December 21, winter solstice known as Chillai kalan in the Valley, has come to be celebrated as International Pheran Day over the last few years.
Traditional clothing isn’t just a matter of style or tradition; it’s often deeply intertwined with emotions and feelings and is also an important reflection of a community’s cultural values and history. Clothes play a significant cultural role in creating a sense of belonging, unity and collective identity.
Occasionally, politics and conflict can lead to a revival of traditional dress, as can be seen with some Palestinian attire. Once upon a time, the now-symbolic keffiyeh was worn only by farmers for protection from the harsh Middle Eastern sun. The patterns symbolise various aspects of Palestinian lives. This familiar check pattern of keffiyeh became the banner of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab revolt against British rule in the 1930s. Yasser Arafat made it a worldwide symbol of Palestinian steadfastness and resistance. Contemporary urban Palestinians now wear the keffiyeh in a completely different fashion, draped around the shoulders and neck. It has also become a unisex headdress (or shoulder dress).
The thobe is another item of Palestinian clothing that has seen a renaissance. A thobe is a colourful, traditional dress adorned with embroidered geometric patterns (Tattreez – dating back to over 3000 years) by the women who wear it. Traditionally, these patterns told stories about which town or village the woman was from. However, after the Nakba, women embroidered patterns that reflected collective Palestinian experience of displacement.
The thobe, thawb, jubba/ jabba and kaftan are all essentially long outer garments resembling an open coat, having long sleeves.
The pheran is a similar, traditional Kashmiri attire worn by men and women. It resembles a long loose coat or cloak. Traditionally made from wool or local tweed (poat/ patto) which is 100% wool unlike tweed made in other regions) and worn as protection from the winter (wande), it is now also stitched from velvet, silk, cotton, georgette, muslin etc for summer. Pheran (also called Phyaran) and Potsch together make two sets of cloak or gown worn one above the other. Goatskin, or Yak skin in odd cases, was used as a layering inside the garment in order to maintain warmth.
History of Pheran
The etymology of the word ‘pheran’ is not very clear. It could probably have been derived from the Persian word for cloak, pairahan, or even the Tajik word peraband. According to Hiuen Tsang, the Kashmiri people dressed in leather doublets and clothes made of white linen similar to that of the Persians. Before the pheran came to Kashmir, a long robe was worn in Kashmir, called the lousch (the present day wool pherans are also called lousch/ loch). Sir Walter Lawrence, the British Settlement Commissioner for Jammu and Kashmir, in his book The Valley of Kashmir (1895) credits Akbar and the Mughal rule with bringing the pheran to Kashmir. He writes: “Some patriots go so far as to assert that the introduction of the kangar (kangri) and its auxiliary, the gown, was an act of statecraft on the part of the emperor Akbar, who wished to tame the brave Kashmiri of the period.” Tyndale Biscoe, the founder of the prestigious Tyndale Biscoe School, writes about another popular belief in his Kashmir In Sunlight and Shade: “When the Afghans conquered Kashmir, they forced men to dress as women.” Some others claim that pheran was referenced in the Nilamata Purana as pravarna.
Pherans and kangris have always kept the people of Kashmir warm and even now with frequent power cuts it’s these two traditional items that keep them warm. Kangris are earthen pots heated with glowing charcoal and encased in handmade wicker baskets that people keep in their laps, under their pherans for warmth.
With or without the kangri, the pheran works as a heating system. Pheran is unique to the culture of Kashmir and it is worn particularly to protect from the chilling winter of Kashmir, especially Chilai Kalan that starts from December 21. December 21 is now being celebrated as Pheran Day in Kashmir valley.
Kashmiris consider it an integral part of their culture and identity. In earlier times, there were some differences in the pheran of a Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim that marked the two communities.
The traditional pheran neck did not have central neck opening with buttons, as seen today. The Pandit pheran also called the bata pheran had the neck opening on the right side while for the Muslims it was on the left. The upper lapel of the triangular neckline is tied to the shoulder (tani naal in the case of Pandits and Bain naal for Muslims).The Pandit pherans were usually made of the local tweed while the Muslim pheran was stitched of thicker cotton since they could not afford the tweed. The bata pheran also had a bottom fold called the laadh/laad, also the sleeves were folded back and the inner white potsch was visible. However these disappeared with the use of the imported expensive cloth and the sleeve end of the aristocrats would have the marking of ‘Raymond’ or ‘Dhariwal’. Pherans for men were devoid of any embroidery. Pherans of Muslim women always had embroidery, especially those worn on occasions. The ones with tilla work were worn by Muslim women of higher class.
