While Pakistan may be a fairly young country, its art, culture, and architecture have gone through centuries of weaving, knitting, painting, and carvings to stand on the level they are today. Whether it’s Ajrak from Sindh, blue pottery from Multan, lacquer art from Peshawar, or wooden crafts of Sillanwali, everything tells a story through its exquisite patterns and intricate details.
For centuries fabric, clay wood, animal skin, and bones have been a playground to channel creativity for craftsmen. Happiness, joy, chaos, sorrow, every emotion has been carved onto these canvases. Depending upon the upbringing, the historical and geographical uniqueness of the area, or just whatever inspires them, they have been making us the handmade crafts that we take for granted. What’s peculiar about each of these articles is, how they are subtle yet intense, fine yet raw, unique yet when to put together they blend in.
It’s safe to say that Pakistan is a breeding ground for unprecedented artwork. There’s beauty coming out of every corner of every village where there’s civilization.
One such corner is Sillanwali. Located 37 kilometers south of Sargodha, the town was established in the 19th century during British rule. The inhabitants of this town are so skilled at crafting wood, they are locally said to have “golden hands”. With a mere population of 38000 people, Sillanwali has more or less 100 large and small scale handicraft manufacturing units. These wooden crafts are not just appreciated locally but are also idealized and exported worldwide.
As you enter Sillanwali bazaar, the serpentine patterns and carefully picked colors of decoration pieces, first attract your eyes. You are tempted to walk to the store nearest to you. You then pick one of these handicrafts, a wooden candy maybe. The feel of its delicate carvings makes you want to observe every texture on its surface, so you trace your fingers all over it. You remove the lid, which is well-detailed itself, the fragrance of the freshly done lacquer polish excites your smell receptors. As you start to appreciate how elegant the candy in your hand is, it occurs to you that the patterns of its design are so defined, it’s magical. You are left questioning how something handmade can have detailed this precise. How recurring patterns are so similar to each other, they feel computerized. Now that you are in the moment, you began to realize the patience, consistency, and determination of the craftsman, that went into making this piece. That’s the joy of handmade stuff, they are made with love. Moved by everything, you purchase this wooden candy.
Though handicrafts production started in Sillanwali after independence only, the details and designs have taken inspirations from Mughal architecture. Floral designs such as those with a small circle or dot and short radiating petals are a common pattern on these handicrafts. Uniform patterns and bright colors used are also a highlighting trait of Mughal designs. On some articles, you may find fine golden details as done in the Victorian era.
Before partition, these craftsmen were involved in making wood-based furniture and ornaments in Karnal, a city in India. After the birth of Pakistan, they migrated to Sillanwali. When they settled in, these craftsmen took the aid of their carving skills and started making wooden ornaments for a living. Today, more than 10,000 people in this tehsil are associated with the wood carving business. Other than décor items, watches, jewelry, and everyday furniture are also manufactured here.
Even though the crafts of Sillanwali have a huge market in Indonesia, Malaysia, UAE, and parts of Europe, America, and China, the locals are deprived of their deserved recognition. Part of the reason could be that businessmen from developed cities purchase these crafts in bulk at cheap prices and export them worldwide. The export of locally tagged goods is hence very low.
While producing handicrafts takes a lot of effort, the craftsmen who make them are paid inadequately. It’s almost impossible to afford household expenses, manufacturing costs, utility bills, and store rent with what little they make. The increased taxes, cost inflation, and the lockdown have made the situation only worse. Lack of updated machinery and government interest is of no help either.
Luckily several governmental and non-governmental organizations are now working to preserve the artisans of Pakistan and help them earn an identity in the international market. By preserving the cultural heritage, organizing exhibitions, and promoting citizens to prefer locally made goods over imported ones, crafts such as these wooden ornaments of Sillanwali can be preserved.