Backpacking across the textile trail with Monisha Ahmed as she shares her journey through textiles

JUN 27, 2019 | By Sakshi Rai
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT Monisha Ahmed at the LAMO Centre; Craftsman block printing a Pashmina shawl in Kashmir; Ladakh lanscape with panaromic mountains and livestock, Photography by Tsering Wangchuk Fargo; A woman weaving in Rupshu, Ladakh
CLOCKWISE, FROM LEFT A lady selling gyaser fabric; Pashmina shawl from the mid-19th centuary; Cham dance in Hemis Monastery; A local wearing a brocade hat and twisting goat hair

Travel is inspired by a yearning to explore the unknown, whether its the changing landscapes, diverse cultures or even for that matter, indigenous textiles. Imagine chancing upon a path of one such individual, marked by the travels and adventures guided by unknown fabrics, crafts and techniques that unfold across different terrains. Monisha Ahmed, an independent researcher and the co-founder and Executive Director of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO), shares with ELLE DECOR India her journey through textiles, spanning across nearly three decades.

The origin point of her interest in nomads and textiles began in Ladakh with her research for her doctorate in Social Anthropology from Oxford University, UK. In 1992, she went to an area in eastern Ladakh called Rupshu, located in the Changthang (northern plains), inhabited by nomadic pastoralists who herd sheep, pashmina goats and yaks. Choosing to stay alongside them, in their modest tents, to experience the true essence of nomadic life and a glimpse of their culture, Monisha slowly gained the trust of the nomadic weavers. “I was interested in seeing how people live with their textiles, what it means to them, the metaphors, stories and songs they have that surround textiles, especially those related to gender, birth and family ties, all demonstrated in the fabrics they weave which was more than just their livelihood”, shares Ahmed.

With a new perspective and respect for the hardships endured by these weavers, she wrote her first book—Living Fabric: Weaving among the Nomads of Ladakh Himalaya. Living amongst nomadic pastoralists who herd the pashmina goat, inspired her to trace the journey of the fibre—an insight into its trade route—processing, washing, spinning, weaving and embroidery—into the most exquisite shawls at Srinagar.

The learnings from this period paved the way for her second book, co-authored by Janet Rizvi, Pashmina—The Kashmir shawl and beyond, which emphasises on the journey of Pashmina from origin to product. Post her PhD, she ventured into textiles crafted in Leh. Coming across Gyaser—a lustrous silk-brocade trade fabric with auspicious Chinese and Buddhist motifs like lotuses and dragons seen across Buddhist thangkas (scroll paintings), costumes, festive robes of the Lamas (teachers) and on wall paintings of monasteries, statues or homes, Monisha wanted to unearth its path. She soon realised that the although the birthplace of this Tibetan fabric (called goschen in Ladakh) was in China, much of it is made today, a thousand miles away by skilled Indian weavers in Varanasi.

Monisha continues to travel across places such as Dharamshala, Kalimpong, Bhutan and Ladakh, enthralled by the call of many beguiling textiles left to explore…