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Samavar-The Heritage Tea Brewer of Kashmir

Samavar – the monarch tea brewer is perhaps the most distinguishable traditional utensil of Kashmir and is deeply rooted in the socio-cultural ambience of the valley. Enjoying enormous popularity, it is indispensable and central to every day Kashmiri life with the tea prepared in it being an inseparable part of the warm-hearted Kashmiri hospitality. Its overarching standing in Kashmiri culture has remained undisputed and unchallenged over the years despite the inflow of numerous contemporary appliances of similar nature in the market.

Samavar – Socio-cultural Significance

Samavar has carved out a proverbial niche for itself amongst the Kashmiri tea connoisseurs and steals the limelight at our every socio-cultural function. Its arrival and presence imparts an intimate touch of social warmth and cheer to every festive occasion. It also serves a deep societal purpose as it provides contextual relevance to our native conventions and time tested traditions. Its predominant presence is seen daily at breakfast and evening times in every Kashmiri household even now. Tea time is a wonderful family custom of Kashmir handed down to posterity by practice when all the family members assemble around the legendary Samavar to enjoy sizzling Kahwa cups. People relish endless chats, gossips and unconstrained talks over countless cups of tea prepared in it. Samavar by its utility also promotes family togetherness, emotional closeness and social cohesion.

The Samavar also enjoys a privileged position in the occupational part of Kashmiri life holding prominence during paddy cultivation, farming and fruit gathering activities. It also adds a vintage touch to celebrations, excursions and congregational gatherings. Samavar also adds radiance to the high octane atmosphere of the wedding functions of Kashmiri Pandits as well as Kashmiri Muslims. It acts as a comfort utensil as the tea brewed in it provides the required warmth to beat the bitter winter of Kashmir. The camaraderie with it is not broken even during despairing times and moments of gloom amongst the Muslims as it is used for brewing and providing Kahwa and Noon Chai (salted tea) to the callers during Fatehkhani on Chauhrum and Jumah Fateh.

Samavar is also integral to our social cultural expression. The arrival of the spring season with the bursting of almond flowers at Badamwari, Srinagar is incomplete without its presence. It also occupies a place of pride during social customs. The newly wed Kashmiri Pandit bride is required to serve tea brewed in the Samavar to the family members at the In-laws’ house in consonance with an age-old social ritual. The custom is known as ‘Chai Phirin’.

The Journey of Samavar

Samavar was introduced in Kashmir as an outcome of the Kashmiri association with the age old trade routes in the medieval times. The name Samavar is derived from the Russian word – ‘Samover’ and translates to ‘self-boiler’ or ‘self-brew’ in english. The innovative remodelling and improvisation that the Russian Samover received at the hands of Kashmiri artisans has resulted in the emergence of its exotic design and form.

Samavar enjoys cross-border acceptance and acknowledgement as it is closely linked with many cultures across the borders. Apart from Kashmir, it enjoys phenomenal popularity in Russia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Europe, South-east Europe, Africa, Morocco and the Middle East through its resembling counterparts. The lookalike utensil has diverse shapes, designs and outlines varying from place to place and may be cylindrical, spherical or barrelled in appearance and made from either plain iron, copper, polished brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) or bronze. The Russian Samover comprises of the main body, base, central chimney, faucet, cover, handle, crown ring and the steam vent key. The traditional Samover of earlier times used coal and charcoal for heating and brewing purpose while the present day ones are driven by electricity.

From Russia, the Samover made its entry into Iran about two centuries back as ‘Samevar’ in the Persian language. The Iranian Samevar’ employs Persian art motifs in its designs and outlines. The city of Borujerd located in Iran is one of the prime centres of its production where they are mostly handmade. Likewise, its lookalike kin, the Turkish Samovar is a metal container traditionally used to heat water and brew tea.

Samavar- a specimen of Kashmiri craftsmanship

The Samavar is an all-time favourite domestic utensil in the entire valley of Kashmir. It is one of the finest examples of the splendid art or craftsmanship and is known for its superb quality and distinct design. There are essentially two types of Kashmiri Samavars, the Qandhkari Samavars and the plain Samovars. The Qandhkari Samavars are made from copper and are exclusively used by the Muslims. In contrast, the plain Samavars are crafted from brass and are used by the Kashmiri Pandits. However, the stylish handles of both the types are made from brass. In earlier times, another type of Samavar was in vogue among the Kashmiri Pandits. It was known as the Panjaeb Samavar. Unlike the usual Samavars, it was uniformly globular in shape right from the crest to the base with a latticed lower part.

