Folk Art: Antelope Horn Rings of Chitral
Chitrali horn rings are a unique craft with deep cultural significance and have a rich history steeped in folklore. Crafting rings from the horns of wild goats, particularly the markhor and Himalayan ibex, is a time-honoured tradition in the picturesque town of Chitral. Folklore suggests that wearing these rings on leprosy-stricken fingers could cure the dreaded disease, although scientific confirmation remains elusive. Nonetheless, many believe in the therapeutic qualities of these rings, and others are drawn to them for their striking and vibrant colours.
The journey of creating these exquisite rings begins with the selection of the best raw materials - the horns of markhor and Himalayan ibex. Procuring the horns has become a challenge due to a decline in the populations of these wild ungulates and restrictions on hunting. Once obtained, the process of crafting these exquisite horn rings involves several meticulous steps, each adding to the beauty and uniqueness of the final product.
The horns are carefully sawed into easy-to-handle pieces, each measuring 40x40x20 millimetres. These horn pieces are then soaked in water for an entire year, gradually softening the hard keratin and making it easier to work with.
After the soaking period to prepare the horns, the water-steeped horn pieces are drilled through with a hole, sized to match the girth of a finger. The horn piece is then firmly secured onto a wooden rod that tapers in thickness. This arrangement allows the artisan to create rings of varying sizes. The horn is then sawed around the edges, transforming it into a rough octagonal shape.
Using a paring knife, the octagonal horn piece is meticulously shaved down into a circle. Subsequently, the artisan renders the ring to achieve a perfect circular smoothness using fine rasps and sandpaper. By the end of this step, the horn piece has transformed into a rather wide ring. Interestingly, this single piece yields two rings when sliced with a very fine blade.
Next comes the intricate design phase. Pieces of coloured lac are heated on fire, making them pliable enough to be drawn out into fine strands. These lac strands are then carefully threaded through a series of holes drilled around the circumference of each ring. The ends of the strands are heated again and pressed into little lumps to secure the lac in place. With utmost precision, the artisan uses a precision knife to cut tiny flower-shaped incisions into the cooled and hardened lac. These incisions are then filled with lac of varying colours to create multicoloured floral designs.
To achieve flawless and vibrant designs, the artisan uses precisely measured strokes of the fine rasp to carefully grind off any excess lac. This leaves behind intricate and captivating floral patterns, adding an element of artistic finesse to each ring.
Once the design work is completed, the ring is placed back onto the tapered wooden rod. The artisan meticulously polishes the ring to smoothness using fine sandpaper. Finally, a brisk rubbing with rapeseed oil imparts a beautiful sheen, enhancing the overall appeal of the finished horn ring.
There are only a handful of remaining practitioners of this craft and has no apprentices to pass it on to. As modernization sweeps through the high-speed world, the tradition faces the risk of fading away with the passing of the last artisans.
Despite these challenges, there is a strong demand for these rings, sought after by men, women, and children. They are also a cherished adornment for bridal couples. Beyond the local market, the rings find their way to stores in Gilgit and Peshawar, as well as abroad, particularly in Germany, Korea, and Japan. While tourism has declined, the rings still manage to find buyers abroad.
The art of crafting horn rings in Chitral is a fascinating tradition that reflects the region's rich cultural heritage and folklore. From its alleged healing properties to its vibrant aesthetics, these rings hold a special place in the hearts of both locals and admirers worldwide. However, as the last artisans approach retirement with no apprentices to carry on the legacy, the future of this enchanting craft remains uncertain. Preserving and celebrating this cultural gem is essential to ensure it continues to thrive and captivate generations to come.