Importance of the Pheran and the Kangari in the Cultural History of Kashmir

Suhail Ahmad Wani

Chipak raha hai badan par lahoo se Pairahan,

Hamari jaeb ko abb haajat-e-rafoo kya hai? Mirza Galib

The dress of Kashmiris has undergone several changes during the course of their long history. The Kashmiri word “Pheran” is contraction of the Persian word “pairahan” which literally means garment which clearly shows its origin to the time of Mughal rulers who had Persian descent. The Mughals are said to have encouraged the use of Pheran and of the Kangri, the portable firepot enclosed in a wicker case, to effeminate the hardy Kashmiris and to break their martial sprit. As far as the Kangari is concerned it is generally believed that Kashmiri’s learnt the use of the Kangari from the Italians who were in the retinue of the Mughal emperors, and usually visited the valley during summer. In Italy where a similar device was known as a Scaldino and Spain, braziers were made in a great variety of shapes and were profusely ornamented. Historical data however contradicts that the claim that Kangari came to Kashmir from Italy, but it is known that it was used in the time of the Mughal Empire.
But, according to some Kashmiri Pandit Scholars, its origin is to the Greek word “Apron” & even the Tajik word “Peraband. Kalhana even mentions that before the time of Harsa (1089-1101), the people of the land in general wore their hair loose, did not have a head dress and did not wear a short coat, but a long tunic. Perhaps due to the influence of the Muhammadinised areas in Kandhara and western parts of the Punjab, Harsa introduced the use of Turban and short coat. This seems to have been the dress of people at the time of the foundation of Sultanate. With the coming in of the Sufi saints and Muslim theologians from Persia and central Asia, Kashmiris adopted the long robe, and round turban. According to Kalhana the former is thus the forerunner of the Pheran, the present dress of Kashmiris.
There are several stories associated with Pheran in Kashmir. One narrative is that the Emperor Akbar was enraged at the bravery and prolonged resistance offered by the Chaks to his General Qasim Khan, who decided to effeminate, unman and degrade the people of this country, and so, he ordered the people, on the pain of death, to wear Pheran which has hindered them in battles and all manly exercises.
The object, according to this theory, was to make Kashmiris lethargic and indolent by keeping their hands always inside it on a warm Kangari, which killed their martial habiliments and warlike spirit against the Mughal rulers. Dr. GMD Sufi rejects this narrative by saying that if this story were true, then the Kashmiris would not have required Kangari at all. Sir Marc Aurel Stein dismisses it as a silly story. Pir Hassan Shah says that Pheran was introduced during the time of King Zain ul Abidin. Sir Walter Lawrence in his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’, blames Akbar for inventing this garment. Lawrence was the Settlement Commissioner for Jammu and Kashmir during 1889-94. British missionary and educationalist Tyndale Biscoe in his book ‘Kashmir in Sunlight and Shade’ has the following to say about pheran: “When the Afghans conquered Kashmir they forced the men to wear the same dress as the women, to be in keeping with their character.” Kashmiri’s are not fond of Mughals or Afghans or those who came after them. But their love for the pheran has grown manifold.

Pheran is a long loose garment worn in Kashmir by both men & women. It has also been equaled and compared with /cloak/coat/apparel/gown/wrapper/tunic by different travelers, historians, explorers & anthropologists of Kashmir. Anyway, it is a heavy and full garment with buttons or zip around the neck-opening, without slits, falling slightly above the feet among non-Muslims and below the knees among the Muslims. Weight is given to the bottom of this garment by a deep hem. It is made of cotton or wool. When it is made of cotton, it is called Potsh and when it is made of wool, it is called Loch. And, Potsh which was , till few decades ago, used during summer is not now so common among the present Kashmiri’s owing to change in their dressing habits, just like that of other communities world-over; even though some old traditional Kashmiri’s still wear it in some villages and parts of cities and towns. Under the tunic of Pheran, the wearer uses Kangari, which is an earthen pot with a small quantity of live charcoal, to keep the wearer warm against the cold.
The Pheran is required against the inclemency of the weather in Kashmir, to fight against the chilly weathers of winter; though there are now many latest electronic and other items too available in Kashmir to warm bodies and rooms. In the past, the woolen cloth used for Pheran was either manufactured in Kashmir on home looms or imported from Punjab. Now, the wool, tweed, Puttu, of which the Pheran is invariably made, is all imported from outside Kashmir. In the past, a long piece of cotton stuff called lungi was worn around the waist over Pheran by the Panditanis/Kashmiri Hindu women who would never go out of home without this girdle.
But, now this old tradition of fastening belt around the waist over Pheran is not visible among the Panditanis in Kashmir; though many young Kashmiri Muslim boys like having this belt around waist on their Pherans. In olden times, writes Pandit Anand Koul, every Kashmiri male Hindu/Pandit would carry a Qalamdan (pen cases) in the girdle bound over his Pheran round his loin or under his armpit wherever he went. In the past, the colours of the Pherans used to be limited to red and blue only. But today, the progress of textile industry, has added all possible colours to the stuff used for making of Pherans. The women generally like bright colors, while men like light colors. Today’s Kashmiri young boys like black and dark colors, and round collars, buttons at the cuff and girdle at the waist of Pheran; all these innovations give the Pheran look of a gown or overcoat.
The Pheran and the Kangari reflect the historical continuity of Kashmiri culture as Pheran had not made any drastic change in the garment. If a person from 15th century suddenly wakes up in the streets of Srinagar today, he would definitely identify pheran and the Kangari as something that belongs to his era. That is why the recent decision of the government to ban the garment in the zonal educational offices and the civil secretariat created such an uproar. It was seen as a demeaning move. Although the government revoked the order quickly, it has not yet cooled down the tempers. However, whenever the history of Kashmir culture will be written, the role of pheran and the Kangari cannot be ignored.

The author is a Ph.D Research Scholar at the University of Indore. He can be reached at: [email protected]