Kangri is used by people across Kashmir valley as an antidote for winter. But it is the Charar Kanger which is the first choice of customers. Bilal Handoo travels to the town of Chrari Sharief to find out what goes into making of the attractive Chrar Kanger.
Located at 28 km towards southwest of Srinagar, Charari Sharief town is the resting abode of the famous Sufi saint of Kashmir valley, Shiekh Noor Din Noorani (RA), who is also known as Alamdar-i-Kashmir (The flag bearer of Kashmir). A number of craftsmen who manufacture the famous Charar Kangri (winter firepot) live on the edge of a hill in one part of this town.
Kangri is a small earthenware bowl of a quaint shape held in a frame of wicker-work. The earthenware bowl, which contains embers, is called Kundal. In Sanskrit, Kundala means ring. The outer encasement of wicker-work may at times be very pretty with its ornamentation of rings using bright colors of wickers which makes Charar Kangri different from the ones manufactured in other parts of valley.
At the backside of Sheikh’s shrine, there is locality called Kaien Mohalla. From the last many centuries, scores of families who earn their living by making different types of Kangris live here. This locality was also gutted down in the 1995 fire that consumed the entire town but the inhabitants were allowed to rebuild their houses on their original plots while the others were rehabilitated in a different place.
As one enters the locality, Kangri craftsmen on their shops and inside their homes are busy in making the winter firepots. At the periphery of the locality is situated a Kangri shop of the octogenarian Haji Abdul Gani Mir. Mir is perhaps the oldest Kangri craftsman of Charari Sharief town. His shop looks archaic and medieval. Instead of proper window frames, the shop is covered by a transparent polythene sheet to shield the craftsmen from the biting winter cold. Two framed photographs of Mir are hung on one wall. In one of the photos, he looks young, barely in his forties. The other one has been clicked lately in Mecca where he had gone to perform Hajj. Adjacent to these photos, many decorated Kangris have been put on wooden shelves.
It is already noon and the call for afternoon prayers is beckoning the people to attend the prayers at a nearby mosque. Mir, a master craftsman, was also getting ready to join the prayers when I stepped into his shop. Out of generosity, Mir decided to spare some time for me before leaving for prayers.
“We are making Kangris since the time of Alamdar (Referring to the Sufi saint who is buried in the town),” says Mir enthusiastically. As he was speaking, a few curious people peeped into the shop through the entrance, perhaps to know what was going on inside. Mir kept narrating the tales of Kangri amid frequent nods and giggles by the people who had gathered at the shop.
“Kangri making is our ancestral craft. I have been making Kangris since my childhood. Though people make Kangris in some other parts of Kashmir as well, our Charar Kangri is known for its beauty. We get orders from across the world because of the attractive face value of our Kangris. Many Kashmir Art showrooms use them for decorative purposes. Besides, our Kangri bears the name of this revered Sufi saint which gives it an edge over other Kangris,” Mir, a father of four, says.
In fact, in one of his sayings which are known as Shruks, Shiekh mentions Kangri and compares it with the reality of life. He led a very simple life throughout and it is said that lakhs of people had gathered in Charari Sharief within two days of his death in 1438. The King of Kashmir, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin also took part in his funeral procession.
The land where Sheiks’s shrine is situated belonged to Sangram Dar, his disciple who had constructed a mosque there. It was here that Sheikh would say his prayers. According to a legend, following Sheikhs’s death, his coffin flew and descended at the site where the shrine lies and where the great Sufi saint has been laid to rest.
Mir’s remarks about the Charar Kangri are also supported by Sir Walter Lawrence, the author of a renowned book, ‘’The Valley of Kashmir’ who says: “Among the most prized of the Charari Sharif fairings is the pretty painted Kanger,”
Apart from Charari Shareef, Anantnag, Shahabad, Bandipore are also noted for producing good quality Kangris. The crudely made Kangri used by peasants has a bigger Kundal and is known as Greec Kangri. The finely worked and coloured ones are known as the Khoja Kanger.
A few steps from the Mir’s shop, Ghulam Rasool Dar is also busy in making Kangris inside the kitchen of his ancestral house. Dar has been making Kangris for the last 40 years now. There are four workers inside the room which is filled with smoke, besides his wife and daughter-in-law. “We make three types of Kangris, namely 14, 20 and 24 dimensional, besides the bridal Kangri that costs between Rs 1000-1500,” Dar, while puffing a smoke pipe, says.
The demand for Kangris picks up on the arrival of autumn every year and it lasts till spring. “During summers, we keep on making Kangris on the basis of orders that we receive,” Dar’s worker, Manzoor Bhat, says. Bhat is learning this craft for last three months. He believes that learning the skill of making Kangri will help him to earn a good living. “I can see a good future in it. It is just a matter of patience and resolve before I start my own Kangri shop,” Manzoor, a co-worker at Dar’s house and a Class 2 dropout says.
Manzoor’s younger brother, Shabir Bhat, is a trained Kangri craftsman. He has been making Kangris for last six years now. “We are basically pioneers of this craft and lately others have also started it,” Shabir who is in his early twenties and a lonely bread-earner for a family of seven, says.
Shabir, who is about to get married, says the younger generation doesn’t shy away to be the part of this trade. “I can say younger people of this locality haven’t turned their back towards this trade. This trade still holds good future for all of us,” says Shabir.
The craftsmen collect wicker for Kangri from the far-off jungles in Kashmir. They are very choosy while dyeing the wicker foliages in different colors to decorate the Kangris using select colors. Wicker-work is an important industry in Kashmir. Many villages have artisans who make the encasing basket for the Kangri while the Kundal is manufactured by potters who are present in good number in Chrari Sharief town.
While the people of Kashmir have been using Kangris to keep themselves warm in winters, not much is known about how Kangri came into existence in the valley. It has led to a lot of speculation about its origin. Many historians have suggested that the Kashmiris learnt the use of Kangri from the Italians during the rule of Mughal who usually visited the valley during summer months.
However, there is ample historical evidence to suggest that Kangri didn’t come to Kashmir from Italy. Kanger has been in general use in Kashmir since early times. According to Sir Aurel Stein, who was a Hungarian-British archaeologist primarily known for his explorations and archaeological discoveries in Central Asia, the name Kanger is in all probability is derived from Sanskrit word, Kasthangarika (Kash-wood, Angarika-Fire embers).
This town of Chrari Sharief was burnt in 1995 during a fierce gun battle between government forces and militants and an estimated 1500 residential houses were reduced to ashes. The town has since been rehabilitated. The 1995 fire episode also consumed the 700-year-old shrine and the historical Khanqah. “We were compelled to move from here at that time, which marred our trade activity very bad then,” recalls Dar with an anguished face.
Many tales have been associated with Kangris as well. Once a certain Unani healer from the plains visited Kashmir valley during winters to see how Kashmiris beat back the cold. At Baramulla, where visitors changed their horses and coolies for boats for onward journey to Kashmir, he saw a boatman squatting in his boat in the cold wind. The man wore just a thin shirt. The hakim thought that the boatman had turned mad and would die due to cold injury. Suddenly, this healer’s eyes fell on Kangri suck between fisherman’s knees. On seeing this, the healer decided to return to the plains saying, “The Kashmiris have got their own antidote for the winter cold. No need is there for me to go to them.”
Last year by December, the sale of Kashmiri Kangri touched Rs 1 crore mark and Kangri craftsmen of Charari Shareef are satisfied with the output. “By the grace of Allah, this craft has never let us down. The demand for Kangri remains round the year in spite of the modern-day electronic gadgets,” Mir says.