Boatsmen rowing shikaras in Dal Lake, their pherans(loose cloaks indigenous to Kashmir) speckled with snow and a kangri (a clay pot encased in wicker and filled with burning coal) in tow, have become an ideal image for tourists and photographers documenting the region.
Anyone visiting Kashmir in winter will find kangris across the valley, despite differences in culture, social status and dialect. Kashmiris believe the kangri is the most apt heating arrangement in a place where temperatures dip to sub-zero between the months of December and February.
Although electric heaters and stylish woollen outfits have made inroads, the traditional kangri continues to be relevant. It is a potent weapon against the chill in a place where electricity often plays hide and seek. The most interesting part of the kangri is its portability: The handle, made of wicker, allows people to carry it inside their pherans anywhere they go.
Although some say that the concept of a mobile fire pot is an import from Central Asia, Kashmiris believe it is an indigenous innovation. “The kangri is in our history, culture and tradition,” says 65-year-old Zarief Ahmad Zarief, a poet, writer, social activist and retired government officer based in Srinagar. Zarief explains the evolution of the kangri, “First, the kangri was made of sun-dried pot; with the passage of time, Kashmiris learnt to use oven-fired pots... the use of wicker came in only later.”
There are three different types of kangri, used by different social classes. The Islamabad kangri, the most common type of kangri in Kashmir, has a broad base and a wide-mouthed pot. These cost around Rs100 and are largely used by people who engage in outdoor work and need higher heat levels. The middle class use what is called the Bandipora kangri, which costs about Rs200 per pot and is made of wicker with a finer weave. Most of these are made in the Bandipora district of north Kashmir, about 60km from the summer capital Srinagar. The Chrar kangri, a slim, decorated pot with minute wicker work, is the most expensive variety and can cost Rs200-400. A version of the Chrar kangri, dressed with silver chains, traditionally accompanies Kashmiri brides as dower.
Septuagenarian Mohammad Sultan, who does wicker work for kangris in a workshop on the outskirts of Srinagar, says he has had steady sales through the years. Around 40% of urban Kashmiris now use electrical appliances and hot-water bottles, he says, but the kangri is still very much in use. “The kangri will always be there,” he says.