We are in the belly of winter. The coldest part, 40 day “Chilai Kalan” started on the 21st December, 2023. The season however stays on for 70 days till the beginning of March, when spring makes its appearance. The word winter is recorded in Old English and is related to the words wet and water. We call it “Wandae” in Kashmiri. Although it is unpleasantly cold, the Kashmiri winter also has its own charm. The valley is dressed in white all over, no dirt is visible. It is all glistening white. The streets, shops, bazaars, fields, gardens, and roofs are all covered with snow. Birds, beasts, cattle and other creatures are unwilling to roam around. Even the stray dogs forget their barking anows their cawing. The hustle and bustle of business declines. The schools and colleges remain closed. The well-known Dal Lake sometimes freezes and solidifies. Traditionally in our old-style houses, still seen all over the rural Kashmir and parts of the old city, living place becomes the ground floor with kitchen and the adjoining Hamam. It typically is a room adjoining the kitchen with a hollow base for burning firewood which provides the soothing heat through a supply of hot water from an attached copper tank (called Khazana in Kashmiri). The modern urban architecture has changed the style with cooking gas or electricity, heating the water since it has replaced firewood largely. Unfortunately, shortage of electricity has disturbed this style to a large extent. A Korean innovation of weaving an electric coil on the floor which is covered by a carpet has been introduced a few years back to keep warm. It is also called Bijli Hamam. Most of the wakeful hours typically are spent in the Hamam area.
The concept of hamam came from travellers during the Mughal rule. They also brought the Pheran (a long loose robe worn by Kashmiris), Kangri (the earthen heat pot) and the special Chulha (cooking stove made of mud) with 2 outlets for cooking (Daan) to Kashmir. These products are still in abundant use even after 500 years of their introduction, and are real saviours especially in power starved winters of the valley. Those who can move out of Srinagar during these 3 months go to Jammu and other parts of the plains of India. The lucky ones with children in Middle East go to Dubai and other parts of the Emirates. The government offices used to move to Jammu till recently and a term “Durbar Move” was given to it since the days of the Maharaja Hari Singh. It was retained by all the successive governments till 2021, when it was abolished. This enabled Kashmiris to escape from intense cold and also was a good opportunity for people of Jammu to make a decent living because Kashmiris are good shoppers.
Winter is also the time to enjoy the traditional dish of the Harissa. This breakfast dish in Kashmir is an established delicacy. It is a traditional dish made by specialized cooks “Harsigyar” from goat meat pounded with a special variety of rice and delicate spices served piping hot. The traditional cooks of this delicacy are based at Saraf Kadal and Ali Kadal areas of the downtown of Srinagar. These outlets which cook it the whole night are thronged with people very early before the sunrise.
Winter is also the time for the sports activities which are very popular in Jammu and Kashmir because it is blessed with snow peaked mountains, green valleys and pleasing weather. Popular winter sports in J&K include skiing, ice hockey, snowshoe run, and snow baseball. Skiing especially is a very popular activity. Gulmarg and Pahalgam are the ideal places to enjoy skiing and the area has played host to several national winter games of India. The festival is now called “Khelo India”. Hosts J&K, who won the two editions in 2020 and 2021, bagged 26 gold, 25 silver, 25 bronze medals to defend their champions title in 2022.
When we talk about adventure tourism and winter sports in Kashmir, we need to remember the name of M Ashraf Batkoo, who gave a big fillip to winter sports and was appointed in charge of it as a Deputy Director followed by Director and finally Director General in 1996 till 2003 when he retired after serving for 3 decades. During this period, he introduced mountaineering, skiing, rafting and mountain biking. Unfortunately, we lost him in October 2020, a deep personal loss to the author. Winter in Kashmir valley in general is not a welcome season for the residents due to intense cold and poor facilities for heating because of undependable electricity. However, it also is a spectacular sight with everything glistening white with frozen snow. Life slows down and people who can move to warmer areas like Jammu do that in spite of the abolition of the Durbar move. Winter sport which is being given its due importance is a welcome move and is bringing more tourists to the valley. It is hoped that the infrastructure to cope up with the intense sub-zero temperatures is improved by the administration.
(The author is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected])