Of the vast and varied textile production of Kashmir, one of the finest, least common types of textile is the hanging with a design of an arch or niche. This example was woven using the typical kani shawl technique, which involved three different weaving structures: twill, tapestry, and double-interlocked weft. It belongs to the time known as the Sikh period, when India gained control of Kashmir under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801–39). The decorative motifs typical of Kashmir shawls and hangings changed rapidly during this period. The orderly sequence of naturalistic single flowers typical of the Mughal period in Kashmir had previously been replaced during the Afghan occupation by exuberant bouquets that no longer rose from naturalistic roots but rather from a vase placed on a stand. During the Sikh period, the radial shape of the floral composition developed into a teardrop shape with a hooked tip known as the buta, which was particularly popular in Iran during the Qajar dynasty.
The millefleurs decoration on this pashmina hanging immediately brings to mind the shape of a mihrab niche, and the hanging may have been placed on a wall to indicate the direction of Mecca. In the central field is a polylobate arch on a plain blue background with a compact, intricate, and colorful pattern: a small stand holds a vase, from which green and red ferns pour in a manner reminiscent of a waterfall. A slender tree of life rises from the mouth of the vase, while a kaleidoscopic effect is created by thin branches covered with a myriad of brightly colored leaves and petals growing out from the central stem. The rectangular field is framed by a sinuous, red vine border that, in turn, is surrounded by a border of large butas. By using four bands of white warps instead of blue ones, two at each side, the weaver has produced a ribbon effect that draws attention to the central field.
Directly above the niche, in the outer border, a medallion of loops and arabesques embroidered with loosely twisted zari silver thread bears an inscription in white silk with the name of Muhammad ‘Azim Khan, who commissioned the hanging. A second inscription embroidered in white silk chain stitch lies at the lower left-hand corner between the two white bands, proclaiming ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the king of Najaf.
Elisa Gagliardi Mangili in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
2. The Metropolitan Museum also owns a rare prayer hanging or mat (acc. no. 17.123.3) that can be attributed to the Afghan period. For
other prayer hangings and mats from the Sikh and Afghan periods, see also Ames, Frank. The Kashmir Shawl and Its Indo-French Influence. 3rd ed. 1986. Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1997, pp. 310–12, pls. 179–81; Nemati, Parviz. Shawls of the East from Kerman to Kashmir. New York, 2003, pp. 212–15, pls. 45–46; Ames, Frank. “Woven Legends: Carpets and Shawls of Kashmir (1585–1870).” In The Arts of Kashmir. Exhibition, Asia Society and Museum, New York; Cincinnati Art Museum. Catalogue by Pratapaditya Pal and others. New York and Milan, 2008, p. 195
3. Vial, Gabriel. “La technique du châle indien.” In Quelques aspects du châle cachemire, pp. 41–42, figs. 1–22. A.E.D.T.A. Paris, 1987.
4. Ranjit Singh held sway over Kashmir from 1819 to 1839.
5. Irwin, John. The Kashmir Shawl. [Victoria and Albert] Museum Monograph, no. 29. London, 1973, pp. 11–14. According to Irwin’s “Glossary of Terms Used in Kashmir Shawl-Weaving,” buta is a generic term for the cone and literally means “flower.” Ibid., p. 41.
6. Ames, Frank. Woven Masterpieces of Sikh Heritage: The Stylistic Development of the Kashmir Shawl under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839). Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2010, p. 69.
7. The zari is a twisted metal (gold or silver) thread wound on silken yarn; Pathak, Anamika. Pashmina. New Delhi, 2003, p. 142.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 283, pp. 342, 398-299, ill. p. 398.