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Pakistan – Home of the Ajrak

Pakistan is made up of four provinces, Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan, and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP) – formerly known as the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Although English is the national language and Urdu is the common language, each of these provinces also has a regional dialect, and people from each province are distinctive and possess different cultures. Pakistan has come into international notice post 9/11 as a country that is on the main front line in the “War on Terror” – while internationally Pakistan’s actions have earned mixed reviews, the fact remains that in the years from 2003 – 2011, over 33,000 people have been fatalities to terrorist violence in Pakistan (“Pakistan assessment,” 2011). This position has affected the country’s stability, economy, and security deeply. However, some age-old things, like the production and use of ajrak, remain.

Description of ajrak

An ajrak is a cloth that is between 2.5 – 3 meters long, and is used as a turban or shawl (“All India,” 2010). The fabric is cotton or silk, depending on its place of production and intended use (Zakir, 2010). This fabric is first dipped in caustic soda, and then steamed in a kiln for a day (Sindhi, n.d.). It is then washed, dried, and treated, and then dipped in a substance that gives it a beige tinge (Sindhi, n.d.). This part of the process is known as “Kasai” (Sindhi, n.d.). The cloth is then block printed, and the dyes are historically made from “tamarind fruits, coppers, caster-oil and mustard oil” (Sindhi, n.d.).  The block printing is known as resist printing (“Ajrak, the” 2011), and pieces of wood used for the blocks are hand carved with designs that will then be block printed, or stamped, onto the fabric. These designs are repeated and geometric, and are drawn with the aid of graphs (“Ajrak, the,” 2011). The fabric is block printed by hand, and “(t)he dominant colours are a rich crimson and blue with a little bit of white and black to give definition, and highly decorated with jewel-like colours. The geometric patterns reflect the symmetry of Sufism (Islamic spiritualism), symbolic of cosmic processes, and widely followed by the Sindh” (“All India,” 2010). The name comes from the Arabic word for blue – “azrak” – to denote the touches of blue in the garment.

 How the ajrak relates to Sindhi culture

            Ajrak is an object that is deeply linked to the Sindhi culture. In all the different provinces of Pakistan, touches to clothing allow one to distinguish on sight what province that person is from – Pathans wear a flat woolen hat called a “pukul,” while Balochis wear turbans. Sindhi men, on the other hand, wear a “Sindhi topi” which is a hand embroidered cap, usually in striking color combinations, with mirror work, and an ajrak over their shoulders.

An ajrak is a sign of hospitality, as it is the gift that is given to a guest that visits your house and at gatherings as a sign of respect (Zakir, 2010). It is also placed over a coffin, to show respect to the departed from those they are leaving behind (Zakir, 2010), much like a flag is draped over a coffin of a solider. It is also worn over the shoulders by Sindhi politicians

The cultural and historical roots of the ajrak

            The use of the ajrak may go back to as early as 2,500 BC. A statue excavated from Mohenjo-Daro of the King-Priest shows a shawl draped over his shoulder (Saman, 2011). Similar patterns were found on cloth that was excavated in Mesopotamia – a trefoil with small circles having been filled in with red dye (Saman, 2011). This trefoil symbol is still used on the ajraks made today. The ajrak has been used in Sindh for centuries, and the block printing techniques and dyes are all ages-old methods of dying cloth.

 How has culture influenced the ajrak

            Sindhi culture has also influenced the use of the ajrak. What was traditionally a piece of cloth used as a covering has now achieved a myriad of uses. It is said that it is used from the cradle to the grave – the ajrak cloth is used as a hammock to rock babies to sleep, and placed on the coffin of those who die. It is also used for women to carry their babies, as a kind of sling. It is used as a dupatta or chadar by women as well – a cloth to cover their chest and their head. It is given to a young girl as a part of her dowry when she marries, for use in her married life. Many Sindhi bridegrooms will wear a decorated Sindhi topi on their head and an ajrak on their shoulders on their wedding day. By virtue of its history, local production, and incessant use, the ajrak has become a symbol of honor and provincial autonomy (Saman, 2011).

Ajrak has also become linked to the Sufi culture that pervades throughout Sindh, the home of many great Sufi poets, such as Bulleh Shah and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai. Much production of ajrak takes place in the interior Sindh in areas near shrines, where tourist and pilgrim traffic guarantees a steady sale in the bazaars surrounding the shrines. Many times, too, you will see a pilgrim place an ajrak on the grave of the dead saint, as an offering and gesture of respect. Famous Sindhi singer Abida Parveen, whose renditions of Sufi poetry are famous the world over, never performs without wearing an ajrak draped over her shoulders, in homage to her heritage.

 How will the ajrak be passed on to future generations

            The ajrak is an item that will be passed on for many generations to come. In the rural areas, modernization has not yet been implemented, and people live in much the same way that they have for previous generations. Thus, the ajrak will continue to be an integral part of their lifestyle. The government, as well, has implemented measures to ensure the handing down of this symbol to future generations – Sindh recently introduced Sindh Culture Day, with a “Sindhi topi and ajrak day,” where all the people living in Sindh wore this symbol of provincial identity (Ayaan, 2009).

How will the ajrak evolve in the future

            The ajrak will no doubt evolve in the future. While authentic ajrak will remain a hand-made item, the implementations of machines that can create cloth with ajrak patterns will allow the material to be used for other, more diverse things. The traditional ajrak based block print methods are also being used to create various similar items, such as bedcovers and pillows. In addition, ajrak is even now being used for less conventional items, such as ajrak printed notebooks, bookmarks, and mugs. As the province becomes more modernized, there will be a merging of contemporary objects with this traditional art form.

This artifact is one that represents the cultural heritage of the people of Sindh. It is used at all stages in life, and for all different kinds of purposes. It is a representation of hospitality and respect. It has been used for hundreds, if not thousands of years, by the people of Sindh, and I am sure will continue to be used and evolve over the next generations.

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