An enticing art was introduced in the 15th century in the valley of Kashmir by Sheikh Hamza Makhdom during the reign of Zainul Abdideen. It was promoted in the hopes of enhancing the valley’s economy and was initially restricted to the creation of palaces and houses. Such is the legend of one of the most authentic arts of the country- walnut woodcarving. Through the centuries the skill has been passed through generations and has presented us with exquisite creations. The raw material used is walnut wood (Juglans regia) which is available in Kashmir and is known for its durability, close grain and even texture.
Walnut wood is locally known as Doon Kul and is harvested every 300 years upon reaching full maturity. The wood used predominantly determines the quality and cost of the woodwork where the wood obtained from the root is more expensive since it is almost black and it is the darkest part of the wood which is the strongest and preferred for carving. The walnut trees themselves are of four types: ‘Wantu’ or ‘Vont Dun’, ‘Dunu’, ‘Kakazi’ or ‘Burzol’ and ‘Khanak’. Out of these Khanak is the only kind that is found in the wild while the other three are cultivated. In addition to their rarity, these trees are only harvested after they bear mature fruits, this renders the waiting period to be that much longer and hence makes the wood-works pricier.
Before commencing with the carving, there is a process of preparation that the wood must undergo. The wooden planks acquired are dated and piled on each other. This is carried out in shade and the seasoning process begins which lasts for as long as four years. As for the carving itself, the master carver, called ‘naqqash’ uses his skills and techniques to provide an array of wonderfully carved woodworks. This is achieved by etching the basic pattern on the wood and chiselling out the unwanted bits so that the design emerges on an embossed surface. The style of carving varies and is broadly classified into five types based on the design of the carving and the layers of carvings.
· Khokerdar- This consists of many layers and depicts a three dimensional scene, mostly from nature.
· Jalidahr- This category includes the popular Chinar leaf motifs and Mogul jail patterns. These carvings work in screens and have magnificent see-through work
· Vaboraveth- Here the the depth of the carving can go five inches and it captures dragon and lotus motifs
· Padri- This is much simpler and contains an elegant central motif and thin panels surrounding it.
· Sadikaam- These carvings are more superficial and the designs are just traced with a sharp tool to give them some depth.
It is quite interesting to note that the inspirations for these carvings are taken from the sceneries in Kashmir, Chinar leaves, flowers like lotus and rose. But the kind that is endogenous to Kashmir would be the Khatam-band, which are geometric patterns beautifully carved on the walnut wood which has an inherit sheen that is seen when polished with wax or lacquer. These intricate pieces of art take upto two days to six months for completion depending on the complexity of the pattern.