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Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri



‘Laer’, a Typical Kashmiri House

by T.N. Dhar 'Kundan'

Enter the courtyard, with or without a gate, of any house anywhere in Kashmir and you will see an open rectangular or square space kept as neat as the weather permits. This is called ‘Aangun’. On the far off corner there will be a small dry toilet and somewhere in the middle of a side there will be a brick enclosure, ‘Hoze’ with a tap for cleaning, washing and drawing water. You should not be surprised if you find a stone mortal and a large wooden pestle, used for crushing dried chillies and other spices, called Kanz ta Muhul’. Then you will find a stone platform with two or three steps on either side at the front door. The platform is known as ‘Brand’ and the front door as ‘Daar’. This door leads to a passage, which divides the house into two halves. This is referred to as ‘Vuz’. On either side of this passage there are two big rooms, each called ‘Vo’t’. These are in effect sitting rooms used during winters. They are covered with grass mats, ‘Vaguv’ over which are spread floor coverings, ‘Satrand’, ‘Namda’ or ‘Gabba’. A portion of this room is partitioned and made into a traditional kitchen, ‘Choka’. It has cooking ranges, big ‘Daan’ and small ‘Oktsore’, ‘Hahkole’. There are storage spaces for kitchen items, utensils and fuel and charcoal. There is also a wooden shelf, ‘Garavanja’, meant to hold pitchers of water for use in the kitchen. The size of these rooms depends on the number of windows there are on the front elevation of the house. The houses are usually either ‘Sath-taakh’, in which case there will be three windows in each room or ‘Paentsh-taakh’, in which case these two rooms will have two windows each. At the end of the passage there is a self-closing door called ‘Thasa-bar’, which opens into the staircase leading to the upper stories. The space below the circular bend of the staircase is gainfully used as a bathroom or washroom.  

Climb the staircase and you are on the first floor. In a typical house there will be two rooms on either side and a small room in the middle on the front side. This small room is very important and sacred. It is called, ‘Thokur Kuth’ or the room for worship. It houses a small temple with a variety of idols of different deities. The rooms on either side would be bedrooms for different members of the family or study cum bedrooms for the youngsters. These are tastefully decorated with pictures and photos and wall hangings and furnished with carpets spread over grass-mats and floor coverings. In some traditional houses one or two rooms out of these four rooms may be used as store rooms called, ‘Bana-kuth’ for grains, spices, pulses etc; and ‘Baeth-kuth’ for fuel, dried cow-dung, charcoal etc. The former will have large pitchers, ‘Machi’ or big but short ones, ‘Math’ made of earthenware to store various items of household. At the onset of the winter these ‘Maths’ will be filled with potatoes, turnips, radish and knoll-khol to be consumed during winter months, when there is scarcity of such items due to snow, frost and cold.   

Once again you can go up the next staircase and reach the second floor. There may be three or four rooms on this floor of varying sizes. One of them will have an anteroom, ‘Shansheen’. One on the front or on the side may have a small balcony extended out, either round or rectangular in shape. It will have either ordinary windows opening outside or three or four windowpanes one over the other, which are lifted and stacked one after the other on a support in the upper portion of the window. This is known as ‘Vuroosi’ and is usually made of wooden panels beautifully carved with floral designs. One of the rooms may have all its walls plastered with white cement, ‘gachh’. This room would be earmarked as the bedroom for the head of the family. All these rooms will have double-panelled windows. One set made of thick wooden plank will open towards inside. The other set made of criss-cross carved wooden mesh, called ‘Panjra’ will open outside and would be resting on two hooks. These can easily be removed from the hooks so that paper is pasted on them to block the draught of wind during winter months. The ceiling of the rooms will be rather low and tastefully woven with small wooden pieces of varying designs. This is called, ‘Khutumband taalav’ and is exquisitely beautiful. The floors may be of clay resting on wooden girders and sleepers. These are cleaned and smeared with clay-paste and covered with grass mats ‘Vaguv’, ‘Satrand’ and carpets or Kashmiri ‘Namdas’ and ‘Gabbas’. In some rooms you may find a wooden pole hanging by the ropes on either end from the ceiling. This is called ‘Villinj’ and is used to hang clothes, sheets and floor coverings, towels etc.   

