When I was a child, I used to fold a transparent, rectangular polythene bag into a make-believe Karakulli cap and imitate the Mosque Mullah, Akram Sahab, or the family poet, Dilbar Sahab. Both of them were very respected individuals and the only thing that seemed synonymous with their dignity (to me as a child) was the Karakulli cap that I had never seen them without. It was as if a mellow-looking crown on their heads.
In our households, such a worth was associated with a Karakulli cap that we were always discouraged from putting the hat on our heads as children. Solely for the reason that it meant disrespect. We were told that if we ever did such mischief and put a Karakulli on our head, we would never grow in bodily height and stay the malformed dwarves forever.
A royal cap—the Karakulli has been a mantle of status on the heads of noblemen, the members of the gentry, and those with significant social footing for many centuries now in Kashmir. The Karakulli walked all the way from Bukhara to central Asia, to Afghanistan, and finally became a symbol of pride and dignity for affluent Kashmiri.
Karakulli has a long history of its own. It was once the obligatory parade headgear for the Russian Czar’s and their generals. The African, Turkish, and Central Asian monarchy has often favored the Karakul cap. In America as well, the African-American citizens have also worn the popular hat for a certain period in modern history and this was inspired by the leaders and monarchs in Africa. Hamid Karzai, the former prime minister of Afghanistan has never been seen without a Karakul cap or Karakulli.
According to historic accounts, the Karakulli came to Kashmir with the Afghan invasion. The Mughals ruled on Kashmir from the year 1586 to 1754 and when their hegemony over Kashmir was ended by the Afghan invasion, with Afghans, there came the Karakulli cap: the pride of Afghan headgear.
According to Zareef Ahmad Zareef, the famous poet and historian, “After a Mughal period in Kashmir, when Afghans invaded the valley, their noblemen, rulers, members of the gentry and traders used to wear Karakulli caps. Even the ordinary Afghans also used to wear beaten sheepskin hats called the Cheir Tupi. These were white, Black, and burgundy in color the same as the color of the sheep’s skin. Eventually, this gave birth to the widespread use of Karakulli hats in Kashmir. Before that people in Kashmir, especially the men used to wear turbans that were wrapped from joining many cloth pieces together."
Zareef says that his father put a Karakulli cap on his head too when he was only in his 8th class. Ever since he has never been seen in public without this cap. The Karakulli was a popular headgear in Kashmir during the uprising against the Dogra rule from 1931 onwards. The Kashmiri leaders including Sheikh Mohamad Abdullah, Mirwaiz Molvi Yousuf Shah, Mirza Beig, and Ghulam Ahmad Bakshi, all wore the Karakulli caps. Eventually, the cap found its way on the heads of ordinary people; though it was still a costly wardrobe item.
The family of the bride would gift a Karakul skin in the groom’s wealth to the Maharaz, or the bridegroom, and later on, he would have a Karakulli made on his own that fit his head.
Once our teacher told us that Byari Tsychenis, or Cat hunters, who roamed villages and cities in the past with fierce bore gauge guns in their hands, would hunt the cats and use their skins in the making of the Karakulli caps. Pertinently, this turned out to be a fallacy when I spoke with those dealing with the trade.
It turns out that the Karakulli cap is made from the skin of Karakul, or Qaraqul sheep. The sheep is endemic to central Asia and has currently been labeled as endangered species. Only one Karakulli cap can be made from one Karakul lambskin. Usually, the lambs are in the age between 5-6 months when they are slaughtered to get the skin.
Kashmiri craftsmen have mastered the art of making Karakulli, and the raw material usually comes from Afghanistan for these prized caps.
The craftsman first stitches the skin into a cylinder shape and then places it over a wooden head-shaped mold called the Qalib. Then the hat is pounded with a small bat until it gets into a rectangular shape and finally its hand-stitched on the edges.
The Karakulli is a very expensive headgear—ranging anywhere between 5 to 50 thousand. The more expensive ones are soft and delicate, with a texture of moiré silk and a velvety nap.
