Beating the cold with handmade coal in Kashmir
Women in rural Kashmir gather the leaves and twigs that are shed from the trees during autumn, and turn them into pun tseni (charcoal) for kangri that not just keeps them warm during the winters, but also earns them some money.
Farzana Nisar 14 Dec 2022 6:27 AM GMT
Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir
Shameema carefully tends to a fire she has built, that is sending up billows of black smoke into the sky. Once the fire burns down, she sprinkles water on the hot embers that will turn into charcoal.
Shameema sells these handmade charcoal, which are used in the kangris, or the traditional fire pots in the Kashmir region, and earns some money through the biting cold winter of the valley.
"Every year, as autumn sets in, I start making charcoal from the dried leaves and twigs of trees. The small amount of money I earn from the sale of charcoal helps me buy winter commodities for my family," said 50-year-old Shameema who, along with her husband, a labourer, lives in Kulgam in south Kashmir.
The family owns a piece of land with poplars. Some of that charcoal will also keep her family warm in the long cold winter months, she told Gaon Connection. "In these times of inflation, we need to find ways to survive," she said, as she filled a sack with the dried charcoal.
Charcoal production is a skill practised for centuries by the inhabitants of this region in Jammu & Kashmir to keep themselves warm. The charcoal keeps them warm as it fuels the kangris, or the traditional firepots, in Kashmir. It is also a means of livelihood for thousands of women in Kashmir.
During autumn or harud, between the end of September and mid-November, the trees shed their leaves or are pruned. Kashmiri women gather the fallen branches, leaves and twigs, burn them to make charcoal and sell it in the market that earns them some money.
"One bag of pun tseni (charcoal made from dried leaves and twigs) costs around Rs 200 to 300 and this season I plan to make 50 sacks," Shameema said.
Unlike Shameema, Ruqaya from a village in Pulwama makes charcoal using pruned horticulture twigs and almond shells, locally known as kaath tseni and badam tseni, respectively. She said that charcoal produced from almond shells is the most expensive and one sack sells for up to Rs 700.
"The rates depend on the durability of the charcoal, which means how long it keeps a kangri burning. Charcoal from almond shells can fuel the earthen pot for even two days," she told Gaon Connection.
Charcoal production can be a lifesaver when harvests fail, Ruqaya pointed out. "Fruit growers in the valley have been facing huge losses for the past four years, and we support our fathers and husbands in these difficult times by selling charcoal. It empowers us," she said.
Residue from sawmills can also be used to make charcoal. However, women prefer to gather their raw material from fields, orchards and gardens. Those who do not own land, collect the foliage from open areas or public gardens.
"Selling charcoal is not the primary source of income for any family but a livelihood opportunity and a sustainable value chain to increase the household income," Aabid Hussain, a researcher in agricultural sciences from the Sher E Kashmir University in Srinagar, told Gaon Connection. The skills are passed from generation to generation and as there is a huge demand in the hinterlands, it is easy for the women to sell, he added.
On a cold November morning, Fatima, 42, and her young daughter, picked leaves that were shed from the lofty chinars in Shalimar Bagh, the famous Mughal garden in Srinagar. They collected the foliage with the help of a long broom and then put them into sacks, and carried them home on their heads.
"We have to be careful when we burn the leaves as if we let it burn too long they will turn into ash," Fatima told Gaon Connection
Making charcoal is time consuming and involves a lot of work. The women have to collect the foliage, then pack it and carry it back with them, then burn it, making sure it is done properly.
After this, water is sprinkled over the blazing coals to stop the leaves from burning further. The residue is then dried in the open air for hours before they are packed into large bags and stored safely away from other inflammable objects.
"It is a backbreaking process. It takes us days to prepare and store the charcoal before it hits the market," Fatima said. Respiratory health problems and heat rashes are common reactions to the heat and smoke produced from the fire.
"We sometimes get blisters on our hands and face but our efforts always pay off. I earn Rs 25,000 or sometimes more a season, and it helps us to keep our families afloat," she said.
Ban on burning of leaves
There was consternation when in view of the worsening air pollution, in 2017, the government of J&K announced a ban on the burning of leaves and wood pruned from trees. The government had also said that such burning was hazardous to the health of both human beings and the glaciers that were melting.
However, despite the official ban, people continue to make charcoal.
"It generates income for our families and we have been doing this for years. Every household in Kashmir stores four to five sacks of charcoal for use in winters and besides not everyone can afford costly electrical appliances," a charcoal producer said.
He added that kangri was an indispensable part of Kashmir's culture and the frequent power cuts in winter made charcoal the principle source of warmth for the common Kashmiri.