The Qandhkari Samavar has its entire outer surface carved with intricate floral and Chinar leaf motifs or geometric designs. Both its outer and inner surfaces are nickle plated, which is locally known as ‘Kalai’. In contrast, the plain Samavar is devoid of any design. Only its inner side is nickle plated which gives the surface a smooth finish and shine. The size of a Samavar depends upon its capacity to hold the number of tea cups. The Samavar used by the Muslims is usually bigger in size as compared to the one used by Kashmiri Pandits. It is sold by weight and its cost is related to its water holding capacity and size. The artisan who crafts the Samavar is known as ‘Thanthur’ in local parlance, whereas the designer who creates decorative carvings and patterns on its outer side is called ‘Naqash’. In Srinagar, the biggest and the most reputed market of its production is located at Gadde Bazar, Zaina Kadal, in downtown Srinagar. In addition to it, the spring town of Mattan in Anantnag, the village Nehama in Pulwama district and the hamlet of Wanmpora in central district of Budgam are known for their high grade and outstanding quality of Samavars. The handmade peg bottomed bronze tea cups, locally called as ‘Kenz Khose’ made at these places are prized for their high quality.

The Samavar is divisible in distinct parts. The middle segment is known as ‘Yaed’ or ‘Paytae’ in Kashmiri. It is the principal part of the Samavar. The lower most base is called as ‘Taelvather’ or simply as ‘chouk’. The portion above it is finely latticed which facilitates the passage of air needed for the charcoal to burn and glow. It is known as ‘Poung’. The topmost small circular lid is called as ‘Lokut Thanda’. It has a pointed knob at the centre known as the ‘Kalla’. This lid acts as the cover over the tubular chimney to extinguish the hot charcoals by cutting the air supply when needed. Beneath it is a bigger spherical lid known as ‘Boud Thanda’. Both of them are joined by a movable hinge which carries the name ‘Machil’. A tubular iron chimney runs vertically midway upto the base of the Samavar, which holds the hot embers. An extended curved part which has a beak shaped outlet at its upper end is joined at the outer surface of the Samavar. The arched part is known as ‘Nai’ while the beak shaped outlet through which tea is poured is known as ‘Hi’. It has a small hinged flap called as ‘Zev’ which regulates the flow of tea. The upper circular rim of the Samavar is known as ‘Kaaen’. An S shaped stylish handle is attached to the side opposite to Nai’ for holding the Samavar. It is known as ‘Thup’. Green tea, sugar, cardamom (elaichi), black cinnamon (dalchini), cloves (loung), black pepper (kali mirch) and crushed almonds are added to the water poured in the Samavar. The evenly distributed heat generated in the central chimney gives a conspicuous taste and a distinct flavour to Kahwa prepared in the Samavar. Both the kenz khous and flat bottomed khous are essential accessories of the Samavar.

Samavar – Preserving our culture

The heritage tea brewer- Samavar has also made its entry into the folkloric narrative of Kashmir. It figures both in the riddles and the famed folk form of singing – Wanwun. The riddles associated with Samavar run as “Aend Aend Aab, Munjbagh Naer” which means “having water outside with the blaze in the middle” and “Su kus janawar chu yas kalus paeth naer vuhaan tae tountae kin travaan ruth” which means “the animal that has an inflamed glow at the crest with its sprout pouring out reddish fluid”.

The Samavar is also praised in the traditional Wanwun singing at Kashmiri wedding functions. Some of the songs that find a mention of it are:
“Samavarus teungul treav, vah vah maam touthai aev” which means “put embers in the Samavar and keep it ready to welcome the esteemed maternal uncle”

“Aalae tae badam traav Samavarus vuch Sumcharus guil phoulnai” which means “put cardamom and almonds in the Samavar; it will heighten the bond of nearness”

“Roup sundh khous tae souna Samavarae, vuch chai kya mazadaar” which means “Have tea from the Silver crafted khous and golden Samavar and enjoy the unique flavour”

Kashmiris irrespective of their religious affiliation continue to have an unshakeable allegiance with the Samavar. The fast paced lifestyle and the advent of modernization has neither diminished its stature nor lessened its relevance. The Kashmiri Pandits have unquestionable adoration for this priceless possession that reminds them of their socio cultural roots in the valley. They have unwaveringly stayed loyal to it even in their time of exile. It continues to be the hallmark utensil at their socio-cultural functions as its presence till today amplifies the festive cheer. Needless to say, that it is imperative upon us to preserve this rich legacy of the Samavar so that it is not relegated to obscurity and lost in the pages of history.

By Upender Ambardar

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