Engineering 'Kanger': A mobile heater for the harsh winters of Kashmir

The kanger, a wicker-covered earthen pot with flaming coal inside, has a lengthy, centuries-old history.
Baba Tamim
A Kanger seller in the summer capital of Kashmir.
A Kanger seller in the summer capital of Kashmir.

© Baba Tamim  

“Mann me zolum lolle naaren, Tan me zejim Kangre. Waare warey praye khejim, Maye lejim Kangre.”

These lines from an old Kashmiri poem translate to: My soul is burnt by the fire of love, and my skin by the fire of Kanger. The fire has made me so sluggish as in incubation, I am lovestruck with my Kanger.

The poem, originally written in the Kashmiri language, captures the essence of the "Kangir," or "Kanger," which serves as a symbol of the region's culture and tradition as well as a source of warmth during the harsh winters.

Even though the Himalayan region of Kashmir has been plagued by conflict and violence for more than seven decades, the region remains a picturesque and popular tourist destination, sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Asia.

The natural beauty of the mountains, lakes, and rivers is a highlight, but visitors are also left with a lasting impression of the region's traditional culture and unique way of life.

The Kanger, a traditional and innovative mobile fire-pot engineered to keep Kashmiris warm during the harsh winters, is one aspect of this culture. 

While summers are pleasant, the bitter winters bring harsh conditions for those with no electricity and a scarcity of gas, and the only thing that keeps many Kashmiris comfortable is a traditional but innovative mobile fire-pot designed to help them withstand cold temperatures.

Engineering 'Kanger':  A mobile heater for the harsh winters of Kashmir
A Kashmiri wearing a pheran (traditional cloak) using coal from a kanger to light his cigarette.

The Kanger, which is an earthen pot filled with glowing coal and encased in wicker, has a long history, dating back hundreds of years. 

Despite the availability of modern electrical and gas heating devices, kanger is still preferred by the majority of Kashmiris due to its portability, and when temperatures drop to -12 to -15 degrees Celsius, it becomes the only option for staying warm.

"The Kanger does not rely on electricity or gas, and charcoal is readily available in our villages. It is very useful and can last until the next morning if properly prepared," a Kashmiri Kanger user told Interesting Engineering (IE). 

"It can even be used to dry or warm small items such as socks without harming them. And in some cases, you could use it for self-defense," he joked, referring to past incidents in which Kashmiris have used Kanger to demonstrate against the political turmoil in the region. One anecdotal story tells of how villagers at a protest flung their kangris at the approaching troops.

The popular handicraft kanger is also used as a decorative piece in addition to its practical use. Admirers from all over the world have been drawn to the intricate designs and artwork used on some Kangris. 

Kashmiris' emotional attachment to their Kanger is exemplified by the intricate designs used on the heaters, designs which have passed down through generations and make the kanger more than just a utilitarian item.

In fact, the use of the Kangers and their decoration is considered an expression of Kashmiri identity and a testament to the region's enduring heritage and resilience.

History of Kanger

The word "Kanger" is thought to have originated from the word "kasthangarika" (meaning 'wood' and 'fire embers'), according to Dr. E. Hultzsch, a German language scholar from the 1800s. 

The 19th and 20th-century archaeologist Auriel Stein concurred that the word is likely derived from the same term. The 19th-century Christian missionary Dr. W. F. Elmslie noted that the Kashmiris may have picked up their use of the Kanger from the Italians who traveled with the retinue of the Mughal emperors.

Engineering 'Kanger':  A mobile heater for the harsh winters of Kashmir
Different types of Kanger's showcasing at a shop in Kashmir.

A similar device called a 'scaldino' was commonly used in Florence and other parts of Italy. They were made from glazed earthenware covered in wicker and resembled the Kanger. The Kashmiri author and historian G.M.D. Sufi wrote that "in winters no lower middle-class woman in Florence walks outside without carrying Scaldino," which, according to GMD Sufi, resembles the ‘kanger.’

