August 03, 2020
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Shrouds Of Shame

Despite a worldwide ban on chiru hunting, shahtoosh shawls made from its wool continue to be a craze with high society

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Shrouds Of Shame

On the evening of November 29, the Delhi police raided an auction at The Park Hotel and arrested two prominent art dealers: Neville Tuli, and Jagdish Mittal from Hyderabad. Their crime? Attempting to sell an antique AD 1800 shahtoosh shawl, priced at Rs 2-2.5 lakh. This is only the most recent-and most shocking-of a series of raids over the past year, in which several people, ranging from Kashmiri traders and UP middlemen, to two Canadian tourists, and the daughter of a London bank manager, have been arrested and kept in judicial custody for the illegal trading of shahtoosh in Delhi. Not just in India, but all over the world-in France, the US, the UK, Italy, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and China-there’s been a massive crackdown. Following its proven linkage with large-scale poaching of chiru-a rare, highly-endangered antelope found only in Tibet and China-shahtoosh has become contraband, infra dig. "Shrouds of shame," as George Schaller, an expert on Tibetan fauna and a field biologist with the Wildlife Protection Society in New York, puts it.

Equivalent to four chiru lives, a shahtoosh shawl, once touted as the "ultimate cult accessory" by the NYC Village Voice, is now as much anathema in the US as a white fox stole. A hundred of New York’s creme de la creme, in fact, are currently facing a grand jury in New Jersey for possessing toosh shawls bought at a charity do in ‘94. And in February this year, in an internationally-acclaimed verdict, Indian national Bharati Ashok Assomull was convicted by a Hong Kong magistrate to a jail sentence and a fine of $35,000 for possessing 130 shahtoosh shawls valued at over $600,000.

Yet, despite the negative buzz around them, Delhi’s high society continues to flaunt these contraband credentials of chic. As one Kashmiri trader at Dilli Haat says confidently: "Why target us? Why not raid the houses of ministers and rich people in Vasant Vihar, Defence Colony and New Friend’s Colony? We’ve supplied shawls to most of them."

It’s true, the most prominent of Delhi’s glitterati allegedly possess-and continue to wear-shahtoosh. Amongst them are people like Sonia Gandhi (who, sources close to her say, has over 50), the Scindias, Shiela Gujral and, of course, socialite Bina Ramani. "The ban will never be effective," asserts Ashok Kumar of Wildlife Protection Society, India, "unless figureheads like Sonia Gandhi eschew shahtoosh."

In India, mere possession of a shahtoosh is a criminal act-punishable with a sentence up to seven years and a Rs 25,000 fine. All shawls bought before July ‘72 have to be registered with wildlife authorities; the rest have to be surrendered. The WWF, Traffic India, launched an awareness drive on October 21, following the first-ever international conference on shahtoosh held in Xining. But, says its director Manoj Misra: "At any given time over 2,000 shawls are doing the rounds in Delhi." Shamefully, the centres buzzing with illegal trade are the diplomatic enclaves, five-star hotels and private sales.

So why are people so loath to give up the shahtoosh? Well, to begin with, it’s the stuff fables are made of. A wool so warm, it can reputedly hatch a pigeon’s egg, and yet so fine, even a doshala woven out of it can pass through a ring. Crafted only in Kashmir by master weavers, these shawls-to which some even ascribe aphrodisiacal qualities-were once the dowry of the fortunate. Emperor Napoleon gifted one to Josephine in the 1790s. She reportedly wanted 400 more.

Unfortunately so did everyone else. To begin with, shahtoosh was an exclusive cottage industry with just a couple of thousand shawls made in a year. But with furs becoming outlawed, the West discovered toosh in the mid-’80s and world markets exploded. Ironically ringing in its death knell. The Vogue in Britain called it a "survival tactic" for lotus-eaters; major publications from Time, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal to Elle featured it. Queen Elizabeth wore it to Prince Edward’s wedding; Julia Roberts to the premiere of Runaway Bride. Manhattan socialites threw shahtoosh soirees at which the Dedes, Dodies and Dillies made competitive bids. And with prices anything between $2,000 to $17,600 (Rs 86,000-Rs 7,56,000) apiece, power-brokers like David Tany, a Chinese department store owner, asserted their place in the world by eating TV dinners with a toosh thrown over their laps!

Few people then knew that a gentle antelope in the snowy deserts of Tibet and China was being gunned down to fuel the new craze. As Dhruv Chandra of The Carpet Cellar, a reputed house in Delhi in the trade for over three decades, says: "No one knew where it was coming from." For centuries, in fact, the shahtoosh’s origin has been the ultimate Oriental myth. The down of the Siberian Goose, the feathers of an unknown bird in Nepal, the beard of the Ibex goat; some even claimed the fur came from chiru bred on farms in Ladakh. But the most common and untenable theory was a pretty, pastoral myth: kindly shepherds, went the story, followed herds of chiru across vast tracts, collecting wisps of hair that snagged on bushes and rocks when the antelopes rubbed their necks on rough surfaces in Tibetan ‘forests’. It wasn’t until a few years ago that people realised that the "kindly" shepherds were rubbing out entire antelopes to drape their shoulders!

