Kanger: Traditional pride of Kashmir


Kangri or Kangdhi , or Kanger in common Kashmiri parlance, is an indispensable part of socio-cultural milieu of Kashmir. All Kashmiris, cutting across gender, creed & age use & “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, 6 inches wide, encased in a wicker-frame, with two arms erected to handle the bowl supported on back with strong wicker sticks & bowl 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 & chill at bay. It also helps digestion of cold food stuffs, 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 & blankets, inside, before one lies down for full night sleep.

In the past, people used it while being fast asleep or sometimes without extinguishing the embers in it & placing it somewhere within house carelessly in those days of mostly wooden houses with thatched roofs, that caused many devastating conflagrations in the city of Srinagar & other places of Kashmir. 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 & such like e-gadgets.  At times, in a fit of anger, its holder may pelt it on another which is but an act of emotional rage & anger & very rare thing to see.

Sans wicker-work, the earthenware pot is called Kundal (meaning ring) & if a handle to pick & carry Kundal is erected on top of its opening, it is called Mu’nan or Kung. Mu’nan is usually shorter in width & height than Kung. More in olden times, rare in modern days, we find Mu’nan 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 fuel of Kanger. But today, it is only Chine 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 it’s start-kindling, & once it heats up & burning smoke of saw dust & egg-paper-carton is no more there, Kanger is ready for use.

 Kanger is easily carriable by hand from place to place. It’s used at homes, shops & other places. We find its use at the time of many auspicious occasions & celebrations in Kashmir like weddings, betrothals, job-getting, and exam-qualifying by a child, job-promotions, entering 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 & saturates the happy atmosphere with joy of aroma. Kanger’s use is not limited to those who own it. It is always offered to guests & others in cold weathers as a warm gesture of hospitality & humanity so that they too warm up themselves with warmth of love associated with it.

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

Clearly distinguishable from all other kinds of excellent varieties of Kanger, there is one Kanger, rather one & only Kanger, called “sheesh-dair”, a bridal Kanger, looking conspicuously cute like bride on her wedding day. It is colourfully painted, and taller than usual Kangers, woven in delicate jali-wicker-work, with pendulous small round-shaped mirrors, wicker-rings & wicker-curls, on all sides except opening, looking like the ornamented & decorated bride with bright open face, whose hair falls in curls over her shoulders. . 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. Instead, a costly beautiful electric blower has replaced the said first-winter gift among some Kashmiri families.

William Jackson Elmslie, first Christian missionary doctor who visited Kashmir from 1865 to 1872 published an article in Indian Medical Gazette dated 1st November, 1866, pages 324-325. He writes that Kashmiris in a sitting posture, when in doors, place Kanger tightly between their thighs & the considerable heat generated by charcoal consumption in Kanger causes injurious effects on the skin of the abdomen & thighs , the very part with which the utensil comes in contact when used, which causes “serious diseases”.  This observation of William Jackson Elmslie is of a time when the Kashmiris were illiterate, not knowing proper use of Kanger, & also “extremely poor & inactive” not sufficiently or properly clothed or “dressed” beneath the Pherans, those days. 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 & the Pheran were “statecrafts” of the Emperor Akbar to “tame” the brave Kashmiris who resisted his invasion, & 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 & demean all Muslim rulers of India & 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) & A M Mattoo’s book “Kashmir under Mughals” put weight behind the view that as Italians were in the retinue of the Mughal Emperors & 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 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 Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Hungarian-British archeologist has translated Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (River of Kings) in English in two volumes (edition 1900). Para 462 Book V, in Volume 1st 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 woolen clothes with “beards scorched by smoke”.  Sir 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 Rajatarangini, about “Kangri” to which cause of burn-marks on the Brahmans’ beards has been ascribed. However, Sir 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” Sir 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) & (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 Rajatarangini, has found mention of Kanger in the chronicle’s Para 221 Book VIII. But when we compare translation of this Para by Sir M A Stein with that of R S Pandit, there is visibly a hell of difference between the two. Sir 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 .”

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

Some local newspaper writers have “uncritically” used the translation of related Paras 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 & 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 Rajatarangini.

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

M J Aslam is Author, academician, story-teller & freelance columnist. Presently Assistant Vice President, JK Bank.



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