The Kanger Story

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Kashmir’s traditional firepot has been part of the folklore for centuries. Though it is a full-fledged economy and an inseparable part of Kashmir’s routine lifestyle, the quest to trace its origins is still an academic debate, writes M J Aslam

As mercury dips on the arrival of winter, many shops in the summer capital of J&K, Srinagar can be seen crowded with kangris.

Kangri or Kangdhi, or Kanger in common Kashmiri parlance, is an indispensable part of the socio-cultural milieu of Kashmir. All Kashmiris, cutting across gender, creed and age use and “consider it indispensable in the cold season”. Its cultural importance can be gauged from a Kashmiri saying: ‘what Laila was to Mujnoon’s heart (legendary lovers), Kanger is to a Kashmiri’.

Kanger is an oval-shaped deep earthenware bowl, six inches wide, encased in a wicker-frame, with two arms erected to handle the bowl supported on the back with strong wicker sticks. It is the bowl that is filled with lighted charcoal. Usually, a small wooden or iron spoon called Tasalan or a shoehorn is tied to the handle, called Kanij, of Kanger.

This fire-pot is extensively used by Kashmiris during winter, even during other seasons, if rain fills chill in the air, to keep their bodies warm and chill at bay. It also helps digestion of cold foodstuffs, if consumed in winter, as it supplies warmth from outside to the stomach. This portable fire-pot is invariably used under voluminous Pherans by all Kashmiris, although it finds a place also under the wearable blankets of the users. During winters, it is used to warm the cold beddings and blankets, inside, before one lies down for full night sleep.

Sometimes, people use it while being fast asleep or sometimes without extinguishing the embers in it and place it somewhere within house carelessly. This triggers fire accidents. In the past, when most of Kashmir had wooden houses with thatched roofs, many devastating conflagrations in the city of Srinagar and other places of Kashmir were reported. Some of them were historic.

Although the availability of electronic appliances should have reduced its use among Kashmiris, non-availability of electricity during winter for long hours, even days, since decades, enhances its absolute necessity. Its use, factually speaking, has not been any greatly diminished by induction of electronic blankets and e-gadgets.  At times, in a fit of anger, its holder may pelt it on another which is but an act of emotional rage and anger.

A domesticated cat warms herself near a traditional Kangri (fire pot) in Srinagar. File Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Sans wicker-work, the earthenware pot is called Kundal (meaning ring) and if a handle to pick and carry Kundal is erected on top of its opening, it is called Munan or Kung. Munan is usually shorter in width and height than Kung. More in olden times, rare in modern days, we find Munan or Kung in use in Kashmir.

In olden days, “dried cow-dung or hak / light drift-wood collected at the mouth of the hill rivers by nets”, was also the fuel of Kanger. But today, it is only Tchine or charcoal that is used in Kanger, usually, with a very slender layer of saw-dust or little egg-paper-carton placed over charcoal just for its start-kindling. Once it heats up and burning smoke of sawdust and egg-paper-carton is no more there, Kanger is ready for use.

Kanger is easily carriable by hand from place to place. It is used at homes, shops and other places. We find its use at the time of many auspicious occasions and celebrations in Kashmir like weddings, betrothals, job-getting, and exam-qualifying by a child, job-promotions, entering the new house, or anything that brings good to the family. On such happy moments of life, seeds of pegasus hermala or rue or Isband (in Kashmiri) are burnt on the live embers in it. Burning of Isband in Kanger thrills and saturates the happy atmosphere with the joy of aroma. Kanger’s use is not limited to those who own it. It is always offered to guests and others in cold weathers as a warm gesture of hospitality and humanity so that they too warm up themselves with the warmth of love associated with it.

Costlier and special varieties of Kanger are prepared at two places in Kashmir: Char-e-Sharief and Bandipora. Both are excelling in art and design, their typical beautiful features and strength.

Clearly distinguishable from all other kinds of excellent varieties of Kanger, there is one Kanger, rather one and only Kanger, called “sheesh-dair”, a bridal Kanger, looking conspicuously cute like a bride on her marriage day. It is colourfully painted, and taller than usual Kangers, woven in delicate jali-wicker-work, with pendulous small round-shaped mirrors, wicker-rings and wicker-curls on all sides except opening, looking like the ornamented and decorated bride with the face open. In olden days “sheesh-dair” was customarily sent to the newly wedded daughter’s home [variv = in-laws home] by her parents as a first-winter gift for her. But this practice does not seem to be in vogue now among affluent classes of Kashmir.

William Jackson Elmslie, first Christian missionary doctor who visited Kashmir from 1865 to 1872 published an article in Indian Medical Gazette on November 1, 1866, pages 324-325. He writes that Kashmiris in a sitting posture, when indoors, place Kanger tightly between their thighs and the considerable heat generated by charcoal consumption in Kanger causes injurious effects on the skin of the abdomen and thighs, the very part with which the utensil comes in contact when used, which causes “serious diseases”.

