KASHMIR is right now bracing for the chilling sub zero temperatures ahead. Preparations for harsh winters are a necessity in the Valley.
Kashmiris have a way of coming up with their own defense mechanism to combat the bone chilling cold, blending traditional with the modern techniques. Amongst these is the frequent use of the traditional hamam, one among the most cost-convenient and reliable modes of warmth.
The hamam traces its origins to a Turkish innovation apparently brought in by the Mughals to Kashmir. Historians and writers have a general consensus that hamam was brought to Kashmir with its Mughal conquest during the 16th century, though a few attribute it to the era of Shah Mir dynasty king – Sultan Zainul Aabideen (he ruled for 50 years from 1420 to 1470); while others maintain that Mughal conqueror Mirza Haidar Dughlat (1499 – 1551) was responsible for introducing hamams in Kashmir. But, there are no concrete evidences to prove this narrative. In the first place, these royal institutions of luxury were solely reserved for the nobles and the royals. Later, during the 19th century, the architectural marvel found its place alongside mosques and khanqahs of our Valley. Of late, it has spread to far-off villages and towns. Now, most of the residential houses are equipped with hamams.
- Hamam – an architectural wonder
This architectural wonder has a huge potential for creativity as well as of providing employment to artisans, labourers, drivers, masons and many others associated with it.
It is an entire room lined with lime mortar and with a two-tiered floor, with the upper tier made of handmade limestone blocks. It is made of thick, hand-hewn rectangular slabs of limestone, laid over a hollowed-out floor. Columns of brick support the slabs at the joints, which are sealed with cement. Each slab is sculpted from blocks of rock commonly called ‘devri kaen’ extracted from a quarry from different parts of the Valley, mostly Pampore in south Kashmir & Saderkoot in Bandipora north, though now imported from outside the Valley too.
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.
- The hamam & the lessons in life
Hamams become places of public get-togethers during winters. People of different ages, ideologies and sects sit together and discuss everything.
From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Palestine to Bosnia, from US to Ukraine, from Europe to Australia, you will find everything being discussed here with an expert sitting and trying to make his point over others while audience listens in keenly!
What with the rising generational gap, winter mosque hamams can act as a good medium for bridging that gap. This can be a place where the young can mix with their octogenarians and brainstorm over social, emotional, political and psychological issues. Experiences of the aged could be gathered in the warmth of these small cubicles along with a pinch of some harsh realities of life and lovely laughter.
Says Mohammad Sultan, a retired government teacher: “These hamam discussions can be an ample opportunity, playing the role of public institution. Masjid hamams can prove to be a productive affair of personal as well as intellectual growth through the medium of socialising, discussion and brainstorming. The new generation should make sitting in hamams a routine”.
- A space for laughter and sarcasm
Hamams needn’t be only for serious discussions. There can always be a lighter side to these hamam gatherings in mosques. Frequent jokes, funny memoirs, nasty sledging and heated yet meaningless arguments over political or ideological differences make the experience an interesting package.
From expert commentaries on the ongoing Gaza-Israel skirmish, mentioning the failure of Muslim nations in playing their part, to someone calling it an “Amreekech chaal”, you will find everything here. Not to forget the ever on-going, most discussed yet incomplete issue of Kashmir where every Kashmiri claims to offer a unique solution! You would also find discussion on the politics of Kashmir and India. From the NC-PDP-BJP conundrum, to who is going to win this time, to what went wrong last time to who ‘should’ win; the topic can suddenly shift to mohalla drains left unfinished, followed by the usual ‘zameen tanaaz’ debates which, mind you, can never be calm and composed.
“Kashmiris get very little opportunity for social mixing and entertainment as compared to others who may meet at cafes, cinema halls, standup shows, theatres etc. Hamams here can fill that gap,” feels Mohammad Zubair, a youngster.
- Moral & religious schools
Hamams, particularly in mosques, can also serve as an apt place for imparting moral and religious understanding, especially to the youth and the children. Our young need to be encouraged to visit masjids along with their elders to enjoy leisure and warmth in hamams where they will get to access so much religious wisdom, guiding them through life.
Besides, these places can also become cluster centres for infusing a rational, inquisitive, unorthodox, enlightened perspective. And yes, not to forget, these hamams can act as de facto drug de-addiction/counselling, de radicalisation centres to misguided youth.
“Drug abuse, along with other grave social evils, is rampantly rising among our young generation. Hamams can be positively utilised for eradicating this evil along with other social evils prevalent in our society,” Shabir Ahmad, a local mosque cleric, comments.
With the new-age gadgets including electric hamams, bukharis, heaters, blowers and similar appliances making their way into Kashmir households, the relevance of these traditionally cost-effective hamams cannot be overlooked given the wide contribution it can offer in socialisation, particularly in times when privacy-driven loneliness is becoming a norm.