Even today in Makkah the 5,400 years old ritual is being practised with full enthusiasm. The holy Kaaba is covered with new kiswa (cover) every year on the 10th Dhu Al Hijjah, which coincides with Haj. It was a custom started by the Prophet Ismail (Pubh) 4000 years before the origin of Islam.
India had the honour of presenting the Kiswa in the beginning of this millennium. In January 1983 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia presented such a swathe to the United Nations — on behalf of the entire Islamic world.
Every year the old Kiswa is removed, cut into small pieces and gifted to certain individuals, visiting foreign Muslim dignitaries and organisations. Some of them sell their share as souvenirs of Haj. Earlier Umar bin al-Khattab would cut it in to pieces and distribute them among the pilgrims who used them as shelter from the heat of Makkah.
The present cost of making the kiswa amounts to SR 17 million. The cover is 658 sq. metres long and is made of 670 kgs of pure silk. For embroidery 15 kilos of gold threads are used. It consists of 47 pieces of cloth and each piece is 14 Mts. long and 101 cms broad. The kiswa is wrapped around the Kaaba and fixed to the ground with copper rings.
Traditionally the pattern of kiswa has not changed. The material is made up of silk and a gold embroidered band is sewn about three fourth the distance from the bottom. The part covering the door, which stands 2.13 mts above the ground on the north-east side wall, is covered separately with richly embroidered Quranic verses, leaving an opening for the black stone.
The colour of Kiswa kept changing during the reigns of different Caliphs and rulers. In earlier days’ the kiswa was changed on 10th of Muharamm but slowly it was shifted to 10th of Dhu Al-Hijjah. Caliph Amir Maawiya started to cover it on 10th Muharram (first month of Muslim calendar) as well as on Idd ul-Fitr (Ramadan).
Asad al-Himairi from Yemen was the first person to cover the Kaaba. In olden days different clans of Makkah would cover the Kaaba by turns yearly. Tribal leaders would also bring small drapes to cover the walls of Kaaba.
Once the grand mother of Prophet Mohammed (Pbuh) had offered white Kiswa. Prophet Mohammed (Pbuh) used Kiswa made of Yemeni cloth. Caliphs Umar and Uthman covered it with an Egyptian white cloth, Qubati. Mamoon Al-Rasheed and Fatami Khalafa Caliphs used white Kiswa.
The cloth would come from Baghdad, Egypt and Yemen depending on whose influence was greater in Makkah. Viceroy of Egypt Mohd Ali Pasha after splitting from the Turkey Empire, made making of Kiswa the state responsibility. The Kiswa was brought by annual caravan from Cairo.
Nassir Abbasi (1160-1207) started green Kiswa and later shifted to black, since then the black kiswa has become the tradition. Earlier the Kiswas’ were plain. Only in 1340 the embroidery border tradition was introduced by the Egyptian ruler Hassan.
During World War I Turkey joined Germany and there were doubts that will it be possible to bring the Kiswa from Egypt. So Turkey organised a very grand Kiswa from Istanbul and by Hejaz Railway it was sent to Madina. But the Kiswa from Egypt reached Makkah in time, so the Istanbul Kiswa was kept back in Madina.
In 1923 when the relations of Sheriff of Makkah and Egypt were sour, the Egyptians called back their Kiswa which had reached Jeddah by that time. That year the Istanbul Kiswa lying at Madina was utilised. The next few years Egyptians played hide and seek with the Kiswa. Ibn Saud used Kiswa made in Iraq.
In 1926 a factory was set up at Makkah by Late King Abdul Aziz to make Kiswa. Moulana Dawood Ghaznavi and Moulana Ismail Ghaznavi played a pivotal role in setting up the factory. Initially all the craftsmen were brought from India. It took more than 100 craftsmen the whole year to weave the cloth on ancient wooden handlooms and to embroider it in magnificent calligraphy. In 1937 the factory was closed down due to non availability of modern machinery.
The factory was re-opened after a long gap in 1962. Making of Kiswa is an interesting process and done in different stages. The best silk is imported from Italy and Germany. With the help of special detergents and special olive oil soaps the silk is washed to remove its protective wax.
The silk is exposed to high temperatures of 90c and washed several times to get its natural colour. The best results of dyeing are achieved on the natural colour. Ten years before dyeing was done manually and now it is being done through specialised machines. Later weaving is done.
In the beginning the belt of Kaaba had 8 pieces and later it was doubled. In 1971 two additional pieces of YA HAYYU and YA QAYUUM were introduced. The cover and inner layer are done in one department. Designing of Quranic verses is being computerised. Computerised designing has slowly replaced manual designing and increased the speed of work.
Silver and golden threads are used for embroidery. This year onwards the embroidery threads will be made locally, by the same goldsmith who made the door of Kaaba. Finished pieces under go strict quality control tests in the laboratory before being stitched together.