Lamb foetuses are aborted in their mother’s womb to be skinned for a furry and soft piece of pride; a skull cap, some people claim. But how much truth is there in the allegation?
Recalling family occasions, I remember my father’s uncle, his head up high, proudly carrying a well finished, curly piece of fur wrapped around his head.
Every time he would sit, he would take his Karakuli cap off, fold it flat onto his thigh, while patting it like a baby lamb.
Watching him take so much care of his Karakuli cap, I would always think of that headgear as something close to his heart.
I wondered about the reasons of the excessive caring for those Karakulis, until the furry veils were taken off after a friend asked me, “Do you know how karakulis are made?”
I couldn’t stop screaming when he narrated the process.
“Have you seen the furry folds in a Karakuli? Those are the folds of a baby lamb’s skin when it is still in the mother’s womb, and its skin hasn’t stretched yet,” my friend told me.
The fine details that my friend gave me left me disturbed.
Karakuli is made from the skin of the Karakul lamb that are bred in Afghanistan. The finest and the most expensive of the Karakul caps are said to be from the fur extracted from the fetuses, taking the life of the mother. The cheaper ones are made from the fur of new-born lambs without harming them, claim the makers.
It’s the craftsmanship and the way the skin is extracted, whether from a 5 month old Karakul, or a fetus, which is the reason behind the pride and prestige associated with the prized caps.
To get a deeper understanding, I visited one of the oldest master-craftsmen in downtown Srinagar, Jan cap house, where I meet Muzaffar Jan.
A middle aged man sitting in a small shop amidst the stacks of Karakul skin, he agrees to clear the misconception he thinks people have regarding the making of Karakulis. Making myself comfortable on one of the chairs, I ask him questions to which Muzaffar replies with a wide smile on his face.
I make my way indirectly, and after a few other questions regarding his trade, I come to the point. Jan’s grin tells me that he already knew about the arrival of this question.
“You’re the not the first one to have asked me that do people really kill the Karakul lambs in the womb just to make a skull cap. I can tell you about us, it’s not the foetus’s skin we use, our lamb skin should be around 5-6 months old,” Jan says.
Then then he tells me that people from different parts of the world might still be practicing the ‘elite’ way of doing it.
Jan’s family has been in the business since generations, from his grandfather to his uncle to his father and now him, everyone has had their hands on the skin of a Karakul and processed one into a Karakuli cap.
“You see, the skin we require should have curly folds which we will not get from a 5 month old lamb, but on the other side if you see the caps Russians wear it has no folds. It is very likely that they use the skin of aborted fetuses,” he adds.
He tells me that his family has a made a Karakuli cap for Rajiv Gandhi, the 6th Prime Minister of India, when he came to Kashmir back in the 80’s.
From political families like the Abdullahs and Azads, to Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the Maulvis, Muzaffar Jan’s kin has crafted Karakulis for all.
“We have made Karakulis for not only the people in Kashmir but outside too. From the king of Damam, for who I made eleven Karakulis, to Salman Khurshid and Lalu Prasad Yadav, we have made caps for a lot of people.”
In the absence of regulation, the prevailing ethical concerns surrounding the trade have not hampered the Karakul business. In countries like Turkey, Russia, Pakistan and Kashmir the demand is high, although not as much as it was two decades back.
The Karakuli class has notably moved to other high end merchandise.
“Back in the days, only people of its (Karakuli) standard would put it on, it wasn’t everybody’s thing, just the upper class could afford it. Bridegrooms were sometimes given Karakulis as a token of respect from their in-laws.”
Karakuls are used internationally, by famous designer brands, for making bags, jackets, long coats and shoes. An original Karakuli sells from ten thousand to fifteen thousand Indian rupees ($200). The camel coloured fur is the most wanted and expensive.
Karkul in Turkic means black fur and similarly it has many names and variations depending upon where you are positioning it on the map.
Arshid Mushtaq who has his ancestral links from Central Asia tells me how Karakulis came to Kashmir.
“Many things came to Kashmir from the silk route, so did Karakuli. It is originally from Yaarkand, Summarkand and Afghanistan.”
“In mid nineties every political leader was carrying one dead lamb on his head.”
“People who were not from here wore it too and they put it on like anyone else in Kashmir, like V.P Singh who was the thirteenth finance minister of India, V. Shanta Ram who was a film maker, Manna Dey who was a playback singer and many other noted personalities,” Arshid added.
The using of Karakuli caps by the rich and influential added to it being a prized possession.
While setting my foot out of Jan’s shop he tells me to look on the back side of the Karakuli to check its authenticity. “If the skin is white then it’s the one you should buy, but if the skin is of any other colour then it has been dyed and is not a good piece.”
Many animal rights organizations have campaigned against the usage of Karakuli, but it is easily available in the open market. The makers I met claim that they don’t use the fur of the lamb from the foetus, but there is no regulation which can check these claims.