Come 21st December, and the harsh winters of Kashmir get started. With snow at every nook and corner, Kashmir do looks beautiful. But the life of locals gets really tough especially with regards to warming the houses. They have found some unique methods to keep themselves warm. There’s Kangri that they use. It’s a basket with an earthen pot inside carrying burning coal/wood. It keeps an individual warm. But they also have ways to keep the rooms warm especially those which have been constructed of concrete.
With each passing day, we move forward leaving the old behind. Newer ways of life have affected even the architecture of our houses; many old architecture practices suited to weather have given way to newer fancy architectures. But somehow in Kashmir, age old hamaam seem to have made its entry in households, more because of the scarcity of electricity during winters. In a place like Kashmir, where round the clock electricity is a distant dream, this is reason enough to make Hamaam popular. The common man of the old times could only enjoy the benefits of the community Hamaams, and till recently only in the mosques, it was a unique aspect of the Kashmiri mosque-going culture. People, most of them poor, would wait outside mosque bathrooms at dawn since this was the only place that offered affordable hot-water baths. It still is where community members gather to discuss politics and local mohalla issues.
But today with facilities available they have the privilege to bring this luxury home. Hamaam as a concept is becoming more and more popular among Kashmiris. Most of the newly made homes house a Hamaam. Its popularity can have many reasons. The cosiness and comfort it provides in the harsh Kashmiri winter is at the top. It’s cost effective as compared to the modern central heating systems, floor heating technologies etc. It is a onetime investment, with bearable recurrent firewood charges.
Hamaam is an improvisation of the famous Turkish bath during the Ottoman Empire. But its history can be traced to the much earlier Roman and Byzantine empires, where the first kinds of baths were made. These were modified to a complex and sophisticated form with different chambers for heat and steam by the Turks. These are the precursors to the modern steam and sauna’s which use electricity, rather than traditionally used fire wood. From there the technology went to the Mughals who introduced it in Kashmir.
Construction of hamaam rooms is very interesting and unique. In the hamaam room limestone slabs especially found in Pampore, are placed over a hollowed out floor. Bricks are used to give support to these slabs and the slabs are sealed with lime mortars or as nowadays with concrete itself. This hollowed out floor has firewood burning area with a chimney and closed with an iron door. Here firewood is burned and thus the hamaam room stays warm. Huge water tanks, called “Khazane” are installed over this firewood burning area thus providing warm water also to the household with an elaborate piping system.
Besides hamaams, recent times Bukharis have also made a place in Kashmiri households especially in the Leh Laddakh region. Bukharis are traditionally wood burning heating system but nowadays even gas & kerosene are being used. Bukhari is made of iron or brass, is oval or square in shape and has one or two openings used for cooking purposes with a chimney for the smoke exhaust. The bukhari is used mainly as an inexpensive means to keep the house and its resident warm. The device is the most economical option cherished by many for heating homes, offices and schools. One of its greatest advantages is that you can cook food and at the same time your family can cluster around it and warm themselves. Bukharis are used even by the poultry farmers to keep the flocks warm in the biting cold weather.
A special thanks to this Mughal innovation Hamaam, undoubtedly, being the ultimate place of comfort and warmth in Kashmir. In this modern time where everyone prefers to sit in their own room, hamaam reunites the family. Where kangri warms an individual, hamaam warms everyone. The only bad thing about hamaam is that it brings laziness with it and to such an extent that if there’s an earthquake, you’d prefer to sit inside instead of going out.