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How Russian Ushanka Hats Found Their Way Into Kashmir

© Sputnik / Azaan JavaidAli Mohammad, a Kashmiri cap maker is known for making caps from several countries including Russia.
Ali Mohammad, a Kashmiri cap maker is known for making caps from several countries including Russia. - Sputnik India, 1920, 20.12.2022
The Ushanka originated in Central Asia and became popular among Russians, as the hat helps one keep warm in cold winter weather. It takes a day-and-a-half to prepare a single cap.
In Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital of Srinagar, there is a market where remnants of ancient ties with Central Asian nations can be seen: Kashmiri cap makers are reliving this past.
Be it the hand-woven Karakul hat, made from the fur of Qaraqul breed of sheep, or the traditionally red Ottoman Fez, they provide almost accurate account of the origins of caps and how the headgears found their way into the region.

Warm Accessory, or Status Marker?

With the onset of winter in Kashmir — a famous tourist destination for honeymooners and holidaymakers in India — the cap makers are witnessing a flurry of curious customers who want to learn more about the history of the hand-woven caps they buy.

Many view these caps as a valuable shield during a bone-chilling winter. But for some, they are a symbol of social status.

Whatever it is, there is a certain degree of romanticism that Kashmiris have with the hand-woven caps, especially those that serve as historical and cultural links with civilizations beyond the Amu River.

Story Behind Russian Ushanka in Kashmir

Among the dozens of caps that have centuries-old origin stories, there is a relatively young breed of headgear that is enjoying a certain degree of popularity in the Kashmir region: the Ushanka.
There is not a certain timeline agreed upon by historians as to when exactly the Ushanka, also known as the Russian Toip, was introduced in Kashmir — but famous cap sellers have got their basic facts about the cap right.

“We have learnt that the cap was issued to Russian soldiers during the second World War when they were fighting battles in the unbearable winters. Eventually the caps found their way into the masses, and became a popular headgear,” Ali Mohammad, who has been making hand-woven caps for almost 45 years, told Sputnik.

Mohammad, unlike other cap makers whose families have been in the trade for generations, was introduced to the art of cap making when looking for a job as a teenager.
Eventually, he spent almost a decade working for renowned firms before launching his own small business. It was at that time when he encountered tourists from Russia who were impressed by the art of cap making.

"The Russian tourists were impressed by the type of caps we make. Turkish, Central Asian — you name it. They asked if we could make hand-woven Ushankas, as most caps in their country were machine-made," he said.

They explained the design to Mohammad and his colleagues, and when they came back to pick up the orders, they were left speechless.
"We forged good relations and began selling the caps to the Russian tourists. Eventually, tourists from the United States and Europe also started purchasing,” said Mohammad.
Subsequently, several cap shops cropped up in Srinagar, especially around the Jama Masjid, a historic mosque commissioned to be built by Sultan Sikandar Butshikan (Iconoclast) in the 14th century.
Customers included domestic and international tourists, as well as thousands of locals who would come to the area for prayers and to shop.

Why Is the Art of Cap Making Under Threat in Kashmir?

It takes one-and-a-half day to make a single Ushanka. Every season, shop owners like Mohammad sell hundreds of them to customers in Russia and European countries.
In the late 1980s, tourism in Kashmir suffered dramatically due to the militant insurgency. Although tourism was never the backbone of the region’s economy, a large number of locals still depend on travelers for their income, including those involved in the fur trade.
The biggest blow came with the nationwide ban on the sale of fur in 1997. A similar ban was introduced earlier in the 1970s, but at the time furriers were allowed to sell the fur of animals that do not have spots on them. This was done in order to preserve the population of spotted fur animals, like leopards.
In 1997, however, fur manufacturers were ordered not only to halt the trade, but to give up their stocks due to a blanket ban under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act, 1978.
Eventually, the Indian government allowed furriers to trade in rabbit, chinchilla, and mink fur, which, to date, is used to make caps, including the famous Ushanka.
Unfortunately, the trade never regained its former glory.

“I had seven employees at one time. Now I work alone. I am able to sell 200 Ushankas per season which is far less than what we used to sell,” said Mohammad.

With the political and security situation remaining sensitive in Kashmir due to the remaining threat of militancy, foreign tourists are mostly evasive of visiting the region, which leaves cap makers dependent on New Delhi-based dealers for their sales abroad, another shopkeeper shared with Sputnik.
Moreover, online shopping, where machine-made caps, including the Ushanka, are available at somewhat cheaper prices, might pose further challenges to the hand-woven caps of Kashmir.
“Machine-made caps are easily available, but a lot of people still prefer the hand-woven caps. The quality has never been compromised and the price is reasonable. But most importantly, there is a legacy behind these caps and that is worth being associated with,” said Mohammad’s son Omer, who is the second of his generation in the cap making business.

A young customer seemed to be in complete agreement with Omer, as he said: “The hand-woven caps are not just a piece of garment. The caps have their own personalities which you can’t find online."