Walnut wood carving is an ornamental and delicate craft process that is unique to Kashmir due to the concentration of walnut trees in this region.
Carved walnut wood-work is among the most important crafts of Kashmir. Kashmir is now one of the few places in the world where walnut is still available at an altitude of 5500-7500 feet above see level. The wood is hard and durable, its close grain and even texture facilitating fine and detailed work. It also presents visually interesting effects with mere plain polished surfaces.
The Kashmir craftsman rejoices in carving intricate and varied designs. A variety of carved products bear recurrent motifs of the rose, lotus, iris, bunches of grapes, pears and chinar leaves. Dragon motifs and patterns taken from kani and embroidered shawls all find their place in wooden objects with deep relief carving.
Wood used for carving can be from the root or trunk of the tree. The wood derived from the root is almost black with the grain more pronounced than the wood from the trunk, which is lighter in color. Branches have the lightest color with no noticeable grain. It is actually the dark part of wood, which is best for carving as it is strong. The value of the wood differs with the wood from the root being most expensive.”
Walnut trees are of four varieties namely; ‘Wantu’ or ‘Vont Dun’ (fruit has hard shell), ‘Dunu’ and ‘Kakazi’ or ‘Burzol’ (best fruit with lightest shell), which are cultivated while the ‘Khanak’ is found in the wild. These can be cut only once they mature to give fruits.
The wooden planks so obtained are then numbered (dated) and piled one upon the other. The process is always carried out in shade. The gaps in between the different layers of the planks allow the passage of air, which helps in the seasoning process. Seasoning goes on for 1 to 4 yrs.
The naqqash, master carver, first etches the basic pattern on to the wood and then removes the unwanted areas with the help of chisels and a wooden mallet so that the design emerges from the lustrous walnut wood as an embossed surface
The carving of furniture and smaller items is an elaborate process and involves high degree of skill and craftsmanship.
There are five main styles of woodcarving:
Undercut (Khokerdar):This type comprises multi-layers that can exceed upto seven. The overall effect tends towards three-dimensional depiction of various motifs or scenes for eg. a jungle with layers of flora, intertwined, rabbits hopping from bushes, birds flying et al.
Open or Lattice work (Jalidahr): This type of carving works in screens and employs beautiful see-through Jali work. Chinar leaf motifs and Mogul jali patterns are an example of the same.
Deep carving (Vaboraveth): This work is also known as raised work and the designs in this form of carving comprise dragons or lotus motifs. The depth of carved part can go upto 5 inches.
Semi carving (Padri): Usually this type of work comprises thin panels along the rim of the surface with a central motif.
Shallow carving (Sadikaam): In this, the motifs or scenes are merely chased along the lines in pencil, to give them a little depth
The traditional tools being employed are:- chisels of different type (wathlavun), planer (randha), measuring tape (phet gaz), L-angle for obtaining parallel and perpendicular lines (khari hat) and Wooden scale (khat chhal).
The motifs on the wooden artifacts are inspired from the various natural wonders of Kashmir, Chinar leaves, Vine leaves,flowers like Lotus and Rose. The Kashmiri specialty of wood carving is Khatam-band which has geometrical patterns beautifully done on the wood. The designs are either carved along the borders or filling the entire surface. The intricately carved floral patterns or geometrical motifs create beautiful pieces of art. A single piece can take from 2 days to 6 months depending on the intricacy of the pattern
Walnut wood has an inherit sheen which surfaces on its own when polished with wax or lacquer.
Walnut woodcarving is believed to have been introduced in Kashmir by Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom during the reign of Zainul Abdideen in the 15th century. The king promoted the art to improve the valley’s economy.
The craft was initially restricted to the creation of elaborate palaces and houses. Written records tell of Zain-ul-Abadin`s great razdani, palace, and its elaborate wood carvings. To this date, several fine examples of intricately carved buildings, shrines and mausoleums survive in Kashmir – the shrines of Noor-ud-din-Wali at Charar-e-Sharif, the Naqshaband mosque and the shrine of Nund Rishi are just a few of them.
It has moved from elaborate creations to a whole range of contemporary products across the spectrum.