Once an important factor in running the city, the Barafkhana stands forgotten.

The Barafkhana between Pul Bangash and the old Subzi Mandi, has long ceased to function. But you may still find some dealers selling ice round about the place, now littered with junk but no manufacturers. The last nail in the coffin of this landmark ice-factory was driven when the licence to local butchers for the export of mutton to West Asia was withdrawn by the Government. There was a slaughter house near-by once for which lots of ice was needed and when it was moved to Qasabpura, the same practice of ice supply continued. Then the slaughter house shifted to Ghazipur, across the Yamuna and ice-making in the city ended altogether. The small supply in demand is brought from there and, in any case, many don’t need it because of widespread use of refrigerators.

No one really knows when the Barafkhana came up. The guess is after the Revolt of 1857, towards the end of the 19th Century or at the beginning of the 20th. The ice was needed by the British to cool their water and dinner drinks. The ice-pits of the Mughal period had stopped making ice during the Revolt and, since the ice-makers did not resume manufacture, the Sahibs were badly hit, along with the local population. As a matter of fact, the evening meal in the hot months could not be relished without iced water. Ice-sellers like Nadir and his brothers, big burly men who had been wrestlers, chiselled ice from huge blocks till late at night and kept many awake, including children who got over their fear of the dark and the discomfort of the sweaty night by just listening to the reassuring “tick-ting, tick-ting of the chisel and the cool thoughts it brought. How important ice was for a city like Delhi can be gauged from this quotation from Percival Spear’s “Twilight of the Mughals”.

“The last solace of the English in the hot weather was ice. Down country none was available until 1833, when it was imported by ships from America as ballast. The captain of the first ship received a letter of gratitude from the Governor-General. In Delhi the old Mughul custom of bringing ice from Srinagar in Garwhal by relays of runners (or in bullock carts) was too expensive for revival. It continued in Lahore for the supply of Ranjit Singh’s Court. But the method of making ice in the cold weather by running water into shallow pans in the season of the cold winds and storing the ice in pits against the hot weather, was continued. Companies were formed whose members received ice regularly during the hot weather in proportion to the number of shares they held. The cutting off of the supply from the ice-pits was one of the hardships suffered by the garrison (British) during the siege of 1857.

The ice-bed was divided into six-foot squares each about 18 inches deep. In these were strewn straw of various kinds. Water-pots were provided for each square, and should the weather promise a cold clear night, water was poured into cloth-bottomed pans which were then fitted into the earthen squares or hollows. On a good night ice would form to the depth of one and a half inches on the pans. This was gathered by shivering coolies in the chill morning and stored in ice-pits. The pits were covered with a low mud house thickly thatched, drained by a well, and further protected from the air by layers of straw. The highest temperature at which ice could be made was about forty-three degrees (F); the pits were opened at the beginning of the hot weather and the supply lasted as late as August. Each night in December and January the old “abdar” would keep his watch. If the winds were fresh and likely to increase, he wrapped his blanket around him and retired to his bed, but if the air was clear and frosty, a drum was beaten and from the nearest bazaar came lines of muffled figures to fill the pans and fix them in the beds. The ice-beds were between the Delhi and Turkman Gates of the city and the ice-makers lived in the village of Banskauli.”

The Barafkhana took over from where the old ice-makers had left – with machinery that could freeze water even in summer. Incidentally, the spot where the Barafkhana came up was once occupied by an Armenian church that was destroyed during Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739. Old habits die hard and even now boys from nearby areas come to the place with bags to buy ice from retailers for cooling the Capital’s turbid water, especially during the breaking of the Ramzan fast. In summer the sellers spend the afternoon lying on the rag-covered ice blocks kept under shady trees, perhaps dreaming of the times when their forefathers made ice in winter.

Believe it or not, one of them nearly married an amorous Englishwoman who was his favourite customer. Butcher Irshad Qureshi swears it’s true because his grandfather told him so. That old-timer in turn had heard the yarn from his grandfather. What’s more, he disclosed that little pieces of ice were discreetly put in the “kurtis” (short shirts) of Red Fort harem inmates by fun-loving princes out to tickle them into a romance. Can you imagine ice being made at Turkman Gate now and people falling in love in the process, not necessarily only on Valentine’s Day?