Kangri: The eternal saviour

Ai kangri! ai kangri!                            “

Kurban tu hoor wu peri!                                

Chun dur bughul mi girimut              

Durd az dil mi buree.                         

Oh, kangri! oh, kangri!

You are the gift of Hoor’s and Fairies;

When I take you under my arm,

You drive out fear from my heart.

Kangri, or Kangaer, to Kashmiris is their best friend during the extreme winter months. The combination of the Pheran, our traditional gown (so well known to the outside world), and the Kangri, is like Laila and Majnoun. This combination is the most effective way to keep warm without the need of any electricity, which continues to be as un-reliable and unfaithful as before.  It is also a symbol of culture and tradition of our land.  Kangri has a mention in Kalhana’s Rajtarangni and this name seems to have come from the Sanskrit word Kasthangarika (Kash -wood, Angarika -Fire embers) which M A Stein has described in his English translation of the Rajtarangni. This historical chronicle of the north-western Indian subcontinent, particularly the kings of Kashmir in the 12th century CE is the most authentic document of the ancient Kashmir.

Kangri is an earthen bowl encased in an exquisitely woven wicker basket. It is filled with small pieces of glowing coal or wood in dying fire (embers) covered with ash. It is held against the body under a Pheran or a blanket. It is also used to warm hands if wearing a jacket as a hand warmer. It is about 6 to 8 inches (10 to 12 cms ) in diameter. It has a temperature which is warm enough and feels very comfortable around 50 to 60 degrees C. The special sized clay bowl is baked by the potter and the artisan completes the delicate wicker work by erecting arms to handle the pot. The back side is propped with strong wicker sticks and coloured optionally to give a pleasing look and shape. Usually, a small spoon like structure made of wood or iron called Tchalan is tied from one of the arms. It is used to keep the glowing coal covered with ash by upturning it.  Although made in many parts of the valley especially Anantnag but Charari Sharief town, in Budgam district is the most famous for a special kind of kangri called “Charar kangir”.

Its use dates back to the Moghal empire and it is believed by many that it has its origin from Italy. Italians used to be advisers and assistants in their Durbar. In Italy and Spain somewhat similar devices Scaldino and Braziers were in use in 15th and 16th centuries for warming in winters. Every Kashmiri knows how to use it and it is customary to find them holding these apparatuses close to their bodies or in hands during winters. It is a part of Kashmiri tradition and even in modern times it has a huge demand, and is also used in public or private offices during winters. Occasional accidents and sporadic fires do occur because of negligence of the user, but are rare in general.

It is a part of several rituals bringing in good luck and is considered a good omen. At weddings and traditional festivals, fragrant and aromatic seeds like Isband (Peganum harmala) are burnt in it and a live Kangri is made to go in circles by young girls dressed in their best. In old days a new Kangri called “Sheesh  Dair” was customarily sent to the newly wedded daughter’s “Wariv” (in laws home) by her parents as the first winter gift for her. At the end of winter coinciding with the culmination of Shivratri on the Tila Atham / Ashtami day a customary puja is performed and Kangri’s are burnt after taking out the earthen pots from the shell and ignited by putting in bundles of dry grass and thrown in water bodies. It marks the end of winter and beginning of spring with emergence of a new life and young boys and girls chant “Ja Taein Taein”.

A British missionary doctor W. J. Elmslie in 1866 described the ill effects of prolonged heat on the abdominal wall and inner part of thighs. This later was termed as Kangri cancer. It is now thought to be the result of a carcinogenic distillation product of wood coal. Such prolonged use and keeping it next to skin are in general avoided by the health-conscious Kashmiri’s and this is not a major issue these days. At times, in a fit of anger, the user may throw it on the opponent as a live weapon “Kangri jang”. These acts, however have become things of the past.

Beyond Kashmir, people of the other hill states of Himachal, Uttarakhand, Manipur and some parts of Nepal also use local variants of Kangri but these are more like unshapely pots made of clay and no way comparable to our Kangri. Its popularity also continues in the Kashmiri speaking areas of Pakistan Administered Kashmir where the tourism department has finalised to celebrate ‘Pheran and Kangri day on Feb 19 , a day coinciding with Chillai Khurd (Minor winter), to promote Kashmiri culture.

Kashmiri’s living in the western world (where heating is so well done by very effective and controlled heating systems), often keep ornamental Kangris passionately decorated in their drawing rooms as a piece of art. It is very pleasing to the eyes and also invites questions regarding it by their non-Kashmiri guests. Similar tendencies are being seen in many urban Kashmiri homes in India also. However, its use for keeping warm is going to continue in most parts of the rural and semi urban Kashmir for times to come and it is going to remain a part of our civilization and culture. 

Prof Upendra Kaul is a Cardiologist, Recipient of Padma Shri and DR B C Roy award