Finding Waziri Cultural Heritage in the Vintage Markets of Jaipur

While trawling through the basement storeroom of a vintage textile dealer in Jaipur I stumbled across Waziri shawls for the first time. As an avid lover of handloom and specifically loom drafted designs in a state dominated by post loom designs (Rajasthan is mostly famously known for its printing, resist dyeing, appliqué and embroidery work) I was instantly drawn to these shawls.

These Waziri shawls are apparently rather common in the vintage textile markets of Rajasthan and are therefor sold at a relatively low rate. The shawls were traditionally worn by the men of the tribes and are generally dated between c.1900-1930s. They are all handwoven in cotton and many feature silk in the boldly colored striped border details. While the older traditional weaves used natural dyes, a majority of those available on the market sport the tell tale bleeding of chemical dyes in bright pink, turquoise, yellow, red and black. These weaves are generally just over one by two meters with the centre hand stitched join which indicates the use of a throw shuttle in the weaving rather than the more modern fly shuttle which allows the weaver to weave a single cloth much wider than the reach of their own arm length.

The Waziri shawls are woven and worn by the Wazir, a Pashtun tribe from Waziristan, a tribal area of the northern western border of modern day Pakistan. Waziristan is a mountainous region which is severely geographically and culturally isolated from the current central government. It has been known historically for its severely inhospitable environment, its mountain fortressed villages and its fierce tribespeople. Since the formation of Pakistan there had been little governmental interference in the relatively autonomous region until the American invasion of Afghanistan which sent many refugees flooding over the border and into this territory to join the thousands who had fled the same way following the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Waziristan has furthermore been a refuge for both the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces with tensions in the area being even further raised following the 2007 assault on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad which implicated many of the region’s tribal peoples. As a result this has been the base of many recent Pakistani military campaigns as well as American drone attacks. Only of drone strikes accounting to 3,400 fatalities to date, only 18 strikes occurred outside of this region, leading to Barack Obama’s description of Waziristan as the most dangerous place on earth in 2013.

And so, with this as a socio political backdrop, we return to the vintage textile market of the Sub Continent. As with most markets, the sale price here is heavily dictated by supply and demand and in a currently saturated market, each piece is fetching a relatively low price. Tracing back along the supply chain, these old textiles are often family heirlooms, a physical symbol of material culture from a community which depends on a meagre livelihood of animal husbandry and substance agriculture. The Wazirs have supplemented this income historically through banditry, smuggling and other minor trade, with these textiles being an example. To eek out a livelihood while living in a war zone is an incredibly difficult task and while it is ultimately the choice of the community to enter this sort of trade, the selling off of textiles woven for personal use could be viewed as an act of desperation in the face of few alternatives. 

The Vintage textile trade is something of great interest to me in terms of sustainability and agency. The trade is inherently unsustainable as these are old textiles made by communities which are generally no longer passing their skills to the new generations, making them a finite resource which will inevitably dry up. As a textile enthusiast from a culture without this rich tradition of handloom I find this prospect to be a very sad one, but I understand that this is a personal value judgement. Generally these types of textiles are no longer suitable to their communities, who even at the furthest reaches of their mountain fortresses have access to and a preference for mass produced modern garments. In such a case, where there is a demand for the traditional textiles in a global market and a lack of alternative viable local income to support the market supports the agency of the communities to earn livelihood in which ever way they deem best. Furthermore, the choice of the consumer to buy these wares is a tricky one whereby an engagement in the market supports the agency and income (albeit slight) of the original communities while simultaneously encouraging a culturally damaging and unsustainable economy.  

However, there could be a more constructive model. In a community so decimated by war and with so few natural resources, a traditional product which has a strong appeal to a modern global market this textile could be capitalized on in a manner which supports a sustainable economy. Establishing a market for contemporary production is far more viable in the long run than the pawning off of a dying tradition and should be encouraged and supported wherever possible. Instead of supporting isolated communities subjected to violence and invasion through donation based aid, it might prove more valuable for development to harness the traditions and indigenous knowledge of tribal peoples through social enterprise. By encouraging and bolstering revival crafts project local communities could be empowered in a sustainable manner while simultaneously enriching the global market and imagination.


Reading List

Information on Waziristan from Ahmed, A & Akins, H. 2013. Waziristan: ‘The Most Dangerous Place in The World.’ on


Above: An early 20th century Shawl from Waziristan, woven in cotton and silk

Featured Image: The Waziri shawl which I first lay eyes on in a dealers warehouse in a basement in downtown Jaipur, India, 2018.


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