Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

In Wisps of Smoke

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About a millennium ago, somewhere in the balmy climes of Gujarat a man given to the pleasures of intoxication came upon a brilliant idea. From snorting burning opium or marijuana directly and losing much of it from the burner, he devised a means of drawing the vapour by pipe to filter it through water. That was the essence, but surely it would have taken a period of experimentation before the first hookah was crafted from the empty shell of the coconut.

Terra cotta chillims covered with shiny tin to be fitted on the high hookah
Filled with water, the shell was fitted with two pipes. One topped with a pottery cone to hold the narcotic on embers; the other was the inhaler. The bottom end of the former dipped into the water in the shell in order to filter out harmful elements of the intoxicant – or so it was thought.


The narri for the high end hookah is intricately braided with as many as fifteen thin strips of goat leather. The preferred colour in Lalian being red as seen here
Compared to inhalation of the intoxicating vapour directly from a heated pot, this apparatus made for minimal wastage of the precious exudation and quickly caught on. From here the hookah spread through Persia into the Levant where it came to be known as narghile, a corruption of narikela, Hindi for coconut.

The second class of narri (pipe) covered with imitation leather receives the decorative addition of coloured nylon string
When tobacco hit India about the middle of the 16th century, the well-established hookah was at hand to become the medium to smoke what was then billed as an aphrodisiac and health giving leaf. By this time the coconut shell contraption had already graduated to finer material and we see a few examples of rather well-made hookahs in Mughal art.

A metal worker who is an expert in working with a composite of copper and brass is seen here at work.
The word hookah comes from the Punjabi word for container referring to the water pot at the bottom upon which the contraption stands. The poor man’s device is a kiln-fired hookah and a pottery chillim (bowl) to burn the tobacco (or intoxicant) connected with cane pipe and an inhaler. Gentry, on the other hand, indulges itself with finely worked devices with metal hookah and elaborately embroidered pipes made either of shaped cane or, as nowadays, rubber.

Narri being wrapped in old cotton. Here the artisan is creating the conical mukkoo upon which the chillim rests.
In Pakistan the name of Lalian village (Chiniot district) has long been noted for manufacture of ornate hookahs. The now fading industry is a virtual assembly line with eight different artisans involved in the manufacture of single complete piece. This is not counting the potter providing the terra cotta chillim and hookah.

In the workshop of the metal hookah maker
From six millimetre thick sheets of buffalo leather, a worker crafts the bowl (kupi) to hold the water when fitted into the metal hookah. The hookah itself is constructed from sheets of copper and brass. Once the metalworker has welded metal and alloy together with copper floral pieces in three intervening panels, the shell passes into the hands of the engraver.


With a fine lancet and a wooden striker, the engraver connects the copper flowers with curvilinear petioles and leaves. Some of these of fanciful form and shape exist only in the engraver’s mind and not in the natural world. The remaining empty spaces are filled in with tiny cuneiform indentations. The shell is then fitted with the leather kupi and a revolving base.

Meanwhile, the pipe (narri) maker, having given the cane the typical curving shape over fire, wraps it with old cotton cloth giving its ends the conical shape (mukkoo) which fits into the hookah at one end and the other over which the chillim sits. With its mukkoos bound with colourful plastic string, the least expensive pipe is ready for sale.

For the more discerning hookah smoker, there is a next class of narri covered in imitation leather nicked with ovate forms to give a pleasing appearance. A yet higher level of refinement moves a step above to real leather: as many as fifteen thin strips of goat leather are intricately braided together covering the entire length of the cloth-covered pipe.

The fancy hookah with the worked metal body can either be fitted with the braided leather narri or with a yet more elaborate piece. Richly worked with coloured plastic string in either white-green or white-red combinations, the finished pipe gleams with diamond shapes.

The metal hookah with the finest embroidered narri preferred by the old school of village gentlemen who always have it ready in their baithak (men’s sitting room) for visitors now costs Rs 10,500. It takes twelve days to make and brings a net profit of a mere thousand rupees. But this class of hookah smoker is fading away and with him the sizeable profit to be gleaned. Three decades ago the hookah makers of Lalian worked overtime to keep a ready stock of this fine piece in retailers’ stores. Today, the sale is so slow that they cannot afford to spend time on it and then wait days, sometimes even weeks, for it to sell. Instead, they concentrate on the less expensive items that move faster. They now construct the finer variety only against orders paid for in advance.

The leather worker uses buffalo leather to craft the kupi or container for water fitted inside the metal hookah. One ready piece can be seen at left while another lies by the right leg of the craftsman
Mohammad Sanaullah who keeps shop in Lalian and supplies to neighbouring villages sees the hookah business lasting no more than another decade, perhaps less. The cigarette industry will be its undoing, he observes grimly. As the old school of the pastoral gentleman who prided himself for the refinement of the hookah served in his sitting room passes away, the younger generation of tobacco smoker prefers cigarettes.

Brightly coloured nylon strings do not only make the narri eye catching, they also bind the cotton covering of the mukkoo to make it last longer
The twenty odd hookah making establishments in Lalian are there, says Sanaullah, because unemployed men have to do something to make a living – even if it is a sparse living making hookahs. As little as two decades ago there were twice as many and business was three or four times as fast. Today, the bulk of his business comes from the peasant untouched by the campaign on the malignance of tobacco. And he uses the least expensive item with the pottery hookah.

Detail of engraving on the metal hookah
Sanaullah believes this class will never fade away. His business will roll along, albeit with decreasing returns. Only the fancy hookah with the ornate pipe that had once made Lalian famous may not be any more.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days