Although the art of making bakers’ kilns is on the decline across Kashmir valley, a group of families in north Kashmir’s Palhallan village who have been associated with the trade for many decades have seen their fortunes shine as business continues to grow, Bilal Handoo reports.
Situated in north Kashmir, some 30 km away from J&K’s summer capital Srinagar, Palhallan village shot to prominence in the summer uprising of 2010 when popular protests threatened to bring down an elected government. While the protests brought the village on the radar of security agencies, very few people know that Palhallan also houses some rare artisans of Kashmir valley.
A mediocre, mud-filled lane bordered by walnut tress leads to a locality of potters who live in Palhallan’s Kral Mohalla. As one walks into the locality, a few archaic shops have been set up where baked mud kilns are sold. Abdul Rahim Kumar, 80, has been making mud kilns from last sixty years.
“We have been making baker’s kiln for many centuries now. In fact, we are the only surviving community of kiln pottery in Kashmir,” Rahim, an elder in the potter community of fifteen families, says. Out of these fifteen families, three families have lately quit the trade and are now doing other trade activities.
Other than Palhallan village, there are a few potters in Srinagar’s Rainawari area who make bakers’ kilns but not in bulk quantity as the potters in Palhallan do. “Kiln making is our only source of sustenance,” Mehraj-ud-din, 29, a new generation potter and elder son of Rahim, says. “Earlier we used to make mud utensils too but with dwindling customer baseline, we entirely focus on kilns now.”
With potters across Kashmir gradually winding up their business and a number of new bakery shops opening in various parts of valley, the potters of Palhallan receive round the clock orders. A single kiln maker on an average sells around 25 kilns per month, which puts his monthly income at Rs 37500. But sales keep fluctuating throughout the year.
“During Ramadhan and on the arrival of spring, demand for kilns usually increases up to 35 kilns per month,” Ali Mohammad, 35, another artisan, says. “It is only during winter season that our trade dips slightly in terms of demand.”
The annual income of twelve potter families in Palhallan is around Rs 60 lakh which sends around Rs 5 lakh per annum into the pocket of single family. The trade has flourished so much that the potters of Rainawari are also approaching them to fulfill their orders. “Our supplies have improved over the years that itself is the motivating factor for many of us,” Mehraj-ud-din says.
However, making kilns is not an easy job. Loose soil is first brought from a nearby hillock in Pattan area. It is then mixed with water, sand and rags that make it more durable. “This mud is then kept in store for many days and later used for making kilns,” Abdul Rashid Kumar, 40, another potter in the village, says.
There are three types of kilns depending on their capacity and sizes. The large size kiln fetches Rs 2,000; Rs 1500 for medium sized kiln and while the smallest one cost Rs 1300. A single kiln takes almost three days to get ready. Each kiln is being made in three different levels. “It takes a meticulous job to design kilns,” Rashid says. “Any slight loss of concentration can spoil the entire structure.” After kiln is ready, it is then left to dry under sun or a fire is lit up inside it.
Some years ago, gas kilns were introduced in the local market which threatened the traditional baked mud kilns. These gas kilns were installed and tested by some baker’s in Srinagar’s Chota Bazaar. However, the customers of these bakers complained about the lack of taste in their products. “They were soon abandoned and were never used,” Rashid claims.
Most villagers are not sure how pottery came to Palhallan. Abdul Rahim, the oldest potter, says the villagers learnt pottery from their ancestors. Over the years, it has become a source of sustenance for these families. “I recently completed my graduation in humanities,” Munir Ahmad, 21, a local youth, says. “But apart from my studies, I make it sure to spare some time for making kilns.”
Like Munir, many youth in Palhallan are happy about their ancestral trade. Kiln making is here to stay, as long as bakers continue to make bread!