However, according to several historians and authors, the use of portable fires or braziers like the Kashmiri Kanger dates back to the 12th century in Kashmir.

Similar containers are also employed in Japan, where the oldest brazier still in use is referred to as the "Dairiseki sei Sankyaku tsuki Hoya" (three-legged marble hoya). In comparison to the Kashmiri Kanger, the Japanese also used a 'pocket' brazier made of copper or tin with a perforated lid and was designed to fit the wearer. It used cartridges of slow-burning charcoal.

However, a type of stove used in neighboring China is comparable to the Kashmiri Kanger. It consists of a ceramic pot encased in bamboo. While braziers of some sort have been used since ancient times, the Kashmiri Kanger, however, has a distinctive construction method despite its uncertain origins. 

The finished Kanger is frequently embellished with elaborate patterns and artwork. 

So, how is this unique handcrafted heater made?

How is a 'Kanger' engineered?

The traditional Kanger is made from a variety of locally accessible materials. Its outer covering is composed of woven wicker, which is a robust and long-lasting material.

Clay makes up the inner layer of the Kanger, which aids in the longer-lasting retention of heat. The wicker basket covers the clay pot in layers. 

Engineering 'Kanger':  A mobile heater for the harsh winters of Kashmir
A Kashmiri potter heating the kiln full of kanger earthen pots.

Willow wood, a sturdy and flexible wood that can survive the heat produced by the kanger, is used to make the handle of the mobile heater. 

Willow twigs that have been bent and weaved around the handle and the basket are used to secure the handle to the basket.

The construction of a kanger requires a lot of time and labor. Making a Kanger that is both useful and aesthetically attractive takes a lot of skill and patience.

The selection of the clay, which is meticulously chosen to endure the high temperatures needed for the kanger, is the first step in the process.

After adding water, the clay is kneaded to remove any air bubbles. Next, it is rolled or formed by hand into a pot.

After that, the pot is dried out for a few days, and then it is fired at a high temperature in a kiln to make it hard and sturdy.

The wicker basket that will house the kanger must then be made. This is accomplished by creating a basket-like structure from thin cane or bamboo strips. 

Engineering 'Kanger':  A mobile heater for the harsh winters of Kashmir
Workers peeling wicker used in the frames of kangers.

The basket is then wrapped around the Kanger pot after being soaked in water to make it flexible.

Once completed, the kanger is used by filling it with hot coals or embers. The heat may also be sealed inside the kanger by wrapping it in a blanket or shawl.

In general, the materials used to make a Kanger are simple and readily available, and because they are sourced locally, the heater is an affordable and useful heating option for Kashmir valley residents, which also helps to keep production costs low.

And while it has many advantages, the kanger does also come with its downsides. 

Disadvantages of a Kanger

The risks associated with the use of the kanger are marginal, but they are important to know. The primary danger is fire, as the kanger contains hot coals or embers.

If the Kanger is not handled correctly, it has the potential to ignite nearby flammable materials - including the cloak it is carried in. 

Furthermore, prolonged exposure to the Kanger's heat can result in burns or other injuries. It could also cause heat-induced skin carcinoma (a type of skin cancer) and Margolin's ulcer (an ulcerating form of cancer caused by chronic burn wounds).

The Kanger also produces smoke and carbon monoxide, which can be hazardous to one's health if used in confined or poorly ventilated areas or if exposed to it repeatedly.

The use of dry wood or charcoal as fuel can reduce smoke emissions, and proper ventilation can prevent the buildup of carbon monoxide.

Despite these dangers, a lot of people in the Kashmir Valley still use the kanger as their main source of heat throughout the winter. They believe that Kanger's immediate advantages – and the necessity of staying warm – exceed the longer-term risks.

And, as Kashmiris say, you can live without internet or electricity but not without a Kanger in winter. 

Despite being a long-standing tradition, kanger engineering is becoming a dying art as modern appliances gradually replace it.

However, as people have become more aware of how modern heating methods affect the environment more severely than a Kanger, there has been a surge in interest in this mobile heater.

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