Journeying through the corridors of my childhood in a meditative mood; some verses read years back started echoing in my mind like lilting tunes on Santoor played by Ustad Muhammad Abdullah Tibetbaqal. These verses of Agha Shahid Ali sounded as if they were mine:
“No one now comes from Kandhar, dear Ali, to pitch tents by the Jhelum, under autumn maples,
and claim descent from the holy prophet.”
I went into a trance- a trance with a difference and started dreaming about hundreds of turbaned men draped in long chogas with no daggers hanging from straps tied around their waists pitching their tents on a wasteland between third and fourth bridges on the banks of Jhelum. Thousands of men ‘ dressed in ‘long loose, large tunics,’ many wearing no drawers’ squatting on lush green grass listening with rapt attention to the discourses of most towering amongst the tent pitchers.
Lost in my world of imagination, I was picturising how our ancestors dressed, I remembered, accompanying my mother to the festival held with all solemnity on 6th of Zilhajj in famous Khanqah of Mir Syed Ali Hamadani on the banks of Jhelum. Passing through the festive crowds, I tightly held a corner her Burqa pronounce in Kashmiri as ber’qae.
My mother, my aunt and most of the women in our Mohalla outside their homes wore loose apparel covering them from head to ankles known as Koshur ber’qae. It looked like a one-man-tent. I do not know if it was indigenous attire worn by Kashmiri women. Or, it had travelled into Kashmir along with big caravans of Islamic missionaries, traders, artisans and travellers from Central Asia through Afghanistan. Even today burqa, similar to Koshur barque is in fashion in many parts of Afghanistan and Northern parts of Pakistan. I also do not know if it had become fashionable in Kashmir during the Afghan rule or if Afghan women had adopted this Kashmiri attire. Scholars, like R.C. Kak, based on archaeological findings in Kashmir have concluded that fashions in Central Asia started influencing Kashmir dress from first Century A.D.
My mother often wore an off-white burqa. She also had a steel-grey burqa made out of cloth with better fall popularly known as ‘crepe’ – she wore it on special occasions such as attending a marriage. Most common colours for burqas were black and white. Stitching this parachute-like outer dress of women needed specialised expertise. It comprised three parts, cap, the central part and a frontal flap. Making cap of burqa needed particular expertise- cap made of exact size kept whole apparel in place. I do remember some tailors in our locality only stitched caps for burqa…some of them were known as topisaz. Making tent-part of the burqa, needed about ten yards of cloth. To add to its fall and make it look gorgeous after the first half it was after every inch hemmed. At an average, this Kashmir veil had a hundred hems- these hems looked like waves on tranquil waters of our placid lakes. The frontal flop had intricately woven mesh in front of eyes- as someone has rightly said it was there the only link to the world outside world. Making eyes in the frontal piece with thread and needle was in itself an art. Darners generally did it. Stitching cotton meshes at eye places was not fashionable. I do remember in our Mohalla two tailors Abdul Gaffar Bhat, and Muhammad Janda were known for their expertise in stitching Koshur Ber’que. Making a good burqa was an expensive affair- I remember having heard women saying that making Koshur Ber’que was as good as constructing a house.
My mother and all women were adept in walking with fabric draped around them, with hands kept inside burqa, I never saw them tripping and stumbling. They were proficient in throwing back the front part of the burqa that hanged over their face with ease and pulled it down with equal comfort like blinds on windows.
In 1964, during the Holy Relic Movement, I for the first time saw huge processions of burqa-clad women passing through street outside our home on the way to the Muslim Park, on the northern side of the Jamia Masjid. Almost every day the procession was led by a fair-complexioned woman burqa-clad woman, in freezing temperature of January her face used to be as rubicund as an apple. While raising full-throated slogans, moving one side of the road to the other with her burqa flying like the cape of modern-day he-man, she attracted the attention of all children of our locality. The burqa-clad women procession that was an almost regular feature for few during the sixties looked like a parade of women soldiers of Iran.
It was also a ticket for girls to go out for some shopping in the evenings. I remember, girls that generally did not observe veil wore burqa of their mothers for shopping at nearby cosmetic shops- with their giggles they often attracted attentions of lads around.
In the scorching sun, while walking with my mother, many times, I took shelter under her burqa. It used to be as shady as the Chinar tree.
Like many indigenous costumes, Koshur Ber’qae has also vanished from the scene. It has now yielded place to what popularly came to be known as Arabia burqa and now that has been replaced by an abaya.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist