SONAMUKHI/KOLKATA: A cluster of families in Sonamukhi — a Bengal town some 3,000km from Kabul — are watching the events unfolding in Afghanistan with more than the normal degree of interest. For more than half a century, these families in Bankura district have had a thriving trade relation with Afghanistan, supplying high-quality silk turbans, or saafa, to Kabuliwallahs. With trade between India and Afghanistan coming to a sudden halt following the Taliban takeover of the country, the turban weavers and sellers are staring at a loss in business and some have already started shifting to stocking and weaving the indigenous but intricate Baluchari saris.
“We have been in this business for three generations now. My grandfather started the trade and then my father opened a shop in Kolkata and began exporting the turbans to Afghanistan. Till last year, I had an annual turnover of Rs 1 crore just from selling these turbans but the trade has come to a sudden stop now,” said Shyamapada Dutta, 49, who runs a loom at Sonamukhi and has a shop on Rabindra Sarani near Nakhoda Masjid.
Sonamukhi’s ties with Afghans dates back to the 1960s when some Kabuliwallahs while travelling across Bengal with their spices and dry fruits were drawn to the village known for its rich silk weaves. “They gave the first orders for silk turbans and liked the products so much that they kept coming back for more and that is how the trade began,” said Asit Baran Shoo, another weaver. He added that even in the 1990s around 500 families in the village were engaged in the turban trade but the number has now dwindled to around 50 owing to digital prints and a large section of newage Afghans discarding turbans.
The colourful turbans mostly come in two lengths of 36 inches and 45 inches and are priced between Rs 350 and Rs 3,500 depending on the quality of silk used. The black, blue and grey ones are worn by the Pashtoons. The pale yellow and metallic shades are preferred in central and northern Afghanistan while the Hazaras, who claim to be descendants of Genghis Khan, go for the greens.
Raju Paul, 39, a third-generation weaver and exporter said his turbans were mostly sent to Ghazni, the biggest trade hub and the sixth largest city in Afghanistan. The Taliban took control of Ghazni on August 12 and since then all his transactions have stopped.
“We had a set of regular Afghan customers coming over to our village to buy the turbans and a set of Afghan agents who regularly visited our units to take bulk orders and send them to Afghanistan. But now the agents have cancelled further orders citing uncertainty back home. The situation is similar to that in 1996 when the Taliban first annexed Afghanistan but our trade had continued. This time, the agents say the situation looks grim,” said Paul.

City-based Afghans at Shyampada Dutta’s shop near Nakhoda Masjid to buy turbans

City-based Afghans like Md Rasul and Akhdat Khan said they had earlier bought turbans from the Rabindra Sarani store and from Sonamukhi either for personal use or for exporting purposes. “But the situation looks grim now. We have no idea when things will get better,” said Rasul, who has been in Kolkata for last 40 years and deals in garments.
(With inputs from Sudipto Das)