Photo Essay | The dying embers of Kashmiri firepots

Creating the traditional clay and woven wicker heaters used by generations of people in the Himalayas has become associated with poverty, driving artisans from the craft.

There is a saying in Kashmiri: “In the cold of winter, the night can be spent without supper but not without a kangri.” 

Winters are harsh in the Himalayas. Between late December and the end of January, temperatures can plummet to as low as -20°C. To keep warm, Kashmiris wear pherans, traditional cloaks, and use the ancient kangri, a clay firepot. Kashmir faces frequent electricity cuts in winter, so the firepot provides an effective, economical and portable heater when it is filled with about 300g of hot coals. Artisans craft the earthenware pot and wicker carrier using skills passed down through generations. But now the art is slowly dying out. 

To make the firepots, artisans collect wicker, which they scrape and peel before soaking, dyeing and drying. Then the dried-out wicker is woven around a bowl-shaped clay pot, which is decorated with dye, mirror work and sequins.

After process of soaking, Tanveer Ahmed Khanday tie wicker sticks to left them dry. Wicker sticks is used to make Kashmiri traditional fire-pots.

The eco-friendly kangri is a symbol of traditional craftsmanship, and is culturally and socially integral to the Kashmiri people. But artisans are shifting to other occupations, often preferring casual work that pays better. They have also become reluctant to pass on their skills, which are increasingly associated with poverty and a low social status. 

The crafters say there is a stigma attached to this kind of work. “People in our village look down on us for being wicker peelers. They feel it is a poor family’s job,” says Abdul Samad, who has been a kangri artisan for 40 years. And their better-educated children are reluctant to take up this ancestral trade, especially after seeing their parents struggle to get a fair price for their work. Without institutional support, artisans say their ability to generate a steady, sustainable and respectable livelihood through their firepots is unsustainable. 

15 November 2021: A stack of firepots at Saabir Ahmed Shakhsaaz’s home in Kashmir.

The new generation of kangri makers express anguish over the state of affairs in their line of work. “Many in this profession are forced to quit after facing taunts and stigma,” says Shabir Ahmed. “I may ignore it, but our children take such things to heart, which forces many of us to suspend our ties with this profession.”

Kangri and the making thereof has experienced great change. The Kashmiri artisan base has shrunk from hundreds to a few families in the past three decades and artisans are living in despair. Making firepots is considered a traditional profession and artisans say this craft makes them outcasts, which discourages younger generations from joining the family occupation. 

“At times I wonder what will happen to the people of Kashmir if there will be no kangri left,” says Mohammad Shaban Khanday.

1 December 2021: ‘It was a blessed profession back then, but the drastic change in the economy made it worse for us and our future generations. This art is dying a slow death,’ says Mohammad Shaban Khanday.
10 November 2021: Artisans carry bundles of the wicker they use to make kangris. The process involves a substantial amount of labour and craftsmanship.
15 November 2021: The artisans decorate the firepots, which are about 15cm in diameter, with colourful thread, mirrors and sequins. Kangris cost between Rs250 and Rs1 200 (R50-R250), says Abdul Samad Dar. 
13 November 2021: Gulzar Ahmed Bhat left the profession because of the uncertainty around making firepots and is now a full-time farmer. ‘I am thankful to Allah that my in-laws provided me some land, otherwise it was not easy for me to feed and meet the needs of my kids.’ 
10 November 2021: Abdul Razak is a landlord and hundreds of artisans work under his supervision. ‘Both my children are government employees. They earn well and they don’t want me to continue this craft because they feel ashamed. But I have made it clear that till my last breath, I am not going to leave this ancestral profession. I am 70 years old at the moment and I have been in this profession for the last 50 years. It was a golden job and I raised my kids on this money. Now things are totally different.’ 
23 January 2016: Shabir Ahmed Bhat weaves wicker around the bowl-shaped earthenware pots. The firepots vary in size and cost.
10 November 2021: Gulzar Ahmed Khanday on a sunny day in Ganderbal, Kashmir. ‘One of my sons is involved in this profession and another is pursuing higher studies. It’s only my love for this craft, that’s why I am continuing it, otherwise I would’ve left it a long time ago. Personally, I don’t want my kids to get involved in this profession because of the struggles and hardships faced by the artisans. I am afraid for my elder son because he is not married yet. The stigma related to this profession might leave him unmarried like hundreds of other youth involved in this profession in Kashmir.’
15 November 2021: Shahroon Ahmed poses for a picture while his father, Ajaz Ahmed Shaksaaz, makes a firepot at home in southern Kashmir. ‘Our coming generations will be deprived of this craft, and that sounds alarming. The government should take serious notice and uplift the life of artisans who are dependent on this industry.’
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