Both Pandits and Muslims wore khraav (wooden Sandals) or a pull’hor (dry grass sandals)in their feet. Later while the Pandits retained the laadh in their pherans, Muslims wore the pherans without the laadh.
An integral part of the traditional attire was the headdress. Hindu women use a headwear called tarangah, which becomes smaller down at back, towards the heels. The women’s pheran has a thick red ribbon known as dhur stitched on the collar, pocket and on the edge of the lower portion of the pheran. The loose arms of the pheran are known as noar with brocade (zarab) or a printed border called nervar. The nervar is removed for a widow.
The laungeh/ louing/ laungh is the third part of the traditional dress. It is a belt of about 1 meter wide and 2 to 2.5 meters and is made of different types of cloth according to the status of the family. The belt allowed the women to carry on with their work freely.
The Kashmiri Muslim women use a headwear known as the kasaba. The kasaba is padded by means of a turban and is pinned together by brooches. A veil made of pashmina or silk is pinned to the top of the kasaba that falls along the back of the neck. There are two types of kasaba: Thoud kasaba and bonn kasaba. thoud kasaba (high kasaba) sits on the head like a crown, worn only by married women belonging to elite families. Bonn kasaba (low kasaba) sits on head like a bandana, worn by commoners and tribal women. The most magnificent and expensive kasabas were made of Kashmiri kundan work known as jarrah, with precious gem stones set in gold to make various kundan ornaments pinned to the red cap with intricate Kashmiri tilla work. Kundan kasaba was worn only by royals. The Muslim women, especially in the urban areas, now wear the hijab or a dupatta wrapped around the head instead of the traditional head scarf.
The Pheran is an essential part of weddings, especially for women. The bride is expected to have at least one tilla embroidered pheran. Traditionally, the bride wears a more fitted version of the pheran in red, maroon and shades of rust or orange. It is heavily embellished with intricate zari work mixed with traditional Kashmiri aari work.
The Kashmiri Pandit bride wears an elaborate headgear consisting of the tarangah, with a kalpush, which is a long piece folded three or four times. Kalpush is made up of two parts: kalpush kur which is made of red coloured raffle or pashmina cloth and is in circular shape, made to size, and is stitched with a piece of brocade (zarbab) cloth known as talchuk to give it a complete shape of a round cap. A white cloth known as zoojhis is wrapped over the kalpush in three or four layers. A glace paper is stitched on top of the zoojh. A dupatta is worn over the tarangah to complete the bridal look along with the traditional dejhoor (long earrings).
This attire is specially worn on the devgon day of the wedding. The description found on a website blog claims that the kalpush represents the Shri Chakra of Goddess Sharika. Zoojh. Tarangah being white in colour, symbolise beauty, happiness and peace. The shesh lath and zitin lath (usually worn by women of high status), the ribbons on the white starched cloth over the kalpush, are symbols of Sheesh Nag. The pouech is a long piece of muslin cloth placed over the zoojh, from head to ankle of at least 1 meter width, stands for the presence of Vasuk Nag and serpent manifestation of Mata Khir Bhawani. Krehne phale secheney, the black pins used to secure the shesh lath, are to ward off bad omens. Thus over all tarangah is worn to have the blessings of Lord Shiva and Shakti.
The groom wears the pheran tied at the waist with a waistband called louing/ laungh made of pashmina, embroidered with golden threads called zarbaf. The groom also wears a turban (gordstar ), and the traditional shoe of the region known as paazar.
Fabric and design
Pheran is basically a loose upper garment gathered loosely at the sleeves which tend to be wide with no slits on the sides. The traditional pheran falls till the feet and was universally worn by both Hindu and Muslim men during the latter part of the 19th century. However, a modern version worn by the Muslims is of knee-length, with broad sleeves, loose and stitched at the front side and on the finishes, while Hindus still wear ankle length pherans tied at the waist, with narrow sleeves.
The putsch, worn under the pheran, is made of lighter material. It is generally used to protect the pheran from burns from the kangri, and provides an extra layer of warmth during winters. Pheran was traditionally found in various bright colours like yellow, orange, greens and red, however, over a period of time, several darker shades, like black, brown and other deeper colours were also introduced. In a sharp contrast to the pherans worn by the Kashmiri women, the ones made for men come in simple designs and solid colours of black, grey, and off-white, now usually of check prints.
