The "Karakul" capmaker to Kashmir's leaders

SRINAGAR, Indian-held Kashmir – In his rundown wooden shop in the old Nawab Bazar market of Indian-held Kashmir's capital Srinagar, 29-year-old Muzaffar Ahmad Jan busily sifts through a stack of Karakul skin lying in a corner. 

Jan looks for a pelt that is thin, soft, golden-brown in color and large enough to make a 23-and-a-half inch sized Karakul cap -- the peaked headgear popular among Kashmir's politicians. This is the texture, color and size that the Kashmir's senior resistance leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, likes to wear. This cap is for him.

“Geelani sahib called me a few days ago on my cell phone and placed the order,” says Jan, proudly. “I make all the Karakul caps for him, and he is not the only leader; I make caps for almost all the Kashmiri leaders and politicians who wear Karakuls.”

In the narrow and cramped Jan Cap House, the polarized pro-India politicians and Kashmiri independence leadership come together, in a way, as their Karakul caps intermingle and pass through Jan's deft hands. 

The word 'Qaraqul' means black fur in Turkic. The Karakul cap is peaked and folds flat when taken off. The fur used to make the caps is called Astrakhan, Broadtail, Qaraqulcha or Persian lamb.

Jan's shop is one of the few remaining outlets in the city that continues to make Karakul caps, from Russian and Turkish to Afghani, Persian and Jinnah styles, Jan makes them all.

While the traditional headgear of the Indian-held Kashmir may have been the turban, popular among the upper classes, and the skull cap, which is still popular among the less privileged, the Karakul cap was introduced, in a sense, as the cap of leaders and politicians; a symbol of pride and prestige.

In Pakistan and often in the Indian-held Kashmir, the Karakul is often known as the Jinnah cap, named after Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In India, a slightly different version of it is called the Gandhi cap. 

In Nepal, where men of Indo-Aryan descent wear a version of the headgear, it is called a Dhaka Topi. Similarly in Afghanistan, Karakul remains an important part of the royal attire, since the former king of the country Amanullah Khan wore it.

Even today, politics and Karakul caps go hand in hand in Indian-held Kashmir. The height of the peaked Karakul cap, Jan says, is a matter of politics.

“Sometimes a politician specifically wants me to make his Karakul cap taller than some rival politician. That is why I always ask about the height of cap. I know it matters a lot,” says Jan. 

The Karakul breed of lamb were first reported centuries ago from the Kyzylkum desert, around the Black Lake near the ancient city of Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. It was from there, it is said, that the industry of Karakul skins spread to Afghanistan, Namibia and many parts of the Central Asia. Currently Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of Karakul.

Even though Karakuls are used internationally by famous designer brands for making not only caps but bags, jackets, long coats and shoes, the trade is mired in controversy and is surrounded by ethical questions. According to various Animal Right organizations, the Karakul lambs are killed as soon as they are born, while some claim that the Karakul foetuses are aborted to produce the Karakul skins.

Jan agrees that the cost and quality of the Karakul skin is higher when it belongs to a younger lamb, which makes the Karakul skin sleeker, shinier and with sharper ribs but disputes that there is any malice in the trade. He says that the skins are taken from fetuses that are naturally aborted.

“Had there been anything inhuman process involved in the process, I would not have been making so many karakul caps for religious leaders and Islamic scholars,” says Jan, pointing out that it is not only politicians who wear his sought-after headgear.

Ethical concerns surrounding the trade have not stopped the Karakul business flourishing, especially in countries like Turkey, Russia, Pakistan and Kashmir.

The Karakul lamb skin costs around $100; one skin usually makes one cap. Jan says that he spends around another $40 in raw material and labor on the cap, which usually fetches him anything between $150 and $300. It takes Jan four to five hours to make a single piece and, on average, he makes about two a day.

“This business runs on your eye for the skin. We get most of our skins from Afghanistan and the Central Asia,” Jan says. “We tried to get some Karakul lambs to breed in Ladakh mountains but it didn’t produce very good results.”

Changes in society mean wearing a Karakul as a symbolic act is not popular among Kashmiri youth, but it persists as a tradition among most bridegrooms, who continue to wear Karakuls when visiting their in-laws home for the first time.

“I was given a Karakul cap by my father for the first time when I was 14 years old,” says Kashmiri poet and oral historian of Srinagar's old city, Zareef Ahmad Zareef. “At that time, a cap was a symbol of maturity and it also enforced a certain poise and dignity to the teenager who wore it.”

But none of Zareef's sons wears the Karakul cap and the old poet holds responsible the haste and western fashion that the globalization has brought with it, destroying local traditions.

“Now all  they wear is jeans and no one wants to be mature which is akin to being seen as old. Like so many things of our culture and tradition, the Karakul cap too is dying,” Zareef says.

Although the clientele for the cap is shrinking in Indian-held Kashmir, Jan says external demand is rapidly rising. The capmakers either send stocks to outside markets and exhibitions, or work for online stores that now offer services for customized Karakul caps.

Jan is the only one from his generation of his extended family who decided to carry forward the decades-old family business. Unlike his cousins, he took up to Karakul making when his father, Ghulam Mohammad Jan, died eight years ago.

While thousands of Karakul skins have passed through Jan's hands, he has never seen a Karakul lamb with his own eyes, making one of his dreams a trip to Afghanistan.

“I want to see the Karakul sheep with my eyes. I want to see what these animals, that have fed myself and my forefathers, look like.”

Copyright © 2015 Anadolu Agency