The wind is howling around my house and the wind chill factor is rapidly pulling the outside temperature to freezing. I am sitting in front of a crackling log fire in my living room paying silent thanks to my human ancestor, who lit the first flame in his gloomy cave.

Lighting a bonfire and spending time sitting around it has been a traditional winter pastime all around the world, since time immemorial. My family has always been a sucker for this activity and rightly so because anyone who has yet to sit beside a cheerfully blazing heap of logs under an open sky has missed out on an incomparable experience.

I can still savour the growing excitement as our school summer vacations in Lahore drew near and so did the day when the family would begin the annual summer move to Murree. Like all children, who somehow show an inclination towards playing with fire, a part of our excitement was due to the fact that we would be able to set up and enjoy frequent bonfires at our house in Sunny Bank.

A week or so after settling down amidst the cool pines would come the day when we sensed unusual activity in the house with Jumma Khan our caretaker-cum-cook bustling about the place shouting orders to his underlings. Soon a stack of firewood became visible in the centre of the ash pit in our rear compound. As evening approached, a ring of chairs appeared around the pit along with a table near the kitchen door. Evening prayers over, the family gathered around the logs, which were lit amidst squeals of delight from us. Soon Jumma justified his calling by serving dinner amidst the luscious warmth of the dancing flames.

I first came across a ‘kangri’ when I saw my grandmother tucking something under her woolen ‘chadar’. Curiosity led me to a terracotta bowl-like container enclosed in an interwoven cane cover that ended in a carrying handle on top. Live coals were put inside the bowl and the whole contraption was tucked inside a ‘dulai’, ‘chadar’ or blanket for heating purposes.  I found that our storage room contained a number of these heaters, which had been purchased when my parents and grandparents spent their summers in Kashmir before independence.

It was often that my grandmother put a small piece of incense on the red hot coals to fill the room with a heady sweet fragrance. There were also times when a handful of ‘harmal’ seeds were tossed into the ‘kangri’ to produce a snappy cracker-like sound followed by refreshingly aromatic smoke.

On a visit to Chitral somewhere in the late seventies, I came across a quaint traditional method of spending winter family evenings. A local stove with red hot coals was set up in the middle of the sitting room and a low table was placed over the stove. The final touch was given to the whole system by covering the table with a quilt or a blanket. Family members then sat around the stove with their lower bodies tucked into the quilt enjoying the warm interior and bonding. Meals and tea were consumed in this manner or the ritual called ‘sandli’ (a word from the Shina language) was simply used to spend cold winter evenings as a family unit.

I am glad that the bonfire tradition is alive and well in my family and that the ‘sandli’ tradition is still being practiced in Hunza and a few other places in our northern regions. While the ‘kangris’ have become extinct in my household, I have just learned of a shop somewhere in Muzaffarabad, which sells this traditional mode of personal heating. I have therefore resolved to take a day off from work and head out across the Jehlum River in pursuit of the elusive ‘kangri’. If I am successful I shall toss my hot water bottles out of the window, but I shall certainly write about my quest and its outcome in one of my forthcoming columns.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.