Tilla embroidery and thread embroidery are the most common kind of needlework found on the pherans, and the floral patterns are the most popular designs. Pheran worn by women usually has tilla or aari embroidery on the hem line, around pockets and mostly on the collar area. The sleeves have little detailing and the rest of the body of the pheran is plain. Women also wear pherans with folded patterned sleeves with slits at elbow, known as the korabdaar pheran.
Traditionally, the pheran and potsch were worn without a lower garment. Since the latter part of the 19th century, loose suthan (shalwar) and churidar pyjama of the Punjab region became popular in Kashmir. The Kashmiri suthan is baggy and loose and is similar to the Dogri suthan or the Afghani partug (trouser) worn in the Jammu region. Some versions are similar to the shalwars worn in Afghanistan. However, since the 1960s, the straight cut Punjabi salwar has become popular.
With the passage of time, pheran embroidery also evolved. It used to be tilla work and aari kaem with simpler designs at first. Now pherans sport a range of Kashmiri embroidery styles, from sozni to aari, tilla, and kani, either handmade or machine-made. Men typically wear plain long robes while women wear pherans with embroidered borders and neck. Over the years, tailors in the Valley have added style elements to pherans for men as well by blending the traditional design with the English coat designs.
Revival and Modern Versions
Modern trends saw a decline in the use of pheran in favour of salwar kameez. However, there has been a revival in recent years as pherans have become popular again and are worn by women of other regions as well, though tailored with few alterations. The pherans for men too have become fashion statements with designs as fusions of the western raglan coats and the traditional outfit.
In this context it is interesting to note the history of the raglan coat – ‘an assembly offering great freedom of movement.’ It was Baron Raglan who gave his name to a diagonally cut sleeve, extending to the neckline. In December 1853, the Crimean War just began between Russia and a coalition of the French Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. Winter sets in and the British army faces problems in supplying warm clothing. Baron Raglan had the idea of using potato sacks to dress the soldiers – a hole for the head, two slanting notches for the arms. Thus, the raglan sleeve was born.
An armhole that adapts to all morphologies: Due to its design, the raglan sleeve offers a harmonious fall, which accompanies the natural curvature of the shoulder. The armhole adapts to all morphologies and remains comfortable even over a suit jacket. The raglan sleeves can be recognised by the absence of shoulders marked by the design. This pattern of tailoring results in increased comfort as a greater movement of shoulders and arms is possible. Baron Raglan popularised this by incorporating it into his own ceremonial uniform. Baron, who lost one hand during a battle, sees the raglan sleeve as a way to regain his ability in getting dressed or in riding. This shoulder design was chosen in 1914 when the first trench coats for English officers were created. The assembly allowed better handling of weapons and grenades.
In the 1950s, Henri Matisse (French visual artist; 31 December 1869 – 3 November 1954) had several painter’s gowns made, inspired by Japanese overalls and kimonos – with the addition of raglan sleeves so that large areas of colour could be painted without the slightest hindrance.
The traditional pheran did just that: offer greater freedom of movement, besides providing warmth. Women could go around doing their daily chores, as could men, without hindrance. Children could play wearing the protective pheran with large pockets for keeping their candies (matam). Little kids could hide or just stay warm in their grandparents’ pherans. The ingenious korabdaar pheran sleeve allowed women to wash clothes, utensils etc without soiling the long sleeves.
A gender-neutral outfit, it would be used throughout the year, in different fabrics, especially by women. It covers most of the body, is a loose-fitting dress and never clashed with culture, faith or weather. During Kashmir’s days of extreme poverty, this was the only garment that people would use.
The traditional pheran is made of seven rectangular pieces of cloth, stitched together to form a robe. The contemporary pheran, comes custom-made, styled and fitted for every age group. From a need and tradition, the cloak has moved on to be a fashion statement and an identity symbol. Modern variations of the pheran combine new materials, cuts, and styling, with older techniques and embroidery.
I myself find the pheran, as an outer layer, not just warm for Delhi winter but very convenient at both home and office besides being functional too, with pockets to keep keys, mobiles etc. Over the years I have amassed a collection of pherans of different fabrics, colours and embroidery, after wearing it for the first time as a tourist at Nehru Park in the Dal Lake, which almost every tourist gets a photo shoot done in.
