Winter has almost gone. In this part of the world, winter is too short. We hardly have time to welcome her and enjoy her presence, she is ready to lift her gown and flit away leaving those who love her with a long wait for her appearance next season.
Among the many charms that this season brings is the good old fireplace. Central heating and other gadgets like electric heaters can never replace the coziness of a warm fireplace with logs of sunburnt wood or coal burning red hot and bright, engulfing the area around it with a warm glow.
In bygone times, most colonial homes in Indian hill-stations had a fireplace. It was generally in the sitting area, where the family gathered in the evenings. Often the logs were gathered earlier. There were pine twigs and pine cones which crackled as the flames began to curl and rise.
Winter was incomplete without these winter evenings, with the sound of a crackling fire and a sharp cold wind blowing outdoors, in some places even snow. It was more perfect with good friends or a good book for company. Scones and nuts were part of the party if the lady of the house obliged us with these goodies, so much a part and parcel of the winter scene.
A fireplace served as a design function with hearths being the focal point of most comfortable homes. The decor included a mantelpiece over it with pictures or decoration pieces on it. The fireplace mantel or mantelpiece also known as chimney piece, originated in medieval times as a hood projected over the fire grate to catch the smoke. Most of the fireplaces had a walled area of bright red bricks, which made them more attractive.
For many centuries, the chimney piece was the most ornamental and most artistic feature of a room but as fireplaces have become smaller and modern methods of heating have been introduced, its artistic as well as its practical value has lessened.
In larger homes where the fireplace is set in a bigger area and served as a place for food preparation, the floor of a fireplace, usually extended into a hearth, paved with brick, flagstone or cement. In many parts of India where winter is severe, the elagant fireplace is not a part of the humble homestead, but there is a fireplace nevertheless, a fireplace with logs of wood or coal which is also a cooking area. For warming there are charcoal braziers called anghitis. In Arunachal they also have bukcharies. A bukchari also used in Kashmir is a traditional space heater, typically a wood burning stove.
Fireplaces were also chimneys. Picture story books often displayed a cottage with a chimney pipe sticking out of the roof and smoke curling up. The first chimneys were constructed in castles. The first ones we know of were from the twelfth century. Then we read about the chimney sweeps, the little black fellows, covered soot who cleaned the chimneys. The child would shimmer up the flue, using his back, elbows and knees. He would use a brush overhead to knock out soot loose which would fall down over him.
Chimney sweeps began work as early as six years of age. Fortunately in the early 1830s, the Chimney Sweep Act was passed, outlawing the apprenticing of any child to be engaged in chimney sweeping.
Interestingly although chimney sweeps were these unfortunate children, who did this awful job, in Great Britain it was considered lucky for a bride to see a chimney sweep on her wedding day.
Before the fifteenth century houses had an open hearth in the centre of the main living room, where logs were burnt. In the nineteenth century came the gas fires. They were partly made of asbestos and were heated by gas burners.
Today we have fireplaces designed by tech-savvy engineers. The latest is the Fire Brick, which is an energy conserving,patented firebox technology. Fire Brick refractories are designed to send heat into rooms faster while using less fuel.
Modern fireplaces are designed in materials like marble, timber, cast iron, hand-carved stone, porcelain and handcrafted terracotta. In the twenty first century consumers can choose from a wide array of fireplaces from pre-fabricated to electronic fireplaces controlled by a remote. There are companies who also have a large range of reclaimed and restored nineteenth century fireplaces. Antique fireplaces and fireplace accessories are available for the asking.
The earliest discovery of man was fire and the development of the fireplace. In ancient Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. From the life giving fires of our stone–age ancestors the fireplace is a stylish source of warmth and comfort in a twenty first century home They are an embodiment of style and sophistication creating beauty through flames.
Even with the invention of modern gadgets, winter can never be complete without a fireplace. I recall with nostalgia a fireplace with the old world charm, where coal and pine twigs were burnt in our homes in the hill-stations. With the annual exams over and a lot of free time in the winter vacation, there was time to indulge in books,conversations and stories. There were no mobile phones to chat over and no television serials to catch up with. It was just winter to enjoy, to feel and savour the gifts of nature that the changing seasons provide so generously.