No place like a hamam: How Kashmiris kill the chill

  • Hilal Mir, None
  • Updated: Jan 18, 2015 13:57 IST

Kashmiris remember the Mughal rulers for abducting their last indigenous ruler, Yusuf Shah Chack, by deception, thereby opening the gates to centuries of foreign rule.

Kashmiris also remember them for the exotic gardens that thousands of tourists still throng every year. But there is one Mughal innovation that every Kashmiri wants to retreat to in these harsh winter days. It's called the hamam. The word hamam is associated with exotic public Turkish baths, and, of course, a popular brand of soap. In Kashmir, it means much more.

A genial discussion at a mosque hamam. (Photos: Zahoor Zargar)

A hamam is a room in which thick, hand-hewn rectangular slabs of limestone are laid over a hollowed-out floor. Columns of brick support the slabs at the joints, which are sealed with cement. Each slab, sculpted from blocks of rock extracted from a quarry on the outskirts of Srinagar, stands on a single pillar of rough-hewn stone especially quarried in Baramulla district.

The inside walls of the hamam are lined with bricks sealed with lime mortar. The floor is strewn with sand, bits of glass and boulders, to absorb and retain heat. Firewood is placed in the hamam through a small iron door. The smoke escapes through a chimney that goes right up to the roof, through all levels of the house.

Traditional houses in Kashmir, made of timber, mud plaster and mud or baked brick, could do without a hamam. But most new houses are made of brick and concrete, a disastrous mismatch with the local weather. In December and January, when temperature dips to several degrees below zero, hamams or central heating become a necessity.

A man checks the level of water inside the copper tank installed above the spot where the firewood is burnt

Even more than homes, a hamam is central to mosques in the Valley. Every mosque has one. In fact the hamam is the first space one steps into. It is like an atrium that traditionally leads to the main prayer hall to one side, the entry to the mosque on the other, and rows of small bathrooms on the remaining two sides.

The hamam is not a firewood guzzler. It can be warmed up with a few logs, discarded wood or even cardboard packaging.
A huge copper tank - 200 litres to 300 litres for a home hamam and above 1,000 litres for a mosque - is installed directly above the spot where the firewood is burnt. Hence a hamam also generates a plentiful supply of hot water. It can be used to dry clothes too, since wet clothes just freeze in the open.

Another use of the hamam is as a source of the burning embers that fire kangris to keep people warm outdoors. For the arthritic elderly, a hamam is a substitute for the warm places they are told to escape to by their doctors. That is why the hottest spots in both mosque and residential hamams are taken by the elderly as a right.

The hamam is an essential and unique aspect of the Kashmiri mosque-going culture. People, most of them poor, would wait outside mosque bathrooms at dawn until a few decades ago, since this was the only place that offered affordable hot-water baths.

A masjid hamami carries firewood into a mosque. Hamams are still am essential aspect of the Kashmiri mosque experience.

The hamam is so central to the mosque, in fact, that full-time caretakers are employed to run the mosque hamam; they are called hamamis. There is still no substitute for its social function. It is where community members gather to discuss politics and local mohalla issues. Discussions sometimes get so, well, heated, that mosque managements even have a firefighting technique - they fire up the hamam only twice a day; letting it cool down is an indirect means of breaking up arguments and sending the arguers their separate ways.

The hamam has advantages over other forms of heating. Civil engineer Muzaffar Ahmad Posh estimates that a 10 ft x 14 ft hamam costs Rs 1.20 lakh to 1.40 lakh to build; firewood for three months of harsh cold would cost another Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. In contrast, a homeowner would have to shell out up to ? 10 lakh to install central heating, depending on the number of rooms. Gas heaters and coal bukharis are polluting, electricity is scarce, and the kangri only warms up an individual.

The only disadvantage, particularly from an environmental standpoint, is the toll hamams take on forests and orchards. All mosques in the valley are still provided firewood at subsidised rates at government firewood depots.
A Kashmiri hamam is an improvisation of the Turkish bath. "The hamam has Turkish origins but Kashmir was never ruled by Turks. Since the Afghans who ruled Kashmir took pride in their Turkic origins, we can say that the hamam's origins lie in Central Asia," says Saleem Beg, convener of the Jammu & Kashmir chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).

The false floor of a hamam being built - most new houses are made of concrete rather than timber making either hamams or central heating a necessity

Mughal rulers made hamams, like their elaborate gardens, part of their residential and other buildings in Kashmir. Hence, besides the mosque, public and residential varieties, the hamam also had a royal cousin that, according to Beg, was meant not just for baths but also for exercise and leisure.

The remains of one such hamam are found at Pari Mahal (Abode of the Fairies), a seven-tiered garden complex built during the 17th-century reign of Dara Shikoh. The palace sits on a hillock overlooking the Dal lake in Srinagar. Civil engineer Posh says the hamam was the most decorated room in the complex and remains of pipes that probably supplied hot water to it can still be seen. Shalimar Garden has a similar hamam, complete with an elaborate piping system that supplied hot water to it, says columnist Zahid Ghulam Mohammad.

Although, the residential and mosque varieties have remained, Mohammad, also a retired bureaucrat, recalls seeing in his childhood a Turkish bath built in the Kashmiri architectural tradition in Gada Kocha, a bustling spice and cloth market in Srinagar. "Places in Srinagar named Aga Hamam and Ranga Hamam became synonymous with their widely popular public baths. Sadly, they faded into oblivion and didn't become part of social life, as they have in Turkey," Mohammad says.

Today, it's not hard to guess the subject being discussed most passionately in Kashmir's hamams. As political uncertainty holds the state hostage, there are endless analyses of the situation - who will form the government, the Bharatiya Janata Party and People's Democratic Party (PDP) or the PDP and National Conference (NC); what will that mean for the present and future of the state; how long will the needless grandstanding of the politicians continue.
In such exasperating times, one is reminded of a Kashmiri proverb associated with the hamam.
Roughly translated, it says 'No one has ever fired up a hamam by breaking wind'.

Hilal Mir is a journalist with the Kashmir Reader and is based in Srinagar

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