If you imagine a real traditional Kashmiri room, chances are you have visualised a clear mental image of a warm and well heated room made of wood /stone masonry wall, traditional thick mud roof on timber structure and traditional ‘Wagu’ flooring which provides excellent protection against a harsh environment.
A few decades back the much valued reed mat, ‘Wagu’, which was a reflection of comfort, versatility, biodegradability and affordability, has now lost its sheen.
This unique reed mat of Kashmir, the environmental friendly ‘Wagu’ was part of our heritage but in course of time the synthetic mats started to flood markets and took over this floor matting technique.
Traditional matting of Kashmir also includes ‘patej’ and ‘gabba’ (Kashmiri names for different kinds of floor matting) were once very common and popular seen in both rural as well as the urban households. Matting in rural areas mostly entailed use of ‘patej’, while urban areas, with no access to the paddy straw saw higher use of ‘wagu’ matting prepared of ‘pechi’.
Originally the material that makes ‘wagu’, a soft and spongy mat, was made of a grass growing in wetland and lakes commonly known as ‘Peich’. After it reaches a height of 6 feet it can be harvested to make these mats. Traditionally after plastering the floors by a thin layer of clay mixture, dried, these floors are covered by the ‘wagu’ mat. It acts as an insulation material to beat the harsh winters.
In mosques, residences and shrines the mat was used and due to its economical nature it was accessible to most households. But now the story is different. Modern Kashmiri homes have become concrete and the concept of floor matting has disappeared.
The art of ’wagu’ mat weaving was not easy as it required a great deal of expertise to shape up a mat out of the raw ingredients and no electrical power was used. Over time ‘wagu’ matting emerged as an art form and a section of people adopted it as their profession. The ‘wagu’ makers gradually took their product to the rural Kashmir and established commerce in villages.
Interestingly enough 53 families residing in Khoon Mohallah in Hazratbal, Srinagar used to be weave the mat by hand. It used to be a hub of ‘wagu’ weavers and all the in the area were involved. But as of today, only handful women across Kashmir practice the art, or profession.
“We buy the grass from Bandipora and transport the same to this place on Tongas (horse-driven carts). It consumes too much time and hard word to weave a Wagu and in return, we get just peanuts that too if some Showkeen (man of taste) wants to buy one” quoted Ghulam, ‘wagu’ weaver.
Bashir Ahmad, who still weaves Wagu says that two to three decades back it was the mainstay of income generation for the young, old, men and women. According to the erstwhile weavers the demand for ‘Wagu’ has petered away and customers are hard to come by.
However, with the demand even in rural areas fading, they have started abandoning the trade and are shifting to vegetable farming, paper machie and embroidery work.
“It is not the question of a few people losing jobs but of a people losing their heritage,” said a University teacher.
And even though this proverb ‘Old is Gold’ is short, it is most valuable. Sometimes in order to make way for new things letting go of the past is harmful. Losing the heritage of a state is more than just material damage.