As the beginning of Kashmir’s long winter announced itself on season’s first snowfall in early November – the pleasant plane trees, the brilliant walnuts, the great chinars, the endless willows, the poplars and the elms, the limitless orchards of apples, pears, and apricots, the mighty Himalayas dressed in frosty snow – Kashmiris took refuge under their long cloaks (locally called Pherans) holding their Kangris tightly.
Winter is a hard time in Kashmir with temperatures dipping to a freezing point through most of November, December, January and February. But with a Kangir and a woolen Pheran even hard time becomes soft and rather enjoyable.
Kangir is a round oven-baked clay-pot, open from the top, four-six inches in diameter, locked tightly in a wicker frame, with two twisted wicker arcs put-up to grip the bowl supported on the back by strong wicker sticks. The base of the Kangir is a ring made of slender twigs which supports the whole apparatus and holds it still. The earthen bowl is filled with the light charcoal/tchine. Generally, a flat wooden or iron spoon, 3-4 inches, called Taslan/Chalan, is suspended from another small circular ring – called Kanij– at the top by a strong thread or a metal chain.
Kangir is widely used by Kashmiris during winter and other rainy seasons. It can be found at any place during the winter. It is a movable device and can be easily carried from place to place. A teacher goes with it to the school, a shopkeeper to the shop, a nimazi to the mosque, and a villager to his/her neighbor – Kangir is an inseparable necessity for every Kashmiri in the chilly winter.
Kangir also helps to digest the heavy wintery food by keeping the stomach warm from outside; it also works as an oven for baking food items like eggs, potatoes, different kinds of pea beans, etc. The Kangri baked food pieces have strikingly appetizing flavor.
Talking about politics, village matters, among other things, Kangir is offered to a friend on a shop-front; it is the first thing offered to guests in the chilly weather. It is also used to burn Isband at important, auspicious occasions like weddings, engagements, job-getting, to name a few.
Kangir is not just an item of warmth, but also acts as a weapon. When a friendly squabble turns hot a Kangir can be thrown at the opponent to express anger.
Due to the absence of electricity in winter for long hours, even for days during heavy snowfalls or windy weather conditions, availability of electronic heating appliances has not reduced the popularity of Kangir.
High quality, beautiful, enchanting varieties of Kangris are manufactured at two places in Kashmir: Char-e-Sharif in Badgam district and Bandipora district.
Improper use of Kangir causes skin cancer on the lower abdomen and inner thighs. This cancer – specifically called Kangri cancer – is only found in Kashmir. Kangri cancer – a type of squamous cell carcinoma of the skin – was described in 1881 by surgeons at the Kashmir Mission Hospital and its cause was recognized in the early 20th century by Arthur Neve. Despite current knowledge of the cause of this condition cases are still being reported.
It is believed that the art of Kangir making in Kashmir was introduced by Italian retinues of Mughal emperors who usually visited the valley with their masters. They introduced Kangir in Kashmir as an imitation of Italian scaldino which is an Italian earthen brazier.
William Jackson Elmslie, first Christian missionary doctor who visited Kashmir, 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 Ghulam Mohideen Sufi does not agree with this belief. He says that if it were so, then, it would have been given some Italian name.
The other unfounded story, widely believed in Kashmiri-Pundit community, suggests that the Kangir and the Pheran were introduced by the emperor Akbar only to tame the brave Kashmiris who resisted his invasion and to make them “goat-hearted”.
It can be safely suggested that the history of origin of Kangir has no concrete historical evidence and is still debatable in the academic circles.
In the end the importance of Kangir in the Kashmiri culture can be summed up by the following popular couplet, believed to be said by Sheikh-ul-Alam (RA):
Paer paer lagei Kangri ti Jandas
Wandes karnem zues reatch
(O, Kangri and Pheran you are dearest to me;
you saved my life in the harsh winter)