Chilly Winters in Kashmir
Chillai Kalan is the 40 day harshest winter period in Kashmir which sends shivers down one’s spine. It is a Persian term. Chilla means 40, Kalan means bigger. Chillai-Kalan begins from December 21 and ends on January 31 next year. There are 3 Chillas namely Chillai Kalan, the Chillai Khurd, and the Challai Bache. The Chillai-Kalan is followed by a 20-day long Chillai-Khurd (small cold) that occurs between Jan 31 and Feb 19 and a 10-day long Chillai-Bachha (baby cold) which is from February 20 to March 02. Interestingly, according to Persian tradition, night of 21st December is celebrated as Shab-e-Yalda – “Night of Birth”, or Shab-e-Chelleh “Night of Forty”. Iranian Azerbaijanis call it Chilla Gejasi, which marks the beginning of the first 40 days of winter. Chillai Kalan affects the daily life of Kashmiris. Use of Pheran (Kashmiri traditional dress) and a traditional firing pot called Kangri increases. Due to Sub zero temperature, tap water in pipelines freezes during this period and World-famous Dal lake also freezes. The famous tourist resorts like Sonamarg , Gulmarg receive heavy snow.
It becomes obligatory to wear traditional pheran (Long woollen gown both for males and females) to protect from cold. Though modern day jackets are available but Pharan seems to be affordable and more reliable in harsh winters. And yes, they are a fashion statement across many Winter collection fashion ramps. That’s hack number one, Pheran Fashion.
Kanger is a traditional earthen fire pot – is used to keep Kashmiri swarm and ward off freezing intense cold. Despite having different avenues of heating, Kanger in which coal is used is most reliable. It keeps a person warm for a day. The coal in kanger is replaced every morning. Kanger and Pheran go hand in hand for survival during chillai kalan, one is useless without the other.
Dried vegetables are frequently consumed during this period as most of the time fresh supplies go scarce due to blocking of roads after heavy snowfall. The agricultural land also remains under snow. Red tinged paste of mixed spices, also known as waer is widely used during winters. Ladies would usually make paste of mixture of spices and keep it preserved. This mixture is primarily used in preparing the dried vegetables and make them mouth watering.
Pickles, mostly made of home-grown vegetables with Nadru (lotus stem), is an essential part of meals during Chillai Kalan. The pickles are prepared after a laborious and painstaking preparation for a few days and then kept dumped underground for over a month to enhance its taste. The pickles are stored in clay cookware. During harsh winter months it is extensively used. Celebrating Chillai Kalan with sumptuous Harissa is a quintessential part of Kashmiri tradition. Harrisaa is prepared from minced meat mixed with rice flour. The mutton is kept in an earthen oven overnight so that the flavours drown in.
People spend most of the time in Hamam or central heating room in which floor is made of limestone on hollow base. The stones are supported with concrete pillars. The hollow space underneath is used to light the wood to make stone slab warm.
In the past, Hamam used to be only in Masjids and locals would spend most of the time there. Now-a-days many homes do have Hamam as an alternative to the modern central heating system. Due to harsh winters and comparatively heavy snowfall, the snow level in the Srinagar and in rural areas rises from 2-5 feet. The lakes would freeze for days even for months and the surface of lake gives a prepared pitch for playing cricket. Children, during clear weather, would make it a point to play cricket on frozen surfaces over the lakes. It is a favourite time pass during Chillai Kalan.
Removing Snow from Rooftops
Again, in the past, it was one of the main tasks of elders to clear tin roofs of heavy loads of snow. Rich people would hire experts for the job. However, in villages, which experience more snowfall than Srinagar, climbing to the rooftop to clear the snow is still prevalent.
Snowman to Snowballs
Making snownman is a winter holiday dreams of many but snowball fight , may be a patent of Kashmir. Fighting with snowballs is the favourite sport among youths during Chillai Kalan. Two rival parties would make snow bunkers and frontline warriors would make snowballs to be hurled with full force at the opposing camp till one party would completely destroy the bunker of the rival team. Sounds kiddish? Book your winter air tickets to Srinagar and see for yourself !
One of the oldest traditions which is dying down due to modern means of entertainment and smartphones is storytelling. Earlier the storyteller would come to the village with regular periodicity during the winter months and the event was no less than a small village celebration.
‘Children and elders would all gather around the storyteller whose session would begin after dinner. He would sit in the centre of a large room surrounded by his audience. The room would be lit in village homes by an oil-lamp and in well-to-do urban homes by a kerosene lantern since electricity was not even heard of in our childhood,said Habibullah Dar, one of the resident of Shopian district.
Chillai kalan is the season of togetherness in Kashmir. The harshness of the weather is fought with the warmth of kindness and kashmiriyat. The true meaning of kashmiriyat is distinctly visible during this pd as the thousands of stranded tourists become the mehman (guest) of Kashmir. Chillai Kalan is not treated as the coldest time of the year rather it is celebrated as a festival.