A kulhar (Hindustani: कुल्हड़ or کلہڑ) or kulhad, sometimes called a shikora, is a traditional handle-less terracotta cup from North India and Pakistan that is typically unpainted and unglazed, and meant to be disposable. Since kulhars are made by firing in a kiln and are almost never reused, they are inherently sterile and hygienic. Bazaars and food stalls in the Indian subcontinent traditionally served hot beverages, such as tea, in kuhlars, which suffused the beverage with an "earthy aroma" that was often considered appealing. Yogurt, hot milk with sugar as well as some regional desserts, such as kulfi (traditional ice-cream), are also served in kulhars. Kulhars have gradually given way to thermocole (polystyrene) and coated-paper cups in India, because the latter are lighter to carry in bulk and cheaper.
Effects on taste
Since kulhars are unglazed, a hot beverage (such as tea) partially soaks into the interior wall of the kulhar in which it being served. This has an enhancing effect on the beverage's taste and fragrance, which is sometimes described as "earthy" (सौंधी ख़ुशबू, سوندهی خشبو, sondhi khushboo). Although kulhars have been losing ground to synthetic cups due to cost and efficiency reasons, higher-end restaurants often serve kulhar-waali chai (tea in kulhars) to their patrons.
Revival efforts by Indian Railways and criticism
In 2004, the Indian Railways (then under the leadership of minister Laloo Prasad Yadav) attempted to revive the use of kulhars for tea and other beverages sold on railway stations and aboard trains. It was argued that this was more hygienic than plastic, and also more environmentally friendly because kulhars are made exclusively of clay. It was also believed that, since kulhars are manufactured by small rural kilns, this would assist in boosting rural employment.
Critics countered that the railways would need to dispense about 1.8 billion kulhars a year, which would mean heavy fuel consumption in the kilns with associated pollution. The discovery of thousands of years old shards from Indus Valley ruins was also used as evidence to challenge the assertion that kulhars biodegrade rapidly and are environmentally superior. If the clay in a kulhar is fired at higher-temperatures, the water inherent in the clay evaporates and the salts fuse to form glassy substances which can take up to a decade to degrade. Fears were also expressed that a kulhar revival might result in topsoil depletion at the rate of 100 acres (0.40 km2) per state per day and that the economic gains to rural artisans would be minimal.
Although alternatives to topsoil are available and kulhars can be made at lower temperatures to save fuel and make them more rapidly degradable, by 2008, the effort to revive kulhar use on the railways was being considered a failure with the continuing widespread use of plastic and coated-paper cups. The primary reasons were the weight of kulhars and the higher per-unit cost. One estimate claimed procurement costs to be 40 paisas per kulhar and 7-10 paisas for coated-paper cups. There were also some vendor complaints that, because kulhars absorb liquids to some extent, buyers have to be given more tea per serving in a kulhar than in a disposable plastic cup.
- Jasleen Dhamija, Indian folk arts and crafts, National Book Trust, India, 1992, "... The simple clay kulhar, which is made in thousands as an inexpensive container for curd, sweets, tea or water, and after being used only once is thrown away, has the same form as those excavated at the Indus Valley or ..."
- Nigel B. Hankin, Hanklyn-janklin: a stranger's rumble-tumble guide to some words, customs, and quiddities, Indian and Indo-British, Banyan Books, 1997, "... For the fussy, on request, the beverage will usually be served in a hand- less, unglazed, disposable earthenware pot, the kulhar, straight from the kiln ..."
- "Storm In A Kulhar", Outlook India, August 2, 2004, "... For those romantic souls who've regretted the loss of that earthy aroma and its replacement by the smell of plastic and detergent, railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav is bringing back the bygone era ... kilns that use not only cowdung but also coal and wood. Making kulhars in very large numbers then might lead to soil erosion as well as some environmental pollution ... What comes out first of archaeological excavations? Pots and stuff made of mud. Look at the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley civilisation ..."
- Cakes and Desserts, Bittersweet NYC, retrieved September 4, 2010, "... Kulfi (Indian Ice Cream) ... Kulfi in India is traditionally served in Kulhars, unbaked terracotta ..."
- Venkatesh Dutta (September 4, 2010), "कुल्हड़ में चाय और लस्सी नहीं चली लालू की रेल में (Kulhars for tea and lassi are a flop on Laloo's Railway)", Live Hindustan, "... वेंडरों को यह महंगा सौदा पड़ा, क्योंकि कुल्हड़ पॉलिथीन के कप से महंगा पड़ रहा था। कुल्हड़ का वजन भी ज्यादा होता है। नतीजा यह हुआ कि फिर पॉलिथीन की कप में चाय बिकने लगी (Vendors found this an expensive deal because kulhars are more expensive than plastic cups. Kulhars also weigh more. The result was that tea began selling again in plastic cups) ..."
- M. Rajendran (June 14, 2004), "Pots of money for tea in pot - Laloo’s experiment with earthen cups comes at high price", The Telegraph (Calcutta), "... It has the disconcerting tendency to soak the contents ... Normally, we supply 150 ml of tea. When poured into the kulhar, it shrinks to only about 100 ml because of the high absorption rate ..."
- Badiuzzaman, "अन्तिम इच्छा (Final wish)", Hindi Samay, "... मिट्टी के कुल्हड़ वाली चाय पीते हुए कमाल भाई ने कहा था : जानते हो कराची में ऐसी चाय पीने को जी तरस जाता है। ऐसी सौंधी चाय कराची में कहाँ नसीब (Sipping his kulhar-wali chai, Kamal Bhai had said, "Do you know how I pine to drink this tea in Karachi? Where would I find this sondhi tea in Karachi?) ..."
- The Guide Team (July 16, 2010), "Must catch events this weekend in Delhi", Mid Day, "... Taste of Dilli: Dilwalon ki Delhi is famous ... there is kulhar chai with every buffet after the meal. Or you can opt for your favourite brand of whiskey, served straight up with ice. ..."
- Palash Kumar (June 9, 2004), "Potters' luck!", Rediff, "... It's goodbye to plastic cups on Indian railways. Travellers now will be served water, tea and other beverages on trains and platforms in traditional earthenware mugs made by potters ... Environmentalists were thrilled by the move. "It will be definitely be a good decision," said Nidhi Jamwal of the Delhi- based Centre for Science and Environment ..."
- Venkatesh Dutta (July 6, 2004), "A clay pot dictatorship", Indian Express, "... The potter who makes the kulhars gets just 25 paisa per piece. So if the potter works really hard and makes 100 kulhars a day, how much does he earn? Rs 25. Just imagine, how much agricultural land will be needed for several lakh kulhars a day? Perhaps more than 100 acres per day per state ..."
- "رےلوے اسٹےشنوں پر کلہڑ مےں چائے نہےں فروخت کی جا رہی ہے (Tea is not being sold in kulhars on railway stations)", Urdutimes, May 12, 2008, "... مرکزی رےلوے وزےر لالو پر ساد یادو کا فرمان اسٹےشنوں پر فےل ہوگیا ہے (The directive of the central railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav has failed in railway stations) ..."