The ridges in the cap are arranged fine and in uniform patterns. Sometimes the ridges spell out the name of Allah or Prophet (peace be upon him), making the caps particularly valuable and costly.
According to Muzaffar Jan, a fourth-generation Karakulli maker and the owner of the famous Karakulli place, Jan Cap house, at Srinagar’s Nawa Bazar, there are three primary styles of a Karakulli cap.
The first is Jinnah Style: made famous by Ali Mohammad Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. This particular cap is flat in the front and tapering in the back.
The second style of the cap is Afghan Karakulli. This used to be worn popularly some 25 years ago in Kashmir valley. In this style, the cap is tapering on both the front and back, with 4 inches in height at the front and 4.5 inches in the back.
The third style is the Russian Karakulli, and in this pattern, the cap has double borders. The prominent Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is often seen wearing a Karakulli in this pattern.
Earlier, according to Jan, there used to be nearly 1,000 workshops in Srinagar alone where Karakulli caps were fashioned after the style and preferences of the time, but now only a handful are left. Muzaffar Jan’s Jan Cap House is one of the best remaining places where quality Karakulli caps are made.
According to Muzaffar Jan, his family cap shop, Jan Cap House, was set up by his great grandfather, Ahmad Jan, around 125 years ago. Ever since Jan Cap House has been a name in Karakulli business.
In 1944, Muzaffar’s grandfather made a Karakulli cap for Ali Mohammad Jinnah when he visited Kashmir. In 1984, his father made for Rajiv Gandhi, and in 2014, when Narendra Modi came to Kashmir, Jan himself made two Karakulli caps for the Indian Prime Minister.
Muzaffar makes caps for Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and various other prominent personalities in the world of politics. He also makes Karakulli caps for separatist leaders including Mirwaiz Movli Umar Farooq and used to make Karakulli caps for Ashraf Sehrai and Syed Ali Shah Geelani as well when they were of this world.
Though they may have had different ideologies and attribute to different mindsets, all of them came together at one point, or still do, in their taste for Jan’s caps.
“I have made Karakuli caps for many prominent personalities around the world as well, including the King of Oman,” Jan who has been fashioning Karakulli caps for 20 years now, adds proudly.
Though it’s no longer an item in the popular attire, Jan is still happy that around the world, Kashmiri youth prefer to wear Karakulli hat on their marriage ceremonies—"no matter where in the world they are having their nuptials solemnized.”
The raw material for Jan’s masterpieces comes from Afghanistan’s Mazara -e- Sharief. A popular belief associated with the origin of this raw material is that to make fine Karakulli caps, the fetuses are aborted by slaying the abdomens of the pregnant Karakul sheep. But Jan disagrees with this conception that the fetuses are first killed and then flayed for their skin, and says that the fur on the skin of Karakul fetuses would not be suitable for making a Karakulli cap.
“I am convinced that the trade is clean and the raw material does not come from the aborted fetuses of the Karakul sheep. A karakul lamb must be at least 5-6 months old to produce skin that can be used in making a Karakulli cap. A fetus tends to have abnormal skin and fur. Only a lamb aged between 5 to 6 months has skin and fur that is suitable for the Karakulli cap,” Jan adds while defending his trade.
Though it's mired in ethical questions and controversies, Karakul skins are used by designers around the world for making costly coats, bags, caps, and shoes. The Karakul breed of sheep was first reported from the Kyzylkum desert, around the Black Lake near the ancient city of Bukhara—present-day Uzbekistan.
It’s said that the industry of Karakul skins spread to Afghanistan, Namibia, and many parts of Central Asia from there. Currently, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of Karakul.
Unlike Jan, some traders are not committed to good trade and they sell the recycled Karakulli caps made from the discarded material of coats and bags, at the price of a new one. The only way to distinguish whether you are buying a first-hand cap or a recycled Karakulli, you should check the inner skin on the hat. If it's dyed, it means the cap is recycled, and if it's white and natural, it points that the Karakulli is made first hand.
Though it may seem that Karakul no longer enjoys widespread acceptance amongst the masses, considering its long journey atop the heads of the world's prominent, it still has a long way to go.