“You cannot do without it, this is Kashmir!”
Seventy-year-old Bashir Ahmad says with a wide smile as he brings out his two-year-old kang’ir from under his pheran – the Kashmiri woolen cloak.
As the balmy sun shimmered the days-old snow, spread on the rooftops and hardened mounds on the edges of roads, Mr. Ahmad sits in his hosiery store in Srinagar’s Maharaj Gunj. Undaunted by the chill of chillai-kalaan – the forty-days harshest period of winters in Kashmir, Mr. Ahmad is provided warmth by the kang’ir – the commonly used firepot in Kashmir.
The Kangi’ir is a locally manufactured heating gear – a firepot made of earthenware, which is covered by the wicker layer. Many also add a Tsaalan – or designed flattened spoon to adjust the embers. The mechanism works as the charcoal is burnt in the earthenware, while the ashes cover the embers to protect from overheat. People in Kashmir know their art of keeping a kangi’r inside their pherans or under blankets.
Much like Mr. Ahmad, who is disinterested in the new-age alternatives of electric and gas heaters as they are seen dangerous, many prefer to use kang’ir for warmth. As his kang’ir rests unattended for a few seconds, a young man in the shop picks it up nonchalantly to warm his face.
While he lights his cigarette with the embers in it, Mr. Ahmed says, “These are not made here. Go to Budgam [central Kashmir] or Bandipora [north Kashmir]. Charar-e Sharif in Budgam is famous for its kang’ire.”
An indispensable winter essential in Kashmir, Kang’ire could also last generations. Where one can find a basic kang’ir for about 250 rupees, Mr. Ahmed can recall buying it for not more than 150 rupees.
In another shop in the downtown’s Maharaj Ganj locality, a middle-aged shopkeeper sits smug amid glinting copperware and his kang’ir by his side.
“If turned properly every half hour, a full kang’ir could last the entire day,” he explains, informing that shahrun or tsalaan – is the implement used for adjusting heat.
Mentioning that winters are not as severe as they used to be in Kashmir, he says that with changing lifestyles, the traditional ways have also changed leading to a considerably reduced use of kang’ir. “Earlier, every shop had a kang’ir,” he says. “Now, out of hundred shops, you will see it in just about ten of them.”
Charcoal from burned twigs, dried chinar leaves, and saw dust are some of the ingredients that constitute the fuel of the simmering kang’ir. Looking endearingly at his kang’ir, he poetically draws a comparison: the kondul [the earthenware] is the flesh; the wicker frame holding the kondul is like the skin; the fuel that burns are like the bones, and the warmth is the soul of the kang’ir.
One day, as he recalls, he lost his heart to a “very beautiful kang’ir – expensive but it had a striking weaving pattern.” The seller demanded 1,500 rupees. “I regret missing it for fifty rupees because he wouldn’t come down.”
There is an aesthetic significance to it too. “The making of these things also tell an ordinary person from a rich one,” he adds.
Unlike downtown, other parts of the city are fast catching up with modern ways and kang’ir, here, stands distant from the daily life of people. In central Srinagar’s Rajbagh area, Shakeela Begum, 40, sitting in her kitchen says with excited delight, “Kang’ir is my favourite!” She is among the fewer people in the city who is not happy with the culture of electric heating but still prefers to use a kang’ir.
“It’s an amazing thing. We would die without it!” she exclaims.
A native of Baramulla, she spent the winters of her growing up years sitting around a bukhae’r (a fireplace) with her family. “I started using kang’ir only after marriage,” she says. “I was married off at fifteen.”
With mirth, she recalls that shortly after her marriage, she and her sisters-in-law, all of whom were the same age, had a kang’ir each. They would spend their adolescent years in playful chatter around their kang’irs. “We used to play in the snow and then warm our hands over the kang’ir,” she recounts, remembering fondly the sight of children walking around with their kang’ir– eggs, potatoes, and chunks of meat left to roast in the kondul.
She runs a paying guest establishment with her husband in the neighbourhood. Her 20-year-old son, Waseem Khan, comes in and sprinkles something over his mother’s kang’ir and a fresh aromatic smoke rises. Ze’ti is the leftover burning ashes necessary to light a fresh kang’ir, he informs.
At most holy and happy occasions, kangi’r comes in use for lighting Isband – seed of peganum harmala. Isband is often put into kangi’r to burn and a flow of fragrant smoke and crackling sound makes the ambiance pleasant. This smoke is believed to be auspicious and purifies any negativity. “People open their shops to the smoke of Isband,” says Mr. Khan. “Even we do it [here] every morning.”
At the time of weddings, Ms. Begum is reminded, the kang’ir is decorated beautifully and the isband smoke makes the occasion more auspicious. “It undoes any evil eye for the bridegroom as well,” she says.
Her husband, Farid Ahmad Khan, 45, has never used a kang’ir at work. For him, kang’ir is synonymous with “the warmth of home”. Giggling, he adds how a kang’ir is also a potential assault weapon and its projectile throw a spectacular sight: “people hurl kang’ire at each other over disagreements and incompatible political opinions. And this is normally taken humorously by the audience!”
Their next-door shopkeeper, Mohammad Yousuf, 50, is less enamoured by the charm of this winter essential. Arguing that it is not good for health, he says that it has its disadvantages too: “Yesterday, my daughter dropped it and it burned the carpet worth about 15,000 to 20,000 [rupees].”
Mr. Yousuf remarks that the kang’ir will soon become obsolete with growing popular use of electric heating. He explains how the pheran has evolved to suit modern tastes: “It has shrunken in length; it used to be up till the ankles. The pockets have moved from the sides and have come to the front like in a sweatshirt.”
Young Mr. Khan says, “Technology is taking kang’ir away from the city and making it obsolete.” But his father, senior Mr. Khan, pitches in saying that “In villages, kang’ir will remain alive forever.”
In Kashmir, something more uncertain than politics is the power supply which characteristically gets more erratic in winters as one walks away from the cities. Depending on electricity for heating is more than certain to leave Kashmir freezing. This is when the kang’ir comes to rescue.
Kavya Dubey is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.
The story appeared in our 3-9 February print edition.