The dying art of Kashmiri stone carving

Defying the odds, a dozen artisans are still at work on a street in Srinagar, writes Sumayyah Qureshi.
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 18:35 IST
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 18:35 IST

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In Ghulam Ahmed’s workshop at Pantha Chowk in Srinagar, a pile of flat carved stones, called ‘kaanas’, has been lying untouched for months.

He wipes the layer of dust to uncover the surface below, and demonstrates, using his chisel and hammer, how he shapes it. He has not seen a customer in three months.

Ahmed, now 65, started learning the craft when he was 15. “I have been in this (profession) for 50 years. It needs a lot of energy. Every day when you wake up, you need to feel more energetic than the previous day,” he says. He runs the workshop with his younger brother.

The workshop is just a tin shed by the road in Pantha Chowk. Some years ago, all the carving was done by hand, but now, machines, such as the mini hand grinder, are used. They help the carvers give finishing touches and make leaf and flower motifs. The hand tools used in carving include a flat chisel, a tooth chisel, a point chisel, and mallets and hammers.

The carvers were earlier in demand to make chiselled stone for plinths, veneers, and walls of local houses, but business has declined because of the preference for different kinds of ceramic tiles, granite, and marble stone. Some carvers make Arabic calligraphy on marble and granite stones, and that is getting them some buyers. “We have added calligraphy on marble and granite for which we have hired a specialised artist. We also made inauguration granite stones for Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav in Kulgam and Anantnag,” says a workshop owner.

He is thinking of getting more machines. Recently, his workshop made a vase out of an old stone mortar by carving simple motifs on it. “A hotelier had placed the order,” he says.

The new designs include heart-shaped pestle and mortar sets, square ashtrays, hexagonal flat stones for pounding mutton during weddings, and flower vases, mostly made to order for hotelier customers.

“People like a bit of design in the pestle and mortar and not the bland ones made some years ago,” says Farooq Ahmed Sofi, a carver who now only sells readymade pestle and mortar sets.  

Sofi, who has been in the business for about 35 years, says a carver can chisel two pairs of pestle and mortar a day. “The smaller ones go for Rs 600 and the slightly bigger ones for Rs 800 upwards,” he says.

Thousands still derive their livelihood from stone carving, he reckons. The stone carvers of Kashmir, also called ‘sang taraash’ (sang means stone and taraash means carvers in Kashmiri), are a dying breed. They are trying to preserve the craft amid the onslaught of modern ceramic and stone tiles. 

Raw material

The ‘devere kane’ or devere stone is found in the mountains of Lodov in Pulwama district, mostly buried under 10 ft of soil and debris. The stone is also extracted from the mountains in Anantnag, Bandipora, Baramulla and Kupwara districts of Kashmir.

Stone has been an important part of Kashmiri architecture since time immemorial. “The workshops making pestle and mortar are not huge in number now. There must be about 12 in Pantha Chowk,” Ahmed says. With the advent of electrical mixers and grinders, the workshops have stopped making grinding stones altogether.

The traditional craft goes back to a time when carvers made stone sculptures and idols. As the influence of Islam grew in Kashmir with the arrival of Sufi saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, the carvers took to making gravestones and epitaphs, a practice that continues to this day. They also started making curbstone, floor stone, and hamam stone, all used in the construction of homes.

Unlike in the rest of India, stone carvers of Kashmir do not make figurines, sculptures or idols of deities. They also do not make animal motifs, keeping in line with the Islamic tradition.

According to rough estimates, about 15,000 people are associated with stone carving in Srinagar. This number may be around 50,000 in Kashmir, says Mohammad Rafiq Bhat, who runs a workshop in Pantha Chowk.  

“The government is using cement everywhere instead of chiselled stone. The demand for curbstone, floor stone and footpath stone has come down. The contractors are using cement everywhere,” says Bhat. He says the devere stone is also used to make pavements in Sufi shrines. Recently, devere curbstones were used for the footpaths lining the famous boulevard along the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

The younger generation is not attracted to the traditional craft, and stays away from it, preferring other jobs.

Gulzar Ahmed, another ‘sang taraash’, has had a hard life carving stone. He earns a meagre Rs 900 a day. “We did not study so we took to stone carving but I want my children to study and do better in life,” he says.  

Most carvers continue in the trade despite the dip in business. They say they have nowhere to go.

The chiselled stone is timeless. Even after 100 years, it can be used. Unlike cement, it can be reused with some fresh chiselling. It is aesthetically appealing, strong and can weather the wear and tear. Hence, they were used to build walls, ghats along the rivers, and paths in Mughal gardens. The roads of Kashmir used curbstone on almost all footpaths.

Hamam creation

The stone carvers of Pantha Chowk are also famous for preparing flat
floor stones for ‘hamam’, a room in some Kashmiri homes that have a
hollow subfloor. It has a wood-fired furnace below to heat the stone
floor, keeping the space above warm during the winter.

Published 24 May 2024, 18:35 IST

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