Though the toosh trade picked up in the ‘80s, the ban on it has ironically been in place for the last 25 years. In ‘75, cites or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species listed the chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni) in Appendix I, its red list. In India too, the chiru’s been listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act since ‘72; trade in it was banned in ‘91. But nobody thought to link the two. Shahtoosh shawls were available even in government outlets till as late as ‘94-95.

It was only in ‘88 that Schaller, working on chiru habitats, chanced upon their large-scale killing for wool in Gerze and Chang Tang, becoming the first to conclusively shatter the toosh myths. What he found was startling. Chirus are found only in the Chang Tang Reserve in Tibet, the Arjin Shah reserve in Xinjiang and China’s Qinghai province where temperatures fall to below -40¡C. There are no bushes, no rocks, no human habitation here. Highly-strung and shy, with large migratory routes, it’s impossible to either farm or capture live chiru. Instead Schaller saw chirus being killed by merciless poachers-impoverished goldminers in Qinghai, local police, and nomads-using high velocity rifles and powerful jeeps. (Subsequent patrols by the Chinese government corroborate this.)

By ‘93, more horrific details emerged. Shahtoosh was doubly tainted. Says Belinda Wright of WPSI which has been lobbying hard to save the chiru: "Every shawl has the blood of a tiger on it." Raw toosh-so fine it’s one-fifth the width of human hair, three-fourths of fine cashmere-is smuggled from Tibet and China into Kashmir through Nepal, UP and Delhi; Dharchula, Pokhara and Gorakhpur being the nodal points. At the borders, it becomes part of a lethal barter in animal products: exchanged for tiger bones (two bags of toosh equal one bag of tiger bones), bear bile, musk, rabbit, sheep foetus. And sometimes-even guns.

Once across the border, 1 kg of raw toosh sells at anything between Rs 20,000 and 60,000. But as one animal yields only about 125 gm of toosh, and the current annual consumption according to traffic India report, is 3,000 kg or 20,000 chiru lives, this ‘goldmine’ too’s about to dry up. In fact, as Misra says: "The days of the chiru are no longer numbered, it’s already past. This winter is the make or break season." Of over 20 lakh chirus alive at the turn of the century, today only an estimated 75,000 survive.

So what will it be? Make or break? Designer Ritu Kumar confesses she will never want a toosh again. But Maneka Gandhi, who characteristically has offered to publicly burn hers, urges more. Remember V.P. Singh, who publicly removed his karakul cap when he became PM? After that, karakul caps, made out of the black curly wool of sheep foetus, forcefully aborted, became de classe. "Stigmatise this too. Step up the awareness," says Maneka. Chandra would agree. "The ban has increased the demand in a way," says he. His company still gets enquiries for shahtoosh everyday; one buyer from Italy wanted 15,000 shawls!

But apart from the avaricious buyer, the other weak link in saving the chiru is Kashmir. With people at the highest level in the j&k government said to have a stake in the industry, the region remains the only place in the world where trade in toosh is still legal. Despite a pil filed by WPSI and several pressure lobbies, CM Farooq Abdullah has refused to put the chiru on the the state’s Wildlife Protection Act, saying it would harm Kashmiri ‘interests’. Speaking at a conference, minister of state for commerce and industries Omar Abdullah recently reiterated-despite evidence to the contrary-that the chiru was not being killed for shahtoosh. Srinagar traders and manufacturers also assert that they get toosh from shed wool and chirus sheared in farms. "Why don’t they just prove it with documented evidence, then?" counters Kumar. "How can the trade in shahtoosh dry up as long as the j&k state protects it?"

Since only 12-20 powerful families in Kashmir deal directly in toosh, it’s unlikely that the average Kashmiri trader will suffer greatly. As one retailer in Delhi put it-"Very few of us have the money power to invest in shahtoosh. We are merely procurers."

Part of the toosh’s mystique is the skill required in making it. Only highly-specialised craftsmen are entrusted with this task. The raw wool’s first combed to yield pure yarn-one kg of wool yields 300 gms. This yarn is spun into threads, mostly by women. Master weavers then make the shawls on handlooms, taking 3-4 months to weave one or two. Women can spin only 3-4 gms of yarn a day; they reportedly earn Rs 2,500 for 300 gms. The master weaver is paid Rs 12,000 per shawl. Embroiderers are paid exponentially: where it takes a week to embroider a beldar border onto a merino wool shawl; two weeks onto a semi-pashmina; and one month onto a pashmina; it takes anything from two to six months on a toosh! The real question then is, how hard will the craftsman be hit by this ban? Very badly, insist some. One lakh weavers will lose their livelihood. But others differ. Being an unorganised sector, it is difficult to ascertain either claim.

But there’s good news at hand. The Chandras have evolved a new kind of shawl: the shamina. Made from the first shearing of Mongolian baby goats, it’s the perfect substitute for toosh. As difficult to make, displaced weavers will be paid equally for weaving shamina. "It’s the best pashmina money can buy," says Chandra. Switch to it, say wildlife lovers. Give the chiru a chance.

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