, upon which the peasant population work as either day-labourers or share-croppers, for what amounts to a bare subsistence wage..

The evils of this system have long been recognised, and Pakistani history since Partition is littered with frustrated attempts at land reform, which invariably founder on the power of the ‘zamindar’ lobby, and their dominance over the leadership of the main political parties. (The normal practice amongst feudal families is for one son to run the estate, one son to go into politics, and for a third to go into the army. All bases are thus nicely covered.)         In the patronage politics of Pakistan it is an unwise peasant who votes against the wishes of his landlord.

Popular discontent with this system takes the form of persistent banditry, (dacoity), which make some roads in the region unsafe at night, and the growing popularity of fundamentalist movements. These derive their appeal from the natural socialism implied by Sharia law, and could be reasonably characterised as peasant revolts in a religious guise.

Such militancy tends to be concentated in towns where radical madressehs have been allowed to establish themselves.  A notable example on the road to Multan from the north is the rather moody and depressing little town of Jhang, which I can assure readers from personal experience is not a place where you’d necessarily want your car to break down after dark.

In a further cynical twist, it would also seem that both fundamentalist and dacoit gangs are frequently bought and co-opted by local landowners to instil fear and docility amongst the local population.

A handy analogy is the partnership between the Church, the Christian Democrats and the Mafia that ran Sicily for many years.

The cotton industry is the mainstay of the Pakistani economy. Multan is only one major mill-town in a swathe of country which runs from Lahore in the north-east down to Karachi in the south.  Multan vies with Faisalabad as its major centre. (Faisalabad was formerly known as Lawrencepur, but, as an Army officer once spluttered to me, ‘we had to change its name to please the bloody Arabs!’ ie, after another king-size subsidy from the Saudis).

Hand-loom in Multan. With continual electricity outages in Pakistan, there has been a significant rise in interest in traditional handlooms.

The majority of the industry comprises of factories with vast arrays of highly sophisticated power-looms, financed by serious foreign investment and orientated largely toward export. Australian readers may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of their sheets and towels are actually made in Pakistan.

While cotton textile manufacturing is usually associated with India, the fact is that a large proportion of Indian production uses Pakistani cotton. The price of cotton on the Indian market rose 50% between 2009 and 2010 due to the widespread floods in Pakistan.

These factories are an impressive sight. Sometimes over a kilometre long, with high protective walls and watch-towers, they loom out of the flat green landscape like great white battleships. No-one is admitted unless it’s for a minimum order of 50,000 metres.

Sadly however, these major concerns are beginning to hoist anchor and disappear. The increasing unreliability of the national power supply as a result of Pakistan’s endemic corruption is causing a growing number to move production to places like Thailand and Bangladesh.

Cotton weaver making hand-woven bedspreads for the international market.

Afghan Interiors has long been interested in expanding its existing experience in hand-made textiles into new production, not least as part of FDS’s charitable activities.

However, up till now, AI has been unable to find the happy medium between the extremely small-scale hand-weavers in Charsadda, who fill our present orders, and these foreign-owned behemoths.

Happily, that gap has now been filled, thanks to a fortunate and recent set of introductions made through old acquaintances. We have been lucky enough to gain access to a traditional cotton mill in Multan which has over 200 handlooms in operation. It also covers the full sequence of production from bleaching raw yarn, dyeing, weaving, hand-block and screen-printing, finishing and packing. Most importantly, it employs hundreds of women outworkers to hand-embroider and finish all its products.

Dyed yarns, Multan

The owners and their friends through whom the introduction was made are representative of that respectable middle section of Pakistani society, small landowners and agriculturalists, professionals, bazaar entrepreneurs and industrialists, who are as equally alienated by the current ruling kleptocracy as by the proponents of religious extremism.

Instead, they perform a considerable amount of quiet charitable activity, providing schooling, medical and other facilities for the poor, but always, as perhaps befits citizens of the City of Sufis, on condition of complete anonymity.

Block printing cotton cushion covers

We look forward to working with this concern. Its fostering of traditional crafts, which are by their very nature labour-intensive, is very timely at a stage when the mechanised section of Pakistan’s textile industry is losing jobs, and when the overall need for youth employment increases every year, and as the Western market attaches increasing value to forms of capitalist enterprise that promote social progress for the majority.

