The tools made and used by the stone masons of Kashmir

Man is tough. Some men are strong, resilient, and stubborn, with the will to break the hardest of stones and carve them into different shapes. It is fascinating how, with a few simple tools, man can break down a mountain into tiny irrelevant pieces — mountains turned into mortars and pestles.

These pictures try to speak to that confounding mystery, the will of man, which may sometimes be stronger than a mountain, and sometimes more capricious than dust.

Mortars are a necessity in Kashmiri homes for making delicious chutneys in.
Mortars are a necessity in Kashmiri homes for making delicious chutneys (special hot sauces) in. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Sang Taraash: Stone Carvers in Kashmir

I am from Kashmir, the Indian administered part of the picturesque Himalayas, where there is a lot more to see than mountains, valleys, meadows, rivers, lakes and ancient gardens. Here, there are fascinating people and cultures to discover.

Kashmiris have a special affinity for stones. We build our homes on plinths made of stones, our gardens are decorated with fountains made out of stone, and we bury and remember our dead by carving their names on tombstones. 

Hand carved epitaphs on tombstones in Kashmir.
Hand carved epitaphs on tombstones in Kashmir. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Master Masons

Since stones surround us so intimately, I have tried to document through my pictures, the lives and routines of the people who work with stones all day. The images capture both the work and life of the stone carvers and also focus on the different types of carving work that these men do in their humble workshops.

Passing these workshops, listening to cling-clang of the mallets hitting the chisels, it’s hard to imagine the pain and the sweat that goes on behind that monotonous yet sweet sound.

The Kohi Maraan Fort overlooking Srinagar, made all out of stone.
The Kohi Maraan Fort overlooking Srinagar made all out of stone. It was built in the early- 19th century during the Afghan rule in Kashmir. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

On the roadside at a place called Sempora, Pampore along the highway that connects Srinagar, the summer capital of this region, to the rest of India, there are workshops where banker masons, stonemasons who specialize in working on stones, aesthetically create amazing artifacts by their hard work.

These people are sawyers and carvers too. They are master masons. These stone carvers are called Sang Taraash in the Kashmiri language, and they are a dying breed.

SANG TARAASH, the master stone mason.
Sang Taraash, the master stone mason. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Stone carving has been an important part of life in Kashmir, whether it be the veneering technique used in building Kashmiri homes, the curbstones used in pathways or the use of stones in gardens, fountains or other such special structures. Stone has always been here.

The Stone Carvers at Work

A man's eyes shining as he discusses stone carving.
Ghulam Ahmad Mir from Sempora Pampore
has been working stones since he was a teenager. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir, 55, from Sempora Pampore has been working stones since he was a teenager. “The young generation won’t work with stones anymore, this is a job that requires patience and diligence. Young people are short on both these days.” Ahmad Mir said.

The stone carvers of Kashmir shape a rock into a beautiful yet useful, simple yet elegant, subtle yet strong stone. A stone that is so much a part of our lives, yet we don’t even think twice about the hard work these men put into every hit on the chisel.

A man smoking hookah and carving stones.
Ghulam Ahmad Mir smoking hookah and carving stones. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Ghulam Ahmad Mir worked as an apprentice with a stone carver for four years before beginning to work on his own. He has been smoking hookah and carving stones ever since. “My father, God rest his soul, brought me here. Those days fathers made men out of their sons. Now I see mobile phones and motorbikes and boys. No men.” Ahmad Mir said.

Endless toil on stone has wrinkled the man's hands, but his grip remains solid.
Endless toil on stone has wrinkled the man’s hands, but his grip remains solid. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
he crusher and the crushed.
The crusher and the crushed. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Stone carving is the oldest known work of representational art. Carvings done into rock and petroglyphs have survived for thousands of years. By the controlled removal of stone from pieces of rough natural stone, shapes are formed that can then be used for engineering purposes.

Men at work carving giant stones with stone tools.
Men at work carving giant stones with stone tools. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
A stack of Kene Kaen ready to be worked on by the Sang Taraash.
A stack of Kene Kaen ready to be worked on by the Sang Taraash. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Here in Sempora, different types of stones are carved. Kene Kaen, veneering stones, are produced in bulk. These are used in veneers and plinths. In these workshops, Braande Kaen, curbstones are also produced in large numbers.

Slabs of Braande Kaen laid out.
Slabs of Braande Kaen laid out. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
Ali Mohammad at work carving on a pile of stones.
Ali Mohammad at work carving on a pile of stones. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Ali Mohammad, a 35-year old stone carver from Zewan, has been giving shapes to rocks since he was a kid. “My father was also a Sang Taraash. I used to go with him to his workshop, and with his mallet & chisel, I would bang at stones. I love this work.” Mohammad said.

Working with Kanaas. The work is tough and requires sturdiness and power, as well as a sharp eye and patience.

A stone partly carved but left unfinished.
A stone partly carved but left unfinished. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Ali Mohammad has taken a loan from a bank to get his son admitted to an engineering college. “He didn’t want to do this. So I thought he should become an engineer. I would carve stones and he would use them in the structures he builds.” Mohammad said, with a spark in his eyes.

A view of the tools made and used by the stone carvers.
A view of the tools made and used by the stone carvers. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

The Carver and His Tools

Carving tools include a mallet, chisels and a metal straight edge (for making flat surfaces). Chisels are of various types depending upon their use. They all need to be sharp, though.

Worn out chisels stuck into the soil.
Worn out chisels stuck into the soil. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
The blow of a stone mason's strike.
The blow of a stone mason’s strike. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
Mohammad Shabaan in the stone carving process of making millstones.
Mohammad Shabaan in the stone carving process of making millstones. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

Mohammad Shabaan specializes in making millstones. He has no complaints against anyone. “Allah tala Karin saarni raham (may Allah bless all).” Shabaan said.

A stone mason's life is a constant grind, working on perfectly carved rings.
A stone mason’s life is a constant grind, working on perfectly carved rings. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
Winding back to strike the stone.
Winding back to strike the stone. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

The master of rocks.
The master of rocks. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

The Sang Taraash Association, a union of sorts of the stone carvers, has demanded a dispensary be set up near the workshop. The work is dangerous and injuries, though not common, are possible. The government seems uninterested.

The Finished Stone Products

A heart of stone.
A heart of stone. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
Life carved into every shape.
Life carved into all pieces. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
Stacks of stone mortars of all shapes and sizes.
Stacks of stone mortars of all shapes and sizes. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.
The complete set of mortar and pestle are meticulously carved by the Sang Taraash.
The complete set of mortar and pestle are meticulously carved by the Sang Taraash. Photo by Mudabbir Ahmad Tak.

The carvers make all the stones on demand but what they are paid is little compared to the work they do. Although the sales are going down, the stone is still a very important part of our lives, and the Sang Taraash is the master of the stone.

Author/Photographer Bio: Mudabbir Ahmad Tak is a PhD scholar at the Media Education Research Center, the University of Kashmir in Srinagar, India. He is also an independent journalist and photographer based in Srinagar, with news reports and photographs published in different magazines and newspapers. His portfolio has been published in AfterImage, New York. He has also taught at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the state women’s college in Srinagar. He likes reading, photography and films, and traveling is his passion. Reach him at [email protected].

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