February 19, 2009 / 3:55 AM / 11 years ago

Heaters cool demand for hazardous Kashmir fire pot

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters Life!) - Modern heaters are cooling the appeal of a traditional heating pot used for centuries in Indian Kashmir to ward off the cold, but they’re also making the harsh winter safer for many people.

The Kangri, a small earthenware bowl encased in a wicker basket, is filled with embers and carried by poorer locals under their flowing woolen gowns or “pherans” to fight the chill.

But the device is a fire hazard, causing scores of injuries every winter, and doctors say prolonged use causes skin diseases.

In recent years, shops in Srinagar have been flooded with gas or kerosene heaters mostly imported from China, Japan and Turkey.

“These heating gadgets are convenient and Kangri is fast losing out to these kind of heaters,” said 56-year-old Abdul Sattar, a wholesale Kangri dealer in Srinagar.

“We have sold just 300 Kangris this month, while two years ago I sold 2,000 in the first 15 days of January alone.”

In the Himalayan region’s long winters, which last from November to February, temperatures can fall to minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit) in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, and to minus 20 degrees (-4 Fahrenheit) in the mountains.

Sattar said nearly a million Kangris are manufactured a year in Kashmir, and they fetch between 40 rupees (80 cents) and 150 rupees ($3).

“The rich equip their houses with central heating, middle class have resorted to gas or kerosene or electricity-run heaters but most poor still depend on Kangri,” said Mohideen Ahmad, another heater dealer.

In winter, Kashmir’s wealthy throng to the warmer city of Jammu or to the plains of northern India to escape the cold, but the poor do not have that luxury.

The origin of Kangri is not known. Some Kashmiri historians believe it is indigenous, while others say it was imported from central Asia around 600 years ago. Some even believe it came from Italy as it resembles an old Italian heating device.

The decline in Kashmir’s Kangri industry is bad news for thousands of seasonal workers who manufacture or sell the pots in a troubled state hit by a bloody 20-year insurgency.

“Kangri may be completely extinct in next decade and we may lose an important part of our culture,” Shujaat Ahmad of the Kashmir Foundation of Art and Culture.

But locals say the modern heaters have highlighted just how unsafe the Kangri is, with police reporting scores of cases every year of the device causing burns and damaging property.

Doctors say prolonged use of the Kangri causes severe irritation of the skin on the stomach and inner thighs which can lead to a form of cancer.

According to the oncology department of Kashmir’s main hospital, over 1.6 percent of total cancer cases reported by hospitals in the state are “Kangri cancer.”

“These (modern) heaters are health friendly, risk free and easy to use compared to Kangri. For use of Kangri one has to store charcoal for the entire winter and it is also dangerous,” said Amina Khan, a 45-year-old housewife who has bought a Chinese gas heater.

Editing by Matthias Williams and Miral Fahmy

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