Morning affair on the banks of the Jhelum

The sound of fabrics banging against the cement slab breaks the morning silence. In a narrow, congested lane in Fateh Kadal in Srinagar’s old town, Gulzar Ahmad, a washerman wears rubber boots and ties a plastic sheet around his waist to prevent his clothes from getting soaked in water.

Gulzar Ahmad is one of four people who work in the washing unit of Manzoor Ahmad Dhobi who led the unit after the death of his father. He had to leave his job to opt for the hereditary profession passed on to him by his ancestors.

Dhobi is a traditional launderer who washes fabrics used to make handicrafts including shawls, costumes, pherans, manually with hands.

The process is arduous and begins with the segregation of fabrics according to their color palette. Washers fill huge tubs with water and add detergent. Gulzar takes a traditional cream colored bar of soap – the one that has been used for years and rubs it vigorously with the fabric. He then dips the fabric in the cement tank filled with soapy water.

The washer said washing was done with hands as well as machine depending on the fabric to be washed. Fabrics like pashmina, sozni and crewel are manually washed by hand while fabric including wool is machine washed.

The washing process involves the use of various chemicals and acids. Acids are also used to remove some stubborn stains. Chemicals are imported from various states across the country.

He said, “One of the chemicals is like black oil. From time to time, different types of chemicals are used in the washing process. Some of the chemicals called in the local language are Rang Kart, Teenu Pal, Rapt. Rank kart is used for white fabrics to lighten the color. For different fabrics, different chemicals are used. Saph Nar is used to make the fabric soft and adds a finish to the fabric. An ordinary person cannot use all of this. Chemicals are used in appropriate amounts.

Then the fabric after removing stains is held inside water to remove acids and chemicals.

The soaked fabric is then moved to the motorized drum wringer which extracts the water from the fabric before it finds its place on the clothesline and is left to air dry.

The fabric once dried is ironed using huge machines where rollers are installed and are then stacked into neat bundles.

The pressing machine works with the help of water. The machine has coils and heaters that heat the machine rotator. The machine must be preheated before use. “The machine, if used without preheating, can cut fabric, so it’s important to preheat the machine so the rotator moves smoothly over the fabric,” Manzoor said.

The fabric borders are sewn using a sewing machine and cut into large pieces, which is usually done by the women of the family.

The pieces go to stamping and then to craftsmen for various embroideries who eventually turn them into handicrafts. Then it comes back here in the washing unit to get the final touch which is then taken by various traders around the world to be sold.

Despite the backbreaking efforts of laundry workers, they don’t get the same return for their hard work. Manzoor recalled times past when laundresses lined up outside the ghats of Jhelum. He said the water was pure, fresh and plentiful. The polluted water of the Jhelum made them do laundry in the premises of the house.

“The cost of chemicals has increased while the wash rate has remained the same. For a normal shawl, there is a charge of Rs. 30-50. For the pashmina shawl, the rate is 150. Some washers charge less than that,” Gulzar said.

The low income generated by the tedious work forced many people to turn to other professions. Ali Kadal, Shalimar, Safa Kadal, Dargah are some of the places where part of the population is still associated with the art of washing.

In Aali Kadal, an area called Batyar is known for the best launderer in Kashmir. Showkat Ahmad comes from a family of launderers associated with the art of washing for over 100 years. Having learned from one of his ancestors, Mohammad Sidiq Dhobi who was a renowned launderer in the time of the Maharajas. Mohammad Sidiq was known for his best Pashmina washing techniques. The elites and royals of this era would have their expensive shawls washed. He taught the art of washing to many people in and around the neighborhood.

“I grew up watching laundry scenes. With the rich knowledge that my ancestors had passed on to me. I know how to remove even the most stubborn stains. We’ve been well known in the business for ages,” Showkat said.

Showkat, like his ancestors, goes early in the morning to the banks of the Jhelum River to wash the shawls. He believes Jhelum’s gushing water doesn’t need chemicals. “The soap is properly disposed of with the gushing waters. Nature has the power to heal and fix everything. The work we do has the prayers of our ancestors,” he said.

Talking about his experience, he said the hardest stain to remove is the walnut stain. He said: “Previously the gemstones were used as little soaps which were put in boiling water by the women of the family. This would soften the shawl and cause no damage unlike the softeners used today. The cost of these soaps was Rs 5 and the chemical softener costs Rs 30,000 and is not so effective.

For some fabrics, he said, salts and vinegar are used. “Salt has the ability to retain color,” he said.

He added that due to the Covid pandemic, the cottage industry in Kashmir has suffered a huge setback.

“Traders cannot sell handicrafts. The bales of shawls, costumes and the like are piled up in their homes only. Also due to counterfeit products available in the market, genuine products do not find buyers. Even the material used for washing is not pure and does not bring much money. This work has lost all its essence. I don’t think the next generation will take the job,” he said.

Another elderly scrubber, Ghulam Rasool, said technological intervention in the craft has happened over the past few years.

He said chemicals were not used in the past and the washing process was more difficult than today. “In the beginning, when I started, the fabric was also good and pure. Now the quality of the fabrics has also deteriorated. The stubborn stains have been removed naturally thanks to the secret tricks that all dhobi knew at the time “, did he declare.

The unavailability of wringers or other machines further increased the washing task for people at the time. “Before, everything was done manually. We would tighten the heavy fabric by twisting it tightly with our hands. Although the process was time consuming, it did not affect the health of the washer or the quality of the fabric,” he said.

To extract water, Werkeej was traditionally used. The heavy charcoal iron was used to remove creases and iron the fabric. “The antique charcoal iron was heavy and ironed clothes properly. Because of the uninterrupted electricity available today and all these machines, they are gone,” he said.

He sees social stigma as another reason for the downfall of dhobis.

“My son didn’t take the job because of the social stigma attached to it. Nowadays people think being a dhobi is bad but it is essential work for Kashmiri handicraft industry. It is the responsibility of the government to maintain the status of these communities which are the cultural icon of the place,” he said.

Ever since his son refused to carry on the dhobi legacy, Ghulam clings to the last vestiges of his unity.

Comments are closed.