Another flight of stairs and you are on the third floor, ‘Kaani’. It is a huge hall covering the entire space. In the entire length of the front side there is a projected balcony overlooking the courtyard below. It has beautifully carved wooden poles supporting the typical window-series and separating the ‘Vuroosi’ system. The ceiling is of wooden planks below the huge wooden girders and beams. Over this there is a V-shaped roof ‘Pash’, either covered with corrugated tin sheets or wooden shingle or of mud-phuska over birch sheets that make it waterproof. The space between the roof and the ceiling is called ‘Brari-Kaani’ and is used for stacking cut-wood fuel. In some houses small study rooms are made out on the corner sides known as ‘Gable’.  The hall is used as a living room in summer months as it is airy and pleasant and for serving meals to a large number of guests on important occasions like marriages betrothals etc. It has a kitchen and a storeroom on either side of the stair door. Those houses, which do not have taps on this top floor, have a strong wooden wall bracket, ‘Garvanja’ to hold earthen pitchers for storage of water. A servant is engaged to fetch water from the taps below and fill these pitchers for use in the kitchen and for drinking purposes.  

During the winter, when there is a heavy snowfall a thick layer of snow settles on the rooftop. If the roof is made of tin sheets or shingle, the snow melts in due course and slips from the slanting roof. If, however, the roof is made of mud, some labour is employed to push the snow from above lest the roof gives way under the weight of the snow. This is done with huge wooden ore-like blades called ‘Phyuh’. During the summer people leave chillies, paddy, pickle and ‘Kaanz’ (fermented drink) on the roof in the open sunshine. There is a small covered opening in the middle of the roof where the two slopes meet. It has a small door used to climb on to the roof whenever needed. On auspicious days people climb the roof through this opening along with a plateful of raw meat pieces and hurl them above their heads for hovering kites to grab and take away. On the flatter roofs even paddy is spread on grass mats to dry in open sunshine. 

A typical Kashmiri house is built on a raised stone plinth. The ground floor is often built in stone blocks neatly chiseled. The remaining floors are built with baked bricks of varying sizes. Small sized bricks ‘Maharaji Seri’ give a beautiful look to the construction from outside. These are usually painted brick red or deep crimson. After every floor wooden beams are placed on the bricklayers and interlocked at the four corners. These help the walls to stand firm and secure. The roof is built over huge and straight wooden logs, usually from the poplar tree, and wooden girders. There is no plaster from outside but the inner walls are plastered with fine powdered clay mixed with chaff or tree-wool. Ceilings are low and so are windows so that the rooms remain warm in winter months. Just above the window on the extreme right in the ground floor there is a small wooden shelf on the outside. Cooked rice and other eatables are left on this shelf for birds of sorts, which are there in plenty. Similarly on the top floor just outside the projected balcony there is again a wooden shelf for the same purpose. 

People generally sit on the floor on a carpeted surface leaning on large-sized bolsters kept along the walls. It is also customary to sleep on the floor on mattresses stuffed with cotton and take similarly stuffed quilts as coverings. During the day these beddings are neatly folded and stacked in one corner either on top of a table or a huge tin box. While toilets are always outside, bathrooms can be either inside or in the corner of the courtyard adjacent to the water-tap. These houses are living monuments to the culture of Kashmir. The galleries on all the floors are used not only as approaches to different floors but also to leave the shoes behind, as these are not taken inside the rooms. Kitchens are demarcated by wooden partitions in order to maintain their sacred purity. Every house has a small room for offering worship. Kashmiri Pandits are deeply religious and God fearing. It is customary for them to offer daily pooja, perform rituals on important occasions and observe a fortnight-long celebration on Shivaratri. They sit, sleep and eat normally on the floor and for that keep their houses neat, clean and pure. A portion of all that is cooked is left for dogs, birds and the guests are received with an open heart.  

T. N. Dhar Kundan's Articles


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