However, ironically, none of the fabrics currently used for pherans are made in Kashmir. All fabrics and threads etc are bought from Punjab, Delhi, Maharashtra and other states. The popular wool fabric is of Oswal of Ludhiana. Typically a pheran requires at least two to three metres of thick wool fabric and the fabric costs anything between Rs.1500-2000 per metre. Most people usually have one pheran for winter, and this can last for years. To increase its longevity the potsch is worn inside.
The recent rising local demand in all these patterns has revolutionized the modern pheran. The turnaround came when the trend was quickly picked by social media. Designers started creating marvellous contemporary designs. The pheran now comes in a variety of fabrics and designs – tweed pherans, pherans with patchwork of embroidery, kani work and leather, pherans with zip collar and pockets in front, with faux fur, and with hoodies have all been popular in recent years. There are several retail outlets and online sellers and designers who offer innumerable designs. K Salama of Polo View Road, who have been known for their impeccable bespoke tailoring are now focussing mostly on designing and selling women’s pherans.
Pherans are sold by several online sellers including Amazon and Flipkart . The designer pherans found abundantly in the urban areas of Kashmir and outside Kashmir, are also making inroads into the villages of Kashmir, however, the traditional classic outfits still dominate here.
The demand for designer pherans has in turn brought back the focus on manufacturing of the Kashmir tweed, which, in quality, equals the famous Harris Tweed and sells at a tenth of the price.
In Bandipore, a cluster under a World Bank-funded project in which with the handholding of an NGO, Rangasutra, artisans are being helped to produce hand-spun and hand-woven tweed. The NGO is helping in capacity building by improving colours, designs and efficiency of looms. There are similar clusters in Pulwama and Kulgam. On an average, from these three clusters, almost 30000-50,000 meters are produced in a year. Being hand-spun, it sells around Rs 1000 a meter.
One of the key factors for reviving the wool mills was to utilise part of the wool raw material. Kashmir is India’s second major wool producer with an estimated production of 75 lakh kilograms. It is of 18-24 micron, which is the second-best after Cashmere fibre.
The revived Bemina Woollen Mills produces mechanised tweed, which is now available in 50 shades and with as many patterns. On a yearly basis, around 150 thousand meters are produced. If the demand appreciates as is expected, the machines can run in two shifts and improve the production. It is now one of the best tweed showrooms in Srinagar where people can get cloth or place an order for a coat, or jacket under the famous Poshish brand.
From a simple garment that was used to protect from the winter chill, the pheran is now seen worn in official circles. Politicians have worn the pherans to address people and hold official meetings. Indian prime ministers from Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, V.P.Singh and Narendra Modi have worn the garment while addressing people of Kashmir. Sonia Gandhi is said to have a wardrobe full of them. In 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan also used the garment to send out a message on Kashmir. Hillary Clinton, too, wore a pheran in India, gifted to her by a Kashmiri businessman in New Delhi.
Several Bollywood actors, including Shammi Kapoor, Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, Preity Zinta et al have worn the Kashmiri Pheran in different movies. In the 2018 edition of Coke Studio, Altaf Mir of Muzaffarabad who sang the Kashmiri folksong ha gulo is seen wearing the traditional pheran.
Pheran in the Conflict
In recent times, however, the pheran began to be regarded as a suspicious and informal garment. Men in pherans, get frisked by security forces for possibility of hiding items that may pose a threat to the security. People wearing pherans faced more pressure during the crackdowns that were commonplace in the 90s. In 2014, Kashmiri journalists were asked not to wear pheran at events or pressers organized by the Army Following an outcry, the Army subsequently revoked the order, terming the guidelines “inadvertent”. Even the Directorate of School Education, Kashmir, once banned the pheran at its zonal offices in the Valley. The police had once put pherans in the ‘banned items’ category in Srinagar’s Civil Secretariat. In December 2018, the government under the then Governor Satya Pal Malik, banned the pheran at some of its offices. The order was heavily criticised, and eventually withdrawn.
Omar Abdullah was among those who took to social media to protest the order. Calling it regressive, he tweeted, “I fail to understand why pherans should be banned! This is a regressive order that makes no sense at all. Pherans are a very practical way of keeping warm during the cold winter aside from being part of our identity. This order should be withdrawn.”
Kashmiri poet and oral historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef also commented saying, “Pheran is one of the last vestiges of our culture. Any attempt to ban it from public life is a misrepresentation of our culture because not only is it intrinsic to us culturally, it is also necessary due to weather…”
A Delhi-based architect and urban designer, Jaspreet Kaur is the Consulting Editor of Kashmir Newsline.