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Indian Subcontinent >> India >> Jammu & Kashmir >> Culture of Jammu & Kashmir

Culture of Jammu & Kashmir

Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh have a multifaceted, multi religious and multiethnic culture distinct to the three areas of the state. Kashmir became the centre of Sanskrit literature during the early Indo Aryan civilisation; Persian flourished with the advent of Islam in the region opening it up to influences of Persian culture and civilisation. Ladakh developed into a centre of Buddhism with strong Tibetan influence while Jammu remained the repository of Hindu religion and its cultural impact. A long line of secular rulers amalgamated these diverse strains into a rich cultural heritage unifying all these religious, ethnic and linguistic divisions.

The Hindu Dogras revel in songs and dances with the central romantic theme of reuniting with the lover. The folk dances of Jammu include the 'Kud', a ritual dance in honour of local deities, the 'Heren' - a genre of folk theatre, the 'Fumenie' and 'Jagarana' sung by women at weddings, and ballads of Gwatri and Karak. The hill region of Kashmir has a rich tradition of music deeply influenced by Sufism. The 'Hafiz Nagma' is a genre of Sufi music performed by a female dancer along with musicians playing the saz, santoor, tabla and sitar while the 'Bhand Pather' is the popular folk theatre that usually features plays with satirical themes. The saz, santoor, sarangi, rabab and garaha are musical instruments indigenous to Jammu and Kashmir and accompany 'Chakri' folk singers.

In Ladakh, Buddhism plays a central role in the life of the people. Gompas (monasteries) are the focus of village life, acting as temples and schools as well as cultural centres. Ladakhis celebrate their marriages with a lot of singing and dancing. There are lengthy sessions of narrative interspersed with group songs and dances. The nomadic herdsmen of Zanskar perform the 'Alley Yate' while roaming with their flocks, while the 'Jabro' is performed in the regions of Chang-Thang and Rong.

Kashmir is a repository for some of the finest craft traditions in India. Traditional craftsmen have skills that are passed down from one generation to the next in a tradition that has survived thousands of years. Hand-knotted carpets in silk, wool or a combination of yarns bear floral designs and exquisite patterns with a strong Persian influence. Less expensive but equally beautiful are the woollen rugs called 'namdas' made by first pressing wool and cotton fibres manually, the rugs are then decorated with colourful chain stitch embroidery. This special chain stitch or crewelwork of Kashmir adorns wall hangings, rugs, the phiran (robe-like over-dress worn by both men and women) as well as shawls. Other handicrafts of the region include papier-mâché objects painted with gold leaf and natural colours, basketry, carved wooden furniture made from the walnut wood and beaten silver and copper ware.

Kashmir gave the word ‘Cashmere’ to the lexicon of fabrics and cashmere wool products are greatly valued and much sought after. Kashmiri shawls are famed for their fine material and delicate embroidery and are made of the famous cashmere wool, the soft Pashmina wool or the priceless shahtoosh. While woollen shawls are valued for their embroidery known as sozni, the shahtoosh is so fine that it can pass through a finger ring. Made from the hair of the ibex that lives on rocky terrain at heights of 14,000 feet, the Pashmina wool is sometimes combined with wool or rabbit fur to make shawls. The shahtoosh comes from the wool of the chiru antelope found exclusively in the highlands of Ladakh above 5,000 metres. Fine down beneath the throat of the antelope is gathered for the wool, which is extremely expensive and shawls made of it are treated like heirlooms. The Indian government has recently imposed a ban on the trade in shahtoosh, due to the dwindling population of the rare antelope.

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