Winter in Kashmir

The Valley of Kashmir experiences four major seasons and the months from March to October cover spring, summer and autumn. From a vibrant paradise with hypnotic sights, green pastures and flowers in full bloom in spring and summers, it transforms to mesmerising hues of maple in the fall. With the fading autumn and falling of brown chinar leaves, the temperature slowly but steadily dips across the Valley, and this happens to be the time when Kashmiris start to prepare for the coming beautiful and dreamy yet severe and challenging winters.

Towards the end of October, the climate in the valley begins to change. Nights are cooler as compared to days and slowly even days get colder. Winters typically start from November and by that time people have to be prepared to live in chilly conditions.

The harsh winter period in Kashmir begins with the advent of the Chillai-Kalan, a period of forty days from 21st December to 31st January. For the unversed, Chillai Kalan is a Persian term that means “major cold”. This is followed by the twenty days of the Chillai-Khurd (small/minor cold) before ending with the ten-day long Chillai-Bachha (baby cold). The first forty days and nights are very harsh with bone-chilling cold blasts and the snowfall in this period is significant as it freezes and lasts for a longer time. With temperatures dipping to as low as -8 degrees in Srinagar city during winters and much lower in higher reaches, people have to be up to the mark with their preparations to survive the cold weather.

One of the basic preparations happens to be with regards to having suitable clothes for winters. Apart from sweaters, thermals and other warm clothes, an integral part of Kashmiri winter clothing is the Pheran. Pheran (Persian: cloak) is a long woolen gown-type traditional long dress that covers the entire body up to the knees and loose enough to fit a small child inside it while being worn. Pherans worn by men are of simple design, made of tweed wool and usually black, brown, or grey in color. Women wear colorful pherans with aari and tilla embroideries available in different materials like cashmilon, raffal, velvet and tweed.

Another very important requirement in winters is the heating arrangement. Modern equipment like electric heaters etc. are kept available but due to frequent load shedding during winters, people eventually fall back to using the traditional fire-pot called Kangri. Kangri is a fire-pot with willow work done around it for better handling. Pieces of charcoal (aka czchini) are put and burnt into these kangris to keep oneself warm. Households also have to ensure the availability of charcoal for winters. Kangris are a must have in every household of Kashmir. During winters, it’s prepared every morning and used throughout the day. Because of frequent power cuts, the phiran and kangri combination is a very efficient and cost-effective alternative to electric sources of heat in order to keep one's self warm during the bone-chilling winters.

...combination of phiran and kangri is a very efficient and cost-effective alternative to electric sources of heat in order to keep one's self warm during the bone-chilling winters

The Hamam is another one of several traditional means that finds a place for comfort and warmth in every Kashmiri house-hold. Kashmiri hamam is an improvisation of the Turkish baths. Hamam (or The Kashmiri Bath) is a special room built in almost every Kashmiri house in which thick, hand-hewn rectangular slabs of limestone are laid over a hollowed-out floor. Columns of brick support the slabs at the joints, which are sealed with lime mortar. The hollow space beneath the floor has a small opening from the outside of the house. Firewood is placed and burnt in this hollow space through a small iron door. The smoke escapes through a chimney that goes right up to the roof, through all levels of the house. Once lit, the floor covered with limestone slabs absorbs and retains heat for a long period of time, making the room warm, cosy and main gathering place for the families during the winter months.

Even more than homes, warm hamam floors are central to every mosque in the valley. In fact, hamam is the first space one steps into when entering a mosque in Kashmir. It is like an atrium that traditionally leads to the main prayer hall to one side, the entry to the mosque on the other, and rows of small bathrooms on the remaining two sides. To ensure availability of hot water during winters, a huge copper tank is installed directly above the spot where the firewood is burnt. This way hamam also helps to maintain regular and plentiful supply of hot water, and serves as a cost-effective and efficient alternative to electic power based sources of heat to combat the harsh winters.

In olden days, due to heavy snowfall, the connectivity of the valley with the outside world often used to get snapped completely, and so the locals would painstakingly store washed and dried vegetables (hohk-syun) to hold them in good stead during the winters. It’s a winter tradition, and so keeping the nostalgia alive, even though fresh vegetables are now available round the year in the local markets due to better road connectivity and superior vegetable growing techniques, the locals still either throng the markets to buy these dried delicacies or carefully dry and prepare the produce of their home-gardens (in Kashmir every house has one). The drying and preservation technique depends on the vegetable. Even fish are dried and that too has its own method. Some of the common sun-dried delicacies that rule every Kashmiri kitchen during winters are Wangan-Hachi (dried brinjals/aubergines), Al-Hachi (dried long and slightly thick strands of bottle gourd), Ruwangan-Hachi (dried tomatoes), Hokhegad (dried fish), Farrigad (smoked fish), Gogji Aar (dried turnips), etc.

Another Kashmiri winter ritual is the sizzling hot Harisa. It’s a winter speciality and one of the most loved morning meals of Kashmir. Harisa is a mixture of lean mutton mixed with rice and flavoured with spices like fennel, cardamom, clove, and salt. It is cooked in huge ovens over simmering firewood heat overnight for almost eight hours. The old Srinagar city, popularly known as Downtown (or Shahr-e-Khas) is the hub of Harisa-making shops. People turn up in large numbers during the wee hours to feast on this super calorie-rich mutton delicacy which also helps to keep them warm during the cold days. A plate of Harisa is garnished with small pieces of kebab, methi maaz, and topped over with boiling mustard oil. It is served with hot tandoori bread/roti (aka kander-czoth).

Harisa is one of the most prominent delicacies of the vale, relished by the local folk during the bitterly cold months of winter. Visiting a Harisa shop in winter and eating it in the way its intended to, is an experience in itself. Traditionally, Harisa shops were mostly nestled in the Downtown (or Shahr-e-Khas). But with the growth in its demand, these shops came up in the uptown and the suburbs as well. Right from the selection of the best quality of mutton, to the meticulous addition of spices, continuous stirring and patience - the making of the perfect Harisa is a feat to achieve.

During winters, the entire valley is covered with a blanket of snow. Stunning escapades loom largely bejewelled with imposing mountain peaks in the backdrop, and partially frozen pine trees cut the picture of a mesmerizing sight around. Winter is a time of comfort, warmth, family, introspection, looking back at cherished memories and looking ahead to hopeful times. As snowflakes gently blanket the land, they bring with them a promise of renewal and hope, making winter in Kashmir a truly magical experience. It brings with it the sweetness of melancholy and leaves people with a heavy heart as the snow melts away into springtime.