Technical experience gained by Afghan Interiors here will, in turn, aid FDS in the development of a business model which can be applied and brought to scale in other areas of Pakistan, particularly the north west, where peculiarly difficult conditions have defied the international aid community’s conventional attempts at top-down development for years.

Light and shade in Multan Part 1

Visitors to Afghan Interiors have often marvelled at the lighting in the store – hundreds of hand-painted camel-skin lamps decorated with flowers and geometric patterns. These lamps are unique to Multan, a city of ancient renown, and the fifth largest in Pakistan.

Camel-skin lamps from Multan

The hand-painted designs of the lamps share a common origin with Moghul tilework, visible throughout Multan. Ceramics and tilework are historically famous industries here, based on the alluvial clay of the surrounding river systems.

Multan is known popularly as the ‘City of Sufis’, referring to the wonderful collection of shrines dedicated to various saints and founders of Sufi orders that still form the town’s most prominent landmarks.

The two-storied octagonal mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, with its white dome and bands of dark blue, azure and white glazed tiles contrasting with buff-coloured polished mud brick, is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful Islamic monuments in South Asia.

Shah Rukn-e-Alam Mausoleum, Multan, built 14th century

The city’s shrines glitter with intricate glazed tiles that were produced in the medieval and Moghul eras. Formerly these achieved a wide range of colours, including reds, olive greens and acid yellows. Unfortunately, over time this technology was lost, and today’s ceramic products are chiefly blue-and-white. Luckily, the lamps are still painted in glowing colours.

The liberal and syncretic religious traditions of the city are probably a consequence of Multan’s location astride the southerly of the two main trade and invasion routes between the India and Afghanistan, via Kandahar and the Bolan Pass. (The other being by way of Kabul and the Khyber Pass)

This made it a natural meeting-place for the religions, trade and culture of the Arab world to the south, of central Asia to the West, and Indian sub-continent to the east.

The camel leather does not originate in Multan itself. It is mainly brought in as salted hides from the Cholistan Desert to the east. Here, at the great Islamic festivals of ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Eid, the ritual slaughter of  hundreds of camels takes the place of  the feast of sheep and goats more usual in other parts of Pakistan. This seasonal income is of great importance to these pastoral semi-nomadic people, and the processing of the hides supports a large number of workers in the city.

On the road to Multan. Camel transport.

Multan is also colloquially known for ‘heat, dust and beggars’.  Stranded in the baking plains of southern Punjab, near the confluence of the Indus and the five rivers that give the province its name, it’s certainly hot, 57 C having been recorded one unlucky summer.

However, this in combination with widespread irrigation and rich alluvial soils also makes it extraordinarily rich agriculturally. Cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, wheat, and, most famously, mangoes provide the foundation of the city’s economy.

On the road to Multan. Sugar cane lorry with winter crop passes brick kiln.

I entered Multan from the north through an endless green sea of mango orchards. This being winter, smudge fires had been lit to prevent any hint of frost blighting the crown of the trees.

Dreaming of mango orgies…

In summer, roadside stalls are the scene of mango orgies. The fruit are plucked and eaten straight from the trees for a few cents, with the juice running down to your elbows.  Wise men temporarily doff their kameez to eat. (Multanis are rather more uninhibited than the Pathans to their north when it comes to public displays of flesh, at least of the male sort, with the Indian dhoti frequently taking the place of the loose trousers worn elsewhere.)

Australian mango-lovers may also note that Multan produces over 200 different varieties, of every conceivable shape and colour, ‘Anwar Ratol’ and ‘Chonsa’ being the most popular on the domestic market. However, the jewel in the crown, little known to outsiders, is a variety as delicious as it is difficult to grow, called ‘Sanglaki’. This seldom makes its way outside of Multan.

On the road to Multan. This trip is best conducted in daylight. Unlit sugar cane lorries present an exciting challenge at night.

The lamps are ready

We’ve just heard our order of lamps is ready. We are looking forward to seeing these back in stock in March.

In the last shipment, our samples of these stripey lamps sold out in two days