Romancing The Hammam

The sudden surge for the Hammam’s in homes has led to some innovations in the way Kashmir tries to fight winter. Saima Bhat reports the desperate market appetite for a low cost, high yield fuel-efficient way out for managing the winter chill

In a harsh winter, a group of elderly Kashmiris warming up in Hamam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In the ‘home and hearth’ combination, Hammam is the latest entrant. It is a method of burning wood to heat hand-hewn rectangular stone slabs and a copper water tank. A Turkish origin tool is believed to have been introduced in Kashmir by Mughals.

Initially, it was restricted to Masjids. Then barbers opened three Hammams’ in the city. Now, economically well-off families own apiece each.

Then Hakims, says satirist Zareef Ahmad Zareef used to prescribe people with orthopaedic ailments to stay in Hammam. “It usually had two pools, one houz filled with herbals and hot water and another with lukewarm,” he said.

Even less-privileged farmers, post-harvest would come to Srinagar for Hammam therapy. “I remember rural folks walking into Hammams with blackened-legs, laced with tar-coal to avoid insect bites,” recalls septuagenarian Ghulam Hassan of Mahraj Gunj.

Then, Kashmir would least require Hammams because the architecture was traditional – timber, mud bricks and mud plaster. After Kashmir copied the architecture from plains and jumped into concrete and tiles, sources for warmth are a continuous struggle. Once, people would own open fireplaces in their walls but now smokeless options are the priority.

“I bought every available heating appliance since 1985 but everything failed. And finally, I constructed Hammam in my old house in 1993 and it is the best thing that I own,” says Abdul Majid, from Barzulla. “It helped to keep my 15-member family stay close as everybody sits in one room.”

Mason Habibullah Dar from Pampore is a Hammam specialist for 30 years. “During 1990s, mosques and one in every 20 homes would own a Hammam,” Dar said. “Now, it is common.” In the 1980s’, Dar remembers setting up a Hammam in Baramulla using ‘tiles’, slates, bricks and then sealing them with lime mortar. Then, cement was not abundantly around and people rarely afford it.

As demands surged, Hammam-making became a super-speciality. There are different stones being used. Apparently looking the same, they are completely different. Of the three stone slabs, Devir stone is considered the most expensive and durable.

Dar says Devri from Ladhoo Batpora has a life of more than 50 years but is costly (Rs 7000 per 9 sq ft). Another stone variety mined from Mandak Pal is the second strong slab, sells almost at the same cost. The third comes from Saderkote Balla which is cheap (Rs 4000 per 9 sq ft) but breaks within a decade. “Stone slab from Mandak Pal can develop cracks if water spills over it,” says Dar, “Saderkoet stone has small vein type cracks through which smoke comes out.”

This is called the vertical Hamam. KL Image

Building a Hammam is not easy. In Pampore a few hundred masons know Hammam making but only eight can build a mosque Hammam, which is huge in size. Dar says innovations are part of the game. He claims to have contracted one using cast iron rods but that was not successful as the iron rods became soft due to heat and they couldn’t take the load of stones. There are instances in which people have laid marble slabs and cement blocks instead of limestones. It changes the output. Normal Hammam stays warm for 24 hours and others for barely one-fourth of it. Innovation has reduced the chimneys from two to one.

Now, even Hammam’s exist on the first floor. Interestingly, the oldest first-floor Hammam was built in 13-century Khanqah and it is still operational.

On the innovation front, Ubaid Mehraj represents a major change. An engineer, he introduced high-end machines that help create thinner stone slabs. Normally, a limestone from the quarry is mined 8-inch thick and then workers manually polish and reduce it to 4-inches for Hammam use.

“I pleaded that manual process means 50 per cent wastage and a lot of labour. They were convinced initially,” Ubaid says. “Then they attacked my workplace in Khonmoh and took away those slabs like hooligans.” But this has not changed his mission and his business is not so bad. He too is into the making of Hammams now and claims his innovation is 40 per cent more energy-efficient than traditional.

Traditionally Hammams have bricks and pouter (slates) beneath limestone slabs. Slates have better thermal properties and retain heat. “The only problem with slates is that they cannot be cut in smooth surface manually, that is why they are used beneath Devir,” Ubaid says. “Now, I use these slate slabs which are shaped finely on machines.” His Hammams have a lifetime guarantee. He even claims the best stone suiting Hammam is available in Kokernag which is better than Devri.

Far away from Khonmoh, mechanical engineer Urfi Mustafa Shuntho, is keen to take Hammam to another level. He sees the “luxury” is obsolete. “There is affluence but where are helpers getting up at 6 am to lit the Hammam fires?” he asks.

After visiting most of the cold countries in Europe, Urfi introduced Kachelofan system which is in wide use in Austria and Germany. It is vertical Hammam embedded in a wall and can warm up at least three rooms at a time and one doesn’t require moving out and set it on. “It is an indoor activity,” he said. “Part of the winter cold could have been plugged with better insulations.”

Urfi’s Vertical Hammam has a chimney but the difference is that one can see wood burning without smoke billowing into the room. “It took me seven years to research how to get rid of smoke,” Urfi says. “It also has a hot plate that can bake food and a water tank which can supply hot water to your kitchen.” It sells Rs 100 thousand apiece. His campaign has helped people construct CHS compatible houses as he has now ventured into floor heating, steel fireplaces, hot water, air conditioning, house insulation, and radiators.

A Hamam is coming up in a Srinagar home. KL Image

Off late, restaurants and hotels are opting for cast iron fireplaces used for relaxing ambience. Urfi has installed floor heating in various Gulmarg hotels. “Floor heating has two types, one by the electric coil and another by pipes through which hot water is passed,” Urfi says. “Floor heating is a European craze.” Now, even people living in plains seek heating systems. Urfi is installing one in Gurgaon.

With LPG strictly rationed and kerosene oil expensive, fuel wood continues to be in demand. This season, state-owned Forest Corporation has set a target of 4400 tons for 1300 mosques in Srinagar city at Rs 2470 per ton. Way back, the government has done away with rationing fuelwood for consumers. They purchase at Rs 8250 per ton from the open market.

Off late, briquettes, a compressed fuel block that has sawdust, plant waste as its raw material, is in use. It has more calorific value as briquette has less than 5 per cent of water content. Urfi says Qazigund in south Kashmir produces 300 truckloads of briquettes a season and it sells Rs 9000 a ton but gives more energy than fuelwood.


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