Kanger: Everyone’s darling in winters
Inside a single story mud house, elderly Abdul Gani Sheikh of Heewan village in north Kashmir's Baramulla district is joined by his son and other local artisans in skill fully moulding and weaving the dried twigs of willow trees around small earthen pots (Kundal) to make and shape up Kanger-a mobile fire-pot used by most of the Kashmi’s to warm themselves during winters.
Gani and his family have been engaged with the craft since centuries have been traditionally earning their livelihood this way like many other families that who carry forward their forefather’s legacy of this traditional art of manufacturing and fashioning Kanger.
After the earthen pots, locally called as ‘Kundal’, are moulded in proper shape, artisans come in and complete the wickerwork around them, shape two arms that are used to handle the pot and also decorate it with colours to give it an aesthetically delicate look and shape. The final product is Kanger, which dominates the market in winters.
Today, even when all kinds of facilities, including gas, electric heaters and specially made Hamams, are available, the tradition of Kanger to fight the hostile months of harsh winter hasn’t disappeared and rather continues to enjoy great acceptance across villages, towns and the city.
Kanger is preferred over all other heating devices by people especially in rural Kashmir given its affordability and low cost. People believe that this traditional device is easy to prepare and unlike electrical heating devices, can be carried along wherever one goes. What is probably the single most qualification for having a Kanger is a Pheran (traditional Kashmiri cloak) underneath which one holds it.
There is a famous proverb that goes like this: What Laila was to Majnun’s bosom, so is the kanger to a Kashmiri- I think this proverb sums up the importance and significance as well as traditional fervour associated with this heating device.
“The art of weaving Kanger has seen transformations from generations in my family. It is a traditional art which has a rich and deep rooted history in our culture. I have been doing this from last 5o years and we earn our livelihood from it. It takes days to prepare a Kangri,” said Abdul Gani Sheikh adding that, “this craft is dying a silent death and new generation is hardly interested to take this legacy forward. I and my family have kept this craft alive and earn our livelihood from it. Though its demand increases with the onset of winter but I sell around 1000 Kangris every winter, cost of a Kangri varies between 80 to 200 rupees and even more. It is very essential in winter as it keeps us warm.”
Manufacturing the kangri involves labour and local artisanal craftsmanship. Twigs are collected from deciduous shrubs, scraped and peeled and go through a process of soaking, drying and are finally woven around the bowl-shaped earthenware. Kangri consists of two parts, the inner or the earthenware, designed by potters whiles the outer part or coverage- an encasement of wicker – work of various ordinary and beautiful designs and forms. Kangris are mostly made in Charar-e-Sharief, Islamabad , Bandipora, Zainagir, Magam, Baramulla and present very specific characteristics indicating the area in which it is made. All areas have their specific traits and locals can easily identify the Kangri and its area of origin.
When the first signs of chill are in the air with the onset of winter, the great clusters of Kangris began to make their appearance in shops. “During the month of November, December, I sell around 1000 Kangris, cost of a Kangri varies between 50 to 250 rupees and people at large believe that even poor people can afford it,” Bashir Ahmed, a Kangari seller from Bandipora said.
The features of this heating device, which renders it matchless with respect to electrical and gas heating appliances, this age old traditional Kashmiri device would continue to be the favourite amongst Kashmiris in future also. “Kangeries are still selling like hot cakes and, thank almighty that we make handsome earnings by selling Kanger. But what hurts is that new generation hardly bothers to learn the craft,” Ali Mohammed, who manufactures and sells Kangri from last 10 years, said.
“Government has not provided us any kind of help or support to uplift the trade and craft. We approached the concern departments for loans but all in vain. If government is really sincere to promote the craft and save the cultural legacy of the craft, a full-fledged loan and welfare scheme must be introduced to benefit those who are associated with craft,” said Din Mohammad Shiekh, another leading Kangri designer and seller.
If you are a non-local visiting Kashmir for the first time during the winter season, you would be taken by surprised to find people carrying mobile fire pot in their hands or in their laps but every Kashmiri knows how to handle the apparatus with care.
It is generally believed that people of Kashmir learnt the use of Kangar from the Italians who were in the retinue of the Mughal emperors, and usually visited the Valley during summer. In Italy and Spain braziers were made in a great variety of shapes and were profoundly ornamented. Historical data, however, contradicts the claim that Kangar has come to Kashmir from Italy. According to Sir Aurel Stein, Kashmiri chronicler, the name is in all probability derived from Sanskrit, Kasthangarika- Kash (wood) and angarika (embers).
Earliest references to kangri are found in Mankha’s ‘Sri Kanthcharitam’ and Pandit Kalhana’s ‘Rajatarangini’. Mankha describes it as Hasantika i.e. a pot that could be carried in hand. He says it was in regular use during his times.
Kanger has fascinated European travellers too. Historians like Bernier, Moorcraft, Hugel Vigne and others have all noted the importance that it holds in the life of an average Kashmiri.
Besides its profound use during the winters, Kangar also holds an ornamental value and on various special occasions, including marriage, Kangar is always used as a special gift- a newly married bride buys the kanger as a prime gift. This tradition is especially taken care by the Kashmiri Pandits as pundit couples usually gift Kangar to each other for the first Shivratri after their marriage.
In the Valley, there can be no celebration without a Kangri. At the beginning of any ceremony, even if it is solemnised in the warm months, the Kangri is there to spread the fragrance after aromatic seeds called ‘Isbandare’ are burnt in a Kangri to signify a fragrant and pious beginning. This custom is common both among Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir.
Dr. R.K. Tamiri, a renowned author, beautifully described Kangri as ‘a small earthenware bowl of a quaint shape, held in a frame of wicker-work. The earthen ware bowl, containing fire is called Kundal. In Sanskrit Kundala means ring. The outer encasement of wicker-work may at times be very pretty with its ornamentation of rings and brilliant colouring. A simple protective covering ensheathed over the upper portion of wickerwork is called Woluhd.
Kangri has also found a place in our festivals and religious observances. On Makar Sankrati, which is in the cold month of January, Pandits give Kangris with fire embers in it, to the family priest (Ghor), in the name of their departed ancestors. This practice simulates ‘Nirajala Ikadashi’ day in the plains. On this day, which falls in summer, Hindus give a gharra (pot) of cold water in alms.
‘Shishur’ day is observed by Pandits to protect the new bride against any harm by cold. The bride holds a specially-prepared Kangri in her hands and the guests offer cash. During Herath (Sivaratri), the daughters take decorated Kangris alongwith other presents to their husband's house.
Kangri also finds use when 'Isband' is used to ward off the evil on auspicious occasions. Tilaashtami marks the end of Sivaratri celebrations and the heralding of Spring. Old Kangris, on this day, in the evening, are consigned to flames. A rope is tied to a Kangri. Grass twigs are put in it and then it is set on fire. The person who holds the rope swings the Kangri round his head, Chanting 'relegious slogans till the Kangri is totally burnt. The same evening, earthen lamps are lighted and put in river, as on Vaeth Truvah (Birthday of Vitasta/Jehlum) day. It is a grand spectacle to watch. The Muslims generally present Kangris in charity to the mullahs.
There have been some studies that indicate Kangari as a reason for some types of cancers. Such studies blame that excessive use of Kangri, particularly when too hot and kept too close to body, can cause severe harm including cancer. Many a times, the Kangris have caused major fires.
It is always recommended to use Kangari with utmost care!