The Shaukas are one of the communities with which Avani works closely. Their long-standing traditions of weaving and natural dyeing have inspired our work.
A Shauka settlement in the Munsyiari region, Photo by Raju Paintola
A pastoralist people, they mostly inhabit the Johar valley, and speak a dialect of mixed Tibetan and Kumaoni origins. Their close ties with Tibetan people and the long history of Nepalese rule in the region has created a rich cultural mix, as manifested for example in the Shauka’s particular mixture of ritual practices from both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
Traditionally, the Shaukas were semi-nomadic, and travelled annually with their herds of goats, sheep and ponies from the Tibetan plateaus to the Ganges plains, and had a reputation as traders. In late August, they loaded salt, gold dust and borax from Tibet onto their sturdy sheep and travelled through the difficult Himalayan passes to their villages. There, they celebrated the mid-September festival of Nandashtami, in honour of the goddess Nanda Devi, before continuing their journey. In the plains, they traded their precious goods for silk, jaggery (unrefined sugar) and spices, before heading back to Tibet in June. “There was no money involved; it ran on a barter system. The trade bonded the Shauka and Tibetan communities into a family,” says Pangti, who is a Shauka himself . Dr. Sher Singh, a retired teacher from Munsiyari remembers: ”When I was in school, the month of July brought our Tibet-returned friends with their flocks of sheep laden with salt; they hummed music while weighing salt and grain with local measuring pot (nali). Beating drums and blowing trumpets, every villager accompanied the outward-bound group to Tibet till the very edge of the village to bid them goodbye."
A trader caravan
Shauka families usually spent their winters in lower-altitude settlements, the Munsa, and the summers in higher-altitudes ones, called Mat. Shauka women were renowned for their knowledge of the rare medicinal herbs which grew in the region.
Women occasionally accompanied their husbands on their seasonal migrations, which is how they learnt the art of weaving from the nomadic Khampa people of Tibet. Over time, weaving was developed into a profitable trade by the Shauka women, whose blankets and carpets made of Tibetan sheep wool were coveted all over the region. They used vegetable dyes, in three main shades (yellow, light-brown and pink, aside from the natural whites and blacks of the wool), mixing these to create other hues. This knowledge was traditionally passed down amongst the women-folk of the family. Using the dyed fibres, they then wove knotted carpets called ‘Dan’ or ‘Dun’, ornate with intricate designs, which were inspired by traditional Tibetan motives. These colourful carpets tend to depict animals, flora and geometrical designs on solid backgrounds.
(Top) Woman at a pit loom - (Bottom) Dun carpets
The Shaukas are also well known for their Thulmas, and Chutakas. Shaukas used back-strap looms in the old days, which are mobile and suited to their semi-nomadic lifestyle. However, as the trade route with Tibet closed in the sixties, pit-loom started being favoured.
Thulmas, once the white wool is woven, must be brushed in order to raise the fibres, foot-milled in hot water for about an hour, so that the structure of the weave becomes dense, which creates the fulling texture of the blanket. This lengthy process is repeated once or twice, which is why the making of a Thulma can take up to a month. Chukkas, on the other hand, are ‘cut-piled’, giving them a furry aspect, and are often woven with black wool.
(Top) Chukka cushions - (Bottom) Women brushing a thulma
When the borders to Tibet closed due to the Indo-China war of 1962, the whole trade route, and the Shauka culture, found themselves destabilised. Agriculture had never been widely developed, due to the harsh weather, so that, with the end of trade, the Shaukas were left with few livelihood options. In 1967, the Shaukas were classified as a ‘Backward Scheduled Class’ by the Indian government, giving them favoured access to government job and universities. Many became government employees or migrated to cities. Tibetan sheep wool now has to be imported through Nepal, and the Shauka’s weaving traditions slowly dwindled as it is too time-consuming. Instead, many women focus on farming and cattle rearing to meet their basic needs.
Avani works with Shauka families who still spin and card the wool we use. Meanwhile we’ve introduced modern handlooms, and new designs which are more in touch with today’s tastes, and trained some members of the community in using them. It is through working closely with members of the community that we were able to develop our natural dye palette, inspired by their traditional knowledge.
Many of our employees, such as Lalita Panchpal, are of Shauka descent. Lalita comes from Dharamgarh and grew up in a family of expert weavers and wool spinners. Every house in the village still features a loom, which women nowadays use mostly to weave furnishing sets as wedding gifts for their daughters. Everyone in the village knows how to spin their own yarn, how to dye it using local plants and how to weave it. Lalita’s family farms were in the mountains of Munsiyari to Millam summer time, where they would migrate every summer, for four to five months. There, they would collect native mountain herbs and spices to sell later. However, her father passed away during her childhood, and as her mother’s health started failing, Lalita found the family needed another source of income. With no father or brother, it fell to her to be the breadwinner. So, once she had completed her studies in the village school, she started working with Avani as a part-time weaver, soon becoming the supervisor of the local weaving centre. Lalita's work with Avani not only gave her financial empowerment using her traditional skills, but also allowed her to stay and care for her ailing mother in their own house. She now works as a senior field centre supervisor, living in our Tripuradevi campus with her husband and baby daughter, Garima. Lalita is always joking with our international interns that she’ll send Garima to them for her university degree. She’s determined to provide the little girl with a good education, and hopes that her job at Avani will help her towards that goal.
(Top) Lalita at the door of her house in Dharamgarh - (Bottom) Lalita and Garima in front of Avani's offices
- Tribal Art & Craft of Uttarakhand, by Dr. Shekhar Chandra Joshi; with technical & digital editing by Dr. John Antoine Labadie.