‘Making shawls saved us,” says Vishan Das Meghwar, a 35-year-old villager from Thar. “The skill of making shawls helps me earn enough money to feed my family throughout the year,” he says. “I don’t remember the last time my family migrated from Thar due to drought.”
Das belongs to a small, idyllic village called Tabho Meghwar, located in the Thar desert about 28 km away from Mithi, the capital city of Tharparkar district. The village is an oasis of calm in the middle of an arid landscape, where peacocks peacefully roam around the houses or chirp on neem trees.
Tabho Meghwar is renowned for its shawls and handicrafts, and is economically self-reliant. Nearly all the 150 households contribute in weaving and embroidering shawls. The end-product is then transported throughout the country and also exported abroad.
“Shawls are made in a few other villages too but Tabho Meghwar is distinct because each individual contributes in making shawls,” says Bharu Mal Amrani, a folklore writer from Thar. The designs and method of making these shawls are indigenous to Thar.
In every household in Tabho Meghwar, one can spot khaddis, a type of loom that is used to weave shawls. For the villagers, shawl-weaving is an integral part of their identity and childhood memories, as every child learns this craft from his or her elders. Thus the skill is passed on to the next generation.
“As a child, I saw my father weave shawls from sheep wool. Since wool shawls are tough to make, it would take about 10 days to complete. The majority of people weren’t able to afford it as it would not fetch them enough money though it was sold at a high cost in the market,” reminisces Gulab, a 50-year-old villager.
Weaving a shawl is not an individual effort as all family members, both men and women, contribute in carrying out different tasks. For instance, women are responsible for the extensive and laborious process of arranging wool threads and filling multiple bobbins with coloured thread while the men bind the threads on the khaddis.
The craft of shawl-weaving not only binds this community together but brings in the much needed income, an average of Rs 13,000 to 20,000 per month for a single household.
In winter, which lasts from November to January, Thari people earn a bit more by rearing livestock and doing hand-embroidery work which is sold to middlemen or trade agents.
One shawl takes about three to four days to complete, says 22-year-old Paras Ram. “It takes three days to complete a Lonkaar (local name for a big shawl) so I make around 12 pieces in a month and earn Rs 15,000.”
Ram was planning to join a college or university after his intermediate exams, but later realised that his family would not be able to afford his education. “I decided to focus on the skills I have learnt from my father, stay back in the village and make shawls and I have been doing this since 2015,” he says as he binds silk and cotton threads on the khaddi in the courtyard of his home.
As times have changed so has the tradition of shawl weaving. These areas were once famous for sheep wool shawls but people have stopped working with wool because, first, the process is long and tedious and, secondly, markets are not easily accessible.
This is why villagers now sell their shawls to middlemen. “Making threads from sheep wool is a hectic task,” points out another villager. “It takes time to produce thread so now we buy factory-made silk and cotton thread from the market which saves us a lot of time.”
There are multiple indigenous designs that are unique to Thar but shawl weavers have experimented with other contemporary designs to make the shawls more marketable in other areas of Pakistan.
Gulab adds that the prices of new shawls are also more competitive: “Earlier, Thari people used to make shawls, blankets and carpets from fur and wool but now we only use cotton and silk threads, which makes these items affordable so we can compete with market prices.”
It becomes frustrating for villagers when they are not able to sell their products at better prices. “The price of shawls range from Rs 500 to 10,000 and varies by cities too,” says Vishan.
“But a shawl for which a labourer gets Rs 1,000 sells for Rs 5,000 in Islamabad and Karachi. It’s the middlemen and the shopkeepers who enjoy the huge profit margin.”
Jaddo Bai, a weaver in Tabho Meghwar says that if they could earn more money per shawl, they’d only sell during winters, when they can fetch a good price for their products.
“As we need income on a weekly or monthly basis to meet our household expenses, we end up selling our goods to the middleman. If we can get a better price, we would make a good profit,” she says, as she fills different-coloured threads on the bobbins.
The writer is a photojournalist