It has been likened to an atom bomb and has resulted in countless burnt socks, pockmarked floorings, and damaged bedding. Proverbs and folklore have been spun around it. It is the reason Kashmir can survive the biting winter.
The traditional kanger fire-pot is Kashmir’s preferred way to keep warm – modern gadgets are thought to be more expensive and unreliable. The kanger is a portable heater: it’s filled with burning charcoal and tucked inside woolen pherans, the voluminous and long cloaks so distinctive of the Valley.
People accustomed to using kangers can hold on to them through the night without spilling the coal – others spill their kangers even during the day. In the cold months, guests are presented with kangers even before they are served tea. It’s used to roast potatoes and nuts, or warm oranges.
But it’s more than just a handy heater. The kanger has seeped so deep into the Valley’s culture, Kashmiris find in it an expression of kindness, love, and anger.
The weave of time
“The kanger is about many things that are part of our life now,” said Junaid Handoo, a businessman in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area and a kanger enthusiast. “There is an attachment to it.”
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.
Poet and writer Zareef Ahmad Zareef said that the kanger holds a special place in history, and that Kashmir owes its very survival to it. “No matter how modern a home is, there will still be a kanger in it,” he said. “The kanger is the ornament of a pheran.”
Made across the Valley, kangers from some clusters are known for their distinctive qualities. While the basic model remains the same, the workmanship differs. 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.
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.”
Heat and ash
The kanger is a popular decorative item and popular among handicraft enthusiasts. Junaid Handoo, the businessman from Srinagar’s Lal Chowk area, has commissioned the largest kanger in Kashmir – spanning a little less than a metre in height. It took over six months to make.
Handoo said his plans to commission another failed due to the political unrest in the state.
Kanger are made by weaving twigs of a deciduous shrub around an earthen pot, the kondul. “The more intricate the weave, the more time it takes,” said shakhsaaz Umar Dar. “Some kangers take up to two days to make. On an average I make up to two-four kangers in a day.”
The wicker encasement protects the bearer of the kanger from burns, as the earthen pot inside heats up to high degrees. Depending upon the size of the kanger, up to a pound of charcoal combusts slowly inside it. The layer of ash that forms right on top gradually reduces the heat. To combat this a wooden or metal spatula is hooked to the kanger so that the ash may be swept aside, and the intensity of the heat increased.
Shabir Bhat, a shakhsaaz from Charar-e-Sharif, said that the kanger is indispensable because even though modern alternatives are available, electricity in Kashmir is unreliable.
“Electricity is available 24 hours in the city [Srinagar] for other heating appliances, but not in the villages,” Bhat said, adding that the appliances were expensive. “Even then you can’t carry electric heat under your pheran and go outside.”
Sometimes, the kanger can be turned into a weapon. Poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef recounted an incident from December, 1963, when the Valley was gripped in unrest because a relic belonging to Islam’s prophet had gone missing.
“Bakshi Rasheed, then the General Secretary of National Conference, came to Lal Chowk in a jeep,” he said. “He had yelled at the people asking what the fuss was about. Suddenly someone hurled a kanger at him.”
Abdul Gani, the shakhsaaz from Charar-e-Sharif, agreed that the kanger has the potential to be rather dangerous. It is, he said with a laugh, an “atom bomb in your hands, inside the pheran”.