Kanger, the winter queen

Kanger, the winter queen

The traditional firepot is an enduring emblem of local craft that is eco-friendly and cost-effective

Kanger is a traditional firepot that we Kashmiris purchase for rupees two-hundred or more, though its value is much more. It is not simply woven in an hour or two but undergoes a long process before one puts it under the pheran. This traditional firepot is an antidote for the harsh winter of Kashmir. It is earthenware filled with glowing embers and encased in a pretty handmade wicker basket. Being an important part of our culture, we use it as soon as the chill of the winter season starts nibbling at us. It is the cheapest item that Kashmiris keep to warm themselves, taking it along wherever they go. Among all the winter necessities, it ranks on the top.
The name Kanger is derived from a Sanskrit word, ‘Kasthangarika’ (Kash means wood/wicker and Angarika means fire embers). Not much is known about how it came to Kashmir. Historians have suggested that the Kashmiris learnt the use of Kanger from Italians who visited the valley in the summer months during Mughal rule, but there is ample historical evidence to suggest that Kanger did not come to Kashmir from Italy. It has been here in Kashmir since antiquity.
No matter what the price, the people in the entire valley start buying the Kanger as soon as winter arrives. People find it to be most effective against the biting cold. No doubt there are numerous wood-fired heaters, gas heaters and blowers, electronic gadgets, etc, sold in the market, yet this portable traditional firepot has not lost its worth. From a layman to a reputed bureaucrat, everybody, in one way or the other, prefers it. The charm is all the more unique when it is put under the pheran.
There are several thousands in our valley that earn their livelihood through the craft of making Kangers. This craft needs great skill and mastery before it can be put to use professionally. It demands patience and hard work. The most famous producers of Kanger in Kashmir are the areas of Charar-i-Sharief (Budgam), Bandipora, Anantnag and Tujjar Sharief (Sopore). The Charar Kanger is famous not only in Kashmir but all over the world because it differs from the ones manufactured in other parts of the valley. However, in northern Kashmir, Bandipora stands out. Scores of families in these districts earn their livelihood by making different types of Kangris that get sold like hotcakes.
Almost from all parts of Kashmir, firepots start pouring into the markets as soon as the mercury begins to dip alarmingly. Kangri weavers, called Kanyel, with the arrival of autumn become busy in making Kangris. Though these weavers differ in their skill, yet the raw material the craft requires is everywhere the same. Kundal (firepot) and different types of Kanyen (wicker sticks) like posh kanye, geer kanye and khech kanyen are some of the most frequently used. The weavers gather wicker-sticks from forests or town outskirts which are peeled off by women after boiling. The soft wicker sticks after drying and dying are later shaped around the earthen ware called Kundal. In some families, women also help in making Kangris but it is mostly men who do this work.
In earlier days Kangri vendors used to go from village to village to sell their stock but now this custom has declined because the sellers know that their customers will come out automatically when the cold wave intensifies. Apart from money, people in rural areas buy Kangris by giving goods like cereals, rice, maize, etc, to the vendors. This trend, too, is no more in vogue. Only cash is preferred.
Like Nun Chai, Razma Daal, Aanchar, Sheen Jung, etc, Kanger Joosh too remains an important part of winter. Though gas heaters now rule almost every household and office, yet the Kanger retains its own significance in our culture. This traditional firepot is now purchased every year not because it comes in varieties but because of a greater taste for it among the people. Kangri weavers change its structure and style every now and then. They decorate it to catch the attention of more and more customers.
Traditionally, Kanger is an important item that Kashmiris carry to the bride’s home before the marriage. However, people take a ‘blower’ nowadays. Kangers are also kept in ‘showrooms’ for decorative purpose. In the absence of electricity, they come in handy. Though the rates vary from market to market, yet the Bridal Kanger, Izmand Kanger and Khoja Kanger are kangris which are very expensive. Their prices range from rupees 1000 to 2000.
Apart from J&K, where it is mostly manufactured, the Kanger has spread its wings to other states also. It has reached Himachal, Punjab, Haryana and Ludhiana where people love to use it in cold weather. They are surprised by its effectiveness. They also admire the artisanal craftsmanship. I remember last year when I was traveling from Srinagar to Jammu, one of my fellow passengers happened to buy a Kanger from the Islamabad market. He was taking it to Ludhiana where he sold carpets. He told me that more than using it for warmth, he takes it along because it reminds him of his own culture.
Parents nowadays don’t let their children even touch the Kanger. They fear that they’ll get burnt. But our time was quite different. Without any fear we would keep it with us, even when playing outdoor games like hopscotch, pebbles, etc. Wahab Kak, the Kangri weaver’s popularity hasn’t yet diminished in my area. My mother used to buy a small firepot for me from him. Though I was not born with a silver spoon in the mouth, yet my childhood was glorious. My memories have not faded. Every year, as I recall, my mother would tell Wahab Kak to bring a small firepot for me. I was fond of it. It indeed used to be fun those days.

—The writer is a columnist and teacher by profession. [email protected]

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