When it comes to keeping oneself warm, including the feet, torso and hands, Kashmiris can’t but think of “kangar” or “kangri”. As the old adage goes, “Give a Kashmiri a kangar and he is perfectly happy”.
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.
The kangar is an earthen pot woven around with a wicker filled with hot embers, routinely keeping it inside pheran or woollen Kashmiri cloak or inside a blanket.
The kangar is a baked earthenware bowl fitted in a woven wicker-work basket. When initially introduced in J&K, it was just a bowl of earthware known as mannan. Today’s kangar, particularly those from Charar-e-Sharief, around 29 km from Srinagar, are beautiful to behold, woven as they are with lovely works of different sizes and designs of different colours. These kangars sell between `150 and `300.
The fuel used in a kangar is tapan tsini, a kind of charcoal traditionally made by burning hak — the drift wood collected from the rivers, forests and dried leaves of Chinar and other trees.
Like ants, the people of the Valley prepare weeks ahead of the rainy and snowy days by thronging markets to buy woollens, pulses, dry vegetables, Kangri’s, rice and other imperishable eatables and essentials in October.
Though many Kashmiri homes have turned to heaters and heating pillars imported from faraway Turkey, South Korea and Japan or invented or copied within India to beat the biting cold during winter, kangar still remains indispensable for the average Kashmiri.
However, this portable Kashmiri brazier, a vital part of the Himalayan region’s “warm” folklore is losing its sheen for two reasons: changing lifestyle of the Valleyites and of it allegedly being injurious to health. Doctors warn that the kangar’s persistent use can cause a specific skin cancer.
W.J. Elmslie, a missionary doctor who came to Srinagar in 1865, provided the first scientific account of Kangri burn cancer in the Valley. He observed that the people use kangar under a pheran in close proximity to the bare skin of the abdomen and when indoors they place it between their thighs. The embers of charcoal reach a temperature of about 66 degree Celsius and its injurious effects include skin cancer in abdomen and thighs. Latest research, however, says that the disease is caused by the result of carcinogenic elements in charcoal.
However, It’s become part of folklore, celebrated in proverb and and poetry. The use of the kanger, according to popular perception, makes one lazy during winters. Perhaps that is what led to the Kashmiri adage: “Rath mein kanger ti vuch mei dav.” Hold my kanger and watch me run.
It’s also used at weddings. Decorated with mirrors, rings and jaali (mesh) patterns, the bridal kanger is called “sheesh-daar”, literally “with mirrors”, and is used to burn aromatic seeds called isband during the ceremony.
In Kashmiri Pandit families, there is a tradition of offering cash to a newly-married bride in a beautifully decorated Kangar.
‘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.
The kangers of the Charar-e-Sharif town are known for their intricate weave and warmth, while the kangers of Bandipora are known for their remarkable strength.
Even though the kanger has been used in the Valley for generations, not many know of its origisn. One of the earliest references to the usage of fire-pots, is in the 12th century historical treatise, the Rajtarangini, in which it is called a kasthangarika.
It is also 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.
Poet and Writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef said that artisans began weaving wicker around fire-pots after Central Asian culture began to influence the indigenous Kashmiri culture.
Legend suggests that the kanger was made popular among the Valley’s inhabitants by Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, the revered saint of the Rishi order also known as Nund Rishi. His shrine is located in the Charar-e-Sharif overlooking the town known for its kangers.
Haji Abdul Gani, a shakhsaaz or wicker weaver in his late 80s, said that it was Nund Rishi’s “blessings that make Charar’s kanger one of the finest”. Gani has spent much of his life making kanger and even today, he considers making kangers a spiritual act that gives him peace of mind.
Vinayak Razdan, editor of the Kashmir culture blog SearchKashmir.org, said there was a political aspect in the way the origin of the kanger is traced:
“The Kanger is a luxury that is available to all Kashmiris. It has made life better. Placing its introduction in a certain region is like advertising the benefits of that region. So we see Englishmen attributing it to Italians and hence the great west. We see some Kashmiris placing it with Central Asia, hence the benefits of Islamic era of Kashmir. We see Indians and Kashmiri Pandits emphasising on its Sanskrit origin, hence the ingenuity of natives. We may never know the truth but I think the truth is that kanger a mix of all three.”
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!
(With inputs from Scroll.in, The Kashmir Images & other sources)