After passing through the congested town of Rainawari in downtown Srinagar, the narrow lanes – most of which can only accommodate one person at a time – take me to Banduk Khar mohalla. The houses on either side form a beautiful symmetry through their similar structures and the use of wood, mud and maharaja bricks.
The region is also famous for its blacksmiths. Of these, a sect called the German khars was formed to turn iron, steel, and other metals into polished medical instruments. They also learned how to repair and reproduce German-made hospital machines and equipment such as stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors, and eye and tooth tools used in surgical procedures.
Ghulam Mohiuddin Ahanger is the last of the German khars.
Ahanger, 77, and seven of his late cousins learned this particular skill in their youth. The family has been in business for a century and Ahanger is the fourth generation to practice this profession.
“Our ancestors acquired the title of German khars for fixing German machines that no one else could fix in the past. [Kashmir] Valley. They were known and respected,” says Ahanger.
The family could perfectly repair the equipment of international quality and even won the admiration of German craftsmen of the time. In the 1940s, a German hospital administrator in Srinagar wrote a letter to Ahanger’s grandfather, praising his work as “perfect”. The letter read, “You can’t tell which is real and which is the replica. The work is extremely meticulous and precise.
However, unlike his ancestors, Ahanger will not pass on the know-how to subsequent generations because the work has dried up. “It’s the modern era; companies that manufacture machinery provide in-house repair services. When this change took over, it initially limited our work but, over time, we found ourselves with no business at all. »
His studio is currently set up in a small one-storey room at the corner of the courtyard of the family home. When the pandemic hit India in March 2020 and a lockdown was imposed, Ahanger received a stream of repair work from hospitals, but he was unable to shoulder much of it. “I work very slowly now. My eyesight is weak and no one can help me.
“I mastered this trade during my youth; I sat in the workshop for hours and watched my elders. At present, young people do not have time and are in a hurry unnecessarily… how would they learn a job that requires passion and patience?
Kashmir historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef refers to these blacksmiths as “saviors of life”.
“These people made health care accessible at a time when the only road between Kashmir and [the rest of] India would shut down for months due to heavy snowfall and take weeks to reopen. They supported hospitals that had no money to import materials and saved lives with their timely help,” says Zareef. “I’m disheartened to know that the future of German khars is going to vanish because there’s no one left to advance the skill.”
Producing replicas of hospital tools is hard work; it requires a great deal of skill and patience, and yields little. Ahanger says he often made an effort to hire helpers, with the intention that they would learn and carry the legacy forward. However, the boys do not return after a day or two.
“I’m in this workshop all year round because it’s the only skill I have. I will continue to do this work until I am alive. My son doesn’t like me still working, but I get sick if I stay idle,” Ahanger says.
Updated: April 18, 2022, 09:54