Friday, July 4, 2014

Last days of Silk Route, 1939

The impact that World War 2 had on the Silk Route traders who used to visit Kashmir. An extract from 'The Kashmir Residency: Memories of 1939 and 1940' by Evelyn Desiree Battye, who served as Personal Assistant to the Resident of Kashmir during those years. 

Invariably there was something of interest going on in the deep back verandah or in the square entrance hall where farash footmen hung about with the colorful chaprassis waiting for the next message to be taken or received, bot most interesting of all to me were the bagmen, as the itinerant merchants were called. Most visited regularly once or twice a year and were welcomed as old friends. They came great distances on foot in yak and mule caravans carrying their goods. They were ffed and put up in the servants quarters.
'China-man agaya, Memsahib,' de Mello would announce with beaming face. Once it was during a dinner party.
'Oh, do let's see what he brings!' ladies exclaimed; and after the mea; the hall floor would be littered with his goods to examine and admire.
The Chinaman brought underwear for us, and for the men silk pyjamas with dragons embroidered on the pockets. There were fine cross-stitched tray and tea cloths with small napkins to match, lacquer tea sets with red and gold painting on the insides, and little cups and saucers with matching spoons just the right size for after-dinner coffee. With these went black lacquer trays, fruit plates and finger bowls. There were prettily painted china soup bowls with their matching lids, saucers, and serving spoons from which to choose a set of eight. Also displayed were exquisite ornaments both in white and green jade which Ronnie and I held admiringly but could never afford even though they were at bargain prices. The Chinaman encouraged us to finger his goods as much as we liked and to drape his satins and gossamer materials over chairs and balustrades to see the effect. Once we had made our purchases he had everything neatly folded and packed up into his bags in a jiffy.
These roving Chinamen would stay in India a year, sometimes two, while travelling round a favorite beat of 'regulars' with the chittis of recommendation we always gave him, until he had sold all his wares. Then he would travel back the long way 'over the top of the world' following the silk route to China to replenish his stocks for the next trip. It was quite a thing to welcome back a familiar Chinaman after his long absences. But would there be a next time?

'What happen to poor China-man now, Master, Missee?' I remember our favorite bagman expressing, his wrinkled face a study of woe. 'Big war stop China-man to come back. Fan Lo face ruin!'

'You must come back, Fan Lo; what would we do for presents without you? Take this chitti and go to Hong Kong, that's british, and then you can return.'

He got to Hong Kong (so the servants informed ) and was allowed into the Colony with all his recommendations from the Memsahibs of India, and there he was caught by the war. he never came back.


Always of great interest to the men particularly was the carpet man who came to display his shimmering rugs and camel-bags which he spread out in the hall. He too carried his heavy loads by mule-pack and yak over the mountain passes and through the dusty deserts, though in a more westerly direction than the Chinaman's route. He brought intricately pattered brightly colored saddlebags with their long tasselled fringes from Shiraz in Southern Persia, and superbly ornate silk prayer-mats from Kashan in Iran; the loosely knitted fringed rugs from Kazakh of longer pile; rugs from the Caucasus; Bokhara carpets of magenta or puce, and the many less expensive and coarser woven ones of blues, green and browns from Kula, Afghanistan and Baluchistan. These carpets once again reflected the Persian love of flowers, of massed roses and carnations, of hunting scenes and exotic lotuses which showed the Chinese influence.

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