 

This observation of W J Elmslie is of a time when the Kashmiris were illiterate, not knowing the proper use of Kanger, and were also “extremely poor and inactive” not sufficiently or properly clothed or “dressed” beneath the Pherans. These facts are confirmed by William Jackson Elmslie himself in concluding lines of his article. Today, the socio-economic-educational conditions of Kashmiris are utterly different. People are more health conscious now than their ancestors in the past.

There is a story that Kanger and the Pheran were “statecrafts” of Emperor Akbar to “tame” the brave Kashmiris who resisted his invasion, and to make them “goat hearted”.  This story has been, over some years, propagated by some vested interests of Kashmiri- Pandits for their known sectarian mentality to damn and demean all Muslim rulers of India and Kashmir. It has no historical basis, however.

Equally unfounded second story floated by others is that it was invented by King Zain-ul Abidin to “reduce the proud spirit of the Hindus”. This narrative is also historically incorrect. The Gazetteer of Kashmir (1890) and A M Mattoo’s book Kashmir under Mughals put weight behind the view that as Italians were in the retinue of the Mughal Emperors and as they were frequently visiting Kashmir during Mughal era of Kashmir, they introduced Kanger in Kashmir as an imitation of Italian scaldino which is an Italian earthen brazier.

William Jackson Elmslie as early as 1866 writes that he “saw with his own eyes, during a tour in the north of Italy, the inhabitants of Florence making use of a vessel not very much different from the Kashmirian Kangri, and for exactly the same purpose”.

Historian, Dr GMD Sufi (D Lit) does not agree with William Jackson Elmslie’s version about origin of Kanger by Italians during Moghul rule. He says that if it were so, then, it would have been given some Italian name.

Then, the question that begs an answer from experts is: When in history Kanger had originated in Kashmir. Let us try to look for the answer in the discussion below:

We know Marc Aurel Stein, Hungarian-British archaeologist has translated Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (River of Kings) in English in two volumes (edition 1900). Para 462 Book V, in Volume 1 thereof, refers to a situation where Brahmans had assembled in Gokula to decide on who should be raised to the throne in Utpala’s dynasty. They had come in coarse woollen clothes with “beards scorched by smoke”.

The leaves will finally fall to the ground and become the chief source of charcoal for the locals who collect it from half burnt chinar leaves and fill their ‘kangris’ (earthen firepots weaved in willow wicker).

Marc Aurel Stein in the notes under this Para at page 233 comments that the burn-marks on Brahmans’ beards “evidently were left by Kangri or brazier which has been in general use in Kashmir since early times”. But, surprisingly, there is not any direct or indirect mention, either in Para 462 or in preceding /succeeding Paras, of “Kangri” to which cause of burn marks on the Brahmans’ beards has been ascribed.

However, Marc Aurel Stein comments that Kangri’s name “in all probability has been derived from the Sanskrit word “Kasthangarika” (Kash-wood, Angarika-Fire embers). Pandit P N K Bamzai who had “assisted” Marc Aurel Stein in translation of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, too, traces original of the word “Kanger” to the time of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (12th century) by alluding to (1) the said Sanskrit word “Kasthangarika”, (2) Para 462 Book V (cited above) and (3) Para 106 Book IV where words “Kunda” ( meaning ring) has been used to describe the appearance of the villages around the Wular lake which had given them, thus, the  name “Kundala”.

Another Kashmiri Pandit translator, R S Pandit, of Rajtarangini, has found mention of Kanger in the chronicle’s Para 221 Book VIII. But when we compare translation of this paragraph by M A Stein with that of R S Pandit, there is visibly a hell of a difference between the two. M A Stein has translated it as: “ Man’s effort resembles a fire in the grass, which by the wind of fate is made to flame up in one place even when subdued, and to go out in another even if kindled”. R S Pandit’s translation goes like this: “Man’s endeavour resembles the embers in the Kangri which sometimes burn when apparently extinguished and sometimes go out, although kindled, by puffs of air, at the will of fate .”

M A Stein’s translation of Rajatarangini is considered the best ever translation within and beyond India. R S Pandit’s translation is not so well known, reputed or authentic. After all, even at the elementary level of understanding, there is an apparent difference between “grass” and “Kangri”. How the two, grass and kangri, can be the same?

 Some local newspaper writers have “uncritically” used the translation of related paragraphs by R S Pandit despite the fact that there is apparently no clarity about the mention or origin of Kanger in Kalhana’s chronicle. As Pheran was introduced during the Mughal Rule of Kashmir and as Kanger is an essential concomitant of the Pheran, the view that it was introduced simultaneously with the Pheran during the Mughal Rule gains more strength. Rest the experts can further research into the issue to find out whether Kanger finds a specific mention in the cited Paras of Rajtarangini.

Lastly, the value attached to Kanger by Kashmiris can be ascertained from the following distich: “O, Kangri! You are dear to me like a Huri and Fairy; when I take you under my arm, you drive away pain from my heart”.

(The author, a professional banker is a storyteller academician)

 

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