Weaving from the womb: Stories from Rupshu (Eastern Ladakh)
by Monisha Ahmed
Lanze was laying a new warp on the loom to make cloth for her family. As she stretched out one end of the warp, her mother, Abi Yangzom, helped her by straightening out the warp threads with her fingers and removing any knots. Lanze attached her end of the warp to the front roller and tied the belt securely across her back. She held firm to her end, while her mother tightly pulled and pulled on the warp threads in her hands. The warp had to be taut and firm, in order for the cloth to grow straight and strong. Any slackness and Lanze knew, from previous experience, that she would not “give birth to a healthy child”.
At an altitude ranging from 12 to 16,000ft (3,500-5,000m), Rupshu in Eastern Ladakh is one of the highest inhabited regions in Ladakh. The nomadic pastoralists living here herd sheep, yaks, horses, and pashmina goats for a living. With access to such fibres, weaving plays an important and more literal role in the fabric of their society.
While both women and men weave in Rupshu, the women are identified more with the practice of weaving than men. As creators of life, women are seen as playing the important role of upholding the preservation of the world. An indicator of the woman’s potential of creating life is the loom. The backstrap loom that women use is symbolic of the birth of a child, and the weaving process expresses a woman’s role as a procreator and nurturer of life. Further, her woven cloth, as well as the manner in which she distributes it, demonstrates her ability to create and sustain social structures within Rupshu.
“We say that the warp is like the mother, and these balls of wool, the weft she inserts to make her cloth, is like the child conceived within her womb”
– Abi Yangzom
The origin of weaving
“In the beginning the world was populated by gigan¬tic, human-like beings that were similar in many ways to demons. These demons and their female counterparts destroyed everything in sight and even ate their own children. Some claim that the female demons ate the male demons. These demons were very strong and powerful. One day a big Lama came and told these demons that they must stop their bad ways and live peacefully with all living creatures. The Lama then taught religion to them. ¬The male demons, who were wiser, lis¬tened to the Lama. But the female demons did not. They still went around doing bad things. So the Lama taught the female demons how to weave. Then they became women. But in order to stop them from becoming demons again and going back to their wicked ways, they had to keep weaving,” Abi Yangzom related. “That is why, even today, women in Rupshu are kept busy weaving the whole day. So that they do not stray back to their bad ways.”
Holding together the thread of life
Cloth is assumed to be the great connector, which connects people not only to each other, but also to their ancestors and their children. It is said that men and women weave threads of kinship, where the warp symbolizes ones descendants or ancestry, and the weft symbolizes the future generations.
Through weaving, the woman thus plays the central role of maintaining links with both the progeny she gives birth to and the ancestors of the past. Before marriage, her prowess at this skill is seen to elevate her marital eligibility as her potential as a mother is thus judged.
After marriage, she attempts to maintain links with the larger network of family relationships. Her links with her husband’s family is strengthened by what she weaves for them. While she is removed from her home, her links with her own family are fostered by the numerous gifts that she weaves or makes for family occasions – including the turquoise studded head-dress (peraq) that her brother’s daughter receives.
In the event of a divorce, these links are broken, and all woven gifts given by one side to the other are returned symbolizing the severing of these links.
Today, there is pressure on women to change their weaving practices so that they can weave more. Governmental and non-governmental organizations with the hope that the woven materials could then be used for commercial purposes, thus giving the women a degree of economic freedom, are encouraging these measures. These include the introduction of portable foot-looms so that they can weave faster and increase the width of their fabric.
But women have resisted these changes because of the symbolic representations of the craft of weaving and its associations with the sublime. They are appalled by the idea of weaving on a foot-loom since weaving and the loom are sacred. Fabric cannot be made with the “feet”, the lowest part of one’s body, but must be made with the “hands”. Further, they also say that the narrow width of the fabric does not restrict their style of weaving or structure of their finished pieces. On the contrary, many of them claim that narrow widths of fabric are superior to broad ones because while weaving it is easier to both hit the weft down hard with the beater as well as wash the small widths of cloth in the river. The resulting cloth is much tougher and stronger. Further, clothes worn in Rupshu are made from several pieces of narrow lengths of fabric, and this is an essential part of the design. So even if the widths were broader, the women state that they would still cut them up to make them narrow in order to make their traditional clothes. In response to making cloth for sale, many women felt that since they already had so much weaving to do for their families where was the time for them to weave things to sell. Of course, they would like to have a bit of their own money and many admitted that they did sell the odd textile to the tourists who passed through but felt they could not possibly do this on a regular basis.
Monisha Ahmed has been visiting and writing about the Himalayan region of Ladakh since 1987; her doctoral dissertation was on the textiles of the nomads of Changthang. She is co-founder of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO), a non-government organization that works towards an alternative vision for the arts and media in Ladakh. The LAMO Centre is based in the Old Town of Leh in two 17th century historical houses. This article is an excerpt from the paper “Weaving from the Womb: Textile Production, Gender Relations and Kinship in Rupshu (Eastern Ladakh” presented by her at the Textile Society of America Conference, Santa Fe in September 2000.