As winter sets in, enveloping the population in cold, a group of skilled craftsmen sit on a veranda in Okey village, located in the south of Kashmir's Kulgam district. They weave the traditional Kangri (fire pot) to ward off the winter chill with this time-honored traditional warming pot.
Shaksaz hamlet nestled within Okey village where for seven generations, craftsmen have been preserving warmth for the people of Kashmir through their meticulously crafted kangris.
Mohd Jamal Shaksaz, a resident of Okey, proudly narrates the story of his village, where the art of crafting kangris, traditional earthen firepots, has been passed down through the ages.
In the early days, their forefathers ventured into the woods, gathering wicker twigs to create these intricate kangris. The crafted pieces were then taken to customers, earning the family a modest income in the form of paddy.
“Today, the twigs are sourced from Ganderbal or produced locally, and the earthen pots are obtained from potters. Despite inflation, we persevere in continuing our family legacy,” says senior Shaksaz.
The craftsmanship of kangris in Okey village bears witness to the efforts and skill of its 60 crafting families. Each family member plays a role in contributing to this unique tradition, embodying the identity of "Shaksaz" – the people specializing in the art of wickerwork, particularly in the creation of kangris.
The process begins with wicker twigs being immersed in water, some infused with vibrant colors to enhance their aesthetic appeal. The softening of materials in water is a crucial step, and a skilled craftsman can complete a single kangri in about an hour. The finished products range from exquisitely designed kangris that fetch a handsome sum to those crafted for everyday use by average families.
Yet, despite the artisanal charm and cultural significance, the traditional kangri faces challenges in the modern era. The advent of electrification has introduced heating gadgets that have, to some extent, overshadowed the time-honored warmth provided by kangris. While there is still a demand for these traditional firepots, it is not as robust as in the past.
The decline in business due to electrification concerns the craftsmen of Okey village. “If the government supports us in preserving this traditional art of making kangris, we can sustain this legacy. Unfortunately, there is no specific scheme for our community,” he laments.
A local trader, echoing the sentiment, expresses the hope that continued demand for kangris during the colder seasons will keep the tradition alive. Last year, a warmer season led to decreased attention, but with an early onset of cold this year, the demand has surged. The Okey village produces between 3000 to 5000 kangris in a single day, meeting the needs of customers not only in Kashmir but also in other regions, including Rajouri.
The trader emphasizes the unique benefits of kangris, noting that unlike electronic heating devices, using kangris requires less caution. "We've witnessed numerous incidents with electronic devices used for heating purposes, emphasizing the safety of our traditional kangris," he said.
As the season progresses, the traders are optimistic that the demand for kangris will persist, enabling Okey village to sustain its age-old tradition. However, the call for government support resonates strongly among the artisans, urging authorities to recognize and preserve the cultural heritage embedded in the craftsmanship of kangris.
In addition to the craftsmanship of Shaksaz, the earthenware pot known as "Koundal" is a product of the skill of potters, forming a direct link with this community. Together, they showcase their best skills during the winter season.
Potters would come to sell their koundals to the Shaksaz, and with the wickers crafted around the koundal, kangris are created. Despite not receiving much attention in current times, potters find a livelihood as the winter season approaches.
“It requires significant effort to procure the earth for making pottery utensils, and the craftsmanship involved often goes unrecognized. In order to uphold the family legacy and maintain the tradition, we continue to create these pots. The kangri is our tradition, and the coals burned earlier make this winter a bit different. In rural areas where electricity is scarce during winter, the kangri keeps us warm, and we all contribute to maintaining good warmth,” the potter added.
Bilal Ahmad Mir, Assistant Handicrafts Training Officer, Kulgam, told Rising Kashmir that they have conducted door-to-door visits in the two villages of Okey and Hadigam for the registration of artisans associated with Kangri weaving.
"The department has registered 310 artisans in the twin villages of Okey and Hadigam by conducting registration drives. Nine cooperative societies have been formed in these two villages, covering about 95 willow workers. Out of these, six societies have received the first installment of Rs 50,000 each, and three more societies will receive financial assistance in a few days," he said.
Mir further mentioned that over 20 willow workers have availed themselves of the loan facility through the Artisan Credit Card scheme. Besides, under the PM Vishvakarma scheme, the process of registration of potters has been initiated. The department also aims to provide scholarships to the children of artisans under the Education Scholarship Scheme for Artisans and Weavers. Applications have already been sought from artisans for this purpose," he added.