In the middle of a large swathe of land, dotted by majestic chinar and mulberry trees, the tall workshop building of the Power Development Department (PDD) attracts attention. Electric transformers, poles and bundles of transmission wire lie scattered all over the land. In the shadow of this workshop, a ramshackle, long, single-storey building goes almost unnoticed but for its old architecture. This is Srinagar’s silk factory — popularly known by its Urdu variant Resham khana. Three rundown filature houses, a water storage house and the ramshackle office building — these are the remnants of what was once the world’s largest silk factory — set up more than 120 years ago by Dogra ruler Maharaja Pratap Singh.
The factory once produced high quality silk, which was exported only to Europe and employed more than 2,000 people — it’s been shut for 16 years now and is crumbling. But after recent efforts and a campaign by Tasaduq Mufti (brother of Jammu-Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti), the J-K government brought this architectural marvel and its premises under the State Protective Monument Act. “The aim is to revive cultural tourism,” says MS Zahid, J-K’s director, Archives and Museums. “By conserving our rich heritage, we would also be showcasing our glorious past”.
Ghulam Mohammad Tantray is the supervisor at the factory — and, one of the last 17 employees left. The rest are security staff. Tantray is curious to know what will happen to the factory and to their employment. “You know, Tasaduq (Mufti) sahib came here two or three times,” he says. “Are they (government) doing something? If they want, it can be revived just by infusing a few lakh of rupees”.
A cinematographer, of Omkara fame, Tasaduq has shown keen interest in the silk factory, which also happened to be his childhood picnic spot. “Mostly, I remember going to the silk factory as a kid to see the mulberries. It is such a beautiful, green place,” he says. “It can create investment opportunity and avenues, and also a space for people to get together. I think, in a few months, a more clear idea should emerge about its reuse and how we can best benefit from the space”.
The factory, with close to 100 chinars and hundreds of mulberry trees, is the largest green expanse in Srinagar city, even though big concrete structures have already come up on some of its land, sold to various state and central government departments. While the filatures of the silk factory are old and majestic, the machines are relatively new, bought only in 1999 — two years before the factory was shut by the government and its employees transferred to other departments. “This project was aided by the World Bank. They gave us new machines,” says Tantray. “We set up 30 new basins here. Even today, with just 78 employees, we can produce 36 kg of silk daily”.
Though the filatures have been shut since 2001, they were opened last year in summer to accommodate paramilitary personnel rushed to the Valley in the wake of massive street protests triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Muzaffar Wani. “We had no other space,” says one of the factory employees. “We opened these filatures and accommodated them there”. The buildings, made of mud, brick and wood, are crumbling, but the signs of glory are still visible. In his office room, supervisor Tantray points towards a network of metallic pipes in the ceiling and says: “Look, this building was fire-proof. The pipes had rubber valves, and, in case of a fire, they would automatically burst and sprinkle water all over to extinguish the fire”.
Cultural history aside, the silk factory has an important place in Kashmir’s political history as well. Resham Khana Tehreek or, the Silk factory movement or agitation, was essentially an agitation by the Muslim artisans of the factory against corruption of the higher-ups. But it is seen as one of the first resistances against the autocracy of Dogra rulers in the valley. At least 10 artisans were killed and more than 20 injured in July 1924, when police opened fire on the protesting artisans in Srinagar.
Was Tasaduq aware of it when he campaigned for declaring the factory a heritage site? “Not really,” he says. “I got to know the history much later. And the agitation and all these things were discovered slowly”. Kashmir produced the best quality univoltine silk — a single crop is produced every year, so the production is much less than other states like Karnataka — but the quality is far superior. Being on the famous silk route, which started from China and passed through Kashmir, the secret of silk was leaked to Kashmir in the seventh century.
“Due to the abundance of mulberry trees, it (silkworm rearing and silk production) flourished in Kashmir,” says Sajad Ahmad Darzi, who teaches history at Kashmir University, “Silk as a trade was established by Budshah Zain-ul-Abideen and the factory for it was set up by Maharaja Pratap Singh. The period from 1890 to 1920 is known as a period of silk bloom in Kashmir”.
With talks about the revival of silk route and the establishment of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is there any chance of reviving the industry in the Valley? “If we can produce fine quality silk and brand it like shahtoos or pashmina, why not?” asks Tasaduq. However, he also notes that, “Just declaring them heritage isn’t enough. We are deciding on a re-use plan in tune with the present times, which gives people the chance to make use of it as a public space or as one that give us returns,” he says, “But, of course, a part of it should be a silk museum that gives us a sense of history as well.”