Napoleon’s Kashmir Connection

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    The buzz surrounding the upcoming film 'Napoleon' has cast a worldwide spotlight on the love story between Napoleon and his first wife, Josephine. But did you know that there is an interesting Kashmir connection to their romance? It revolves around the exquisite Pashmina Shawls, which Josephine adored and Napoleon often gifted her. In fact her pashmina would go on to even save her life!

    This is an iconic painting of Empress Josephine draping an embroidered Pashmina shawl. It was sent as a gift by Napoleon to his beloved Josephine after his Egypt campaign in 1798. She loved this gift so much that it spurred Josephine’s love for Pashminas and thanks to her these exquisite shawls from Kashmir, became very sought-after fashion accessories in Europe.

    Pashmina shawls are made out of wool from a distinct breed of goat called Changthangi, found in the high reaches of the Himalayas. The word ‘Pashmina’ comes from the word ‘Pashm’ which means ‘Wool’ in Persian. While the art of making fine shawls was known in Kashmir for a millennia, it became popular under the 15th century Kashmir ruler Sultan Zain ul abdin (1418-1470 CE). Before the 17th century, Pashmina wool was not dyed and so the shawls were white, black, brown or gray. Later it became fashionable to colour these shawls with natural dyes. It was during the rule of Emperor Akbar that the art of Sozni embroidery was introduced in the Pashmina shawls. Some of these embroidered shawls took around six months to make and required a high level of skill. These priceless Sozni shawls were presented to the high ranking members of the Mughal court as gifts. Over time, Pashmina shawls also became popular in other Islamic courts like those of Persia, Ottoman Empire and the Khedivate Egypt.

    The story goes that when Napoleon invaded the Khedivate Kingdom of Egypt in 1798, he came across a box of fine Pashmina Shawls which he sent to his wife Josephine in Paris. Josephine loved these shawls and would wear them for social occasions. Soon Parisian high society began to be inspired by Josephine's love for “Cachemires”, as Kashmiri shawls were known in Europe and soon began to emulate her. These shawls, especially the rectangle ones, served as perfect accessories for the high-waisted ‘Empire style’ dresses in fashion at that time . Square shawls were woven with special designs so that the patterns would line up when folded. They also became popular wedding gifts for brides.

    Interestingly, Josephine’s passion for “Cachemires” also in a way saved her from an assassination attempt on 24th December1800,. The mention of this incident is found in the book ‘Memoirs of General Jean Rapp: First Aide-de-camp to Napoleon’. On that fateful day,Napoleon and members of his family were driving to the Opera in their carriages. Josephine had on a magnificent new shawl which she wore for the first time that day. General Rapp recalled,

    ‘Permit me to observe,’ said I, ‘that your shawl is not thrown on with your usual elegance.’ She [Josephine] good-humouredly begged that I would fold it after the fashion of the Egyptian ladies. While I was engaged in this operation we heard Napoleon depart.’

    Josephine and General Rapp had spent so much time folding and styling the shawl that Napoleon had left ahead of them. Their carriage was supposed to follow Napoleon’s carriage but were further behind. This delay saved them from a massive bomb that exploded between Napoleon and Josephine’s carriages. Thankfully, both Napoleon and Josephine escaped unhurt. This incident is famous in history as “Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise,” when an attempt was made on the life of Napoleon by his opponents. But even after this near death experience Napoleon and Josephine went to the Opera unfazed and sat through the performance, winning many admirers.

    Josephine’s love for Pashminas would continue till her death in 1814 and there are many portraits of her sporting a pashmina across museums in the world. . Meanwhile Europe’s obsession with Pashmina shawls went on forever. Even today, Pashmina scarves and stoles are highly prized for their finesse and elegance.

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