I am sitting on a cold winter day in Srinagar in Chilai Kalan (the coldest part of the winter here). My home is surrounded by 1 ft of snow and overcast sky with forecast of heavy snowfall for 2 more days. Electricity erratic with local faults as well as grid problems. One of the best ways to keep warm in this situation is putting on a Pheran, sit in a cosy corner and watch an old movie or read a book of your interest. Pheran not only keeps you warm but also makes you relax and feel lazy.
Pheran or phiran is the traditional outfit for both males and females in the Kashmir Valley. The traditional pheran extends to the feet, which was popular up to the late 19th century. A relatively recent version of the pheran extending to below the knees is used nowadays. It consists of two gowns, one over the other. Typically, it is worn over a pooch having the same dimensions as the pheran but made of cotton or a lighter material. It provides double layered insulation due to air acting as an insulating material. The additional advantage being it saves the pheran from burning due to Kangri, an earthenware pot covered by wickerwork filled with simmering charcoal. Kangri use has substantially declined over the years due to the fire hazards associated with it and also a unique cancer of the skin “Kangri Cancer” ascribed to burns over abdominal wall and thighs which come in close contact with Kangri. The traditional pheran does not have side slits and is made out of wool to keep warm. In summer a cotton version is used for a few months. Intricate embroideries or flower styles are a popular function of a Kashmiri ladies’ pheran. The embroideries or flower styles are made of thin metal threads and this kind of embroidery is known as ‘Tille’ in Kashmiri language.
There is no consensus as to the origin of the word ‘pheran’. However, it seems that the word may have been derived from the Persian word ‘perahan’ which means a shirt. Persian culture has had a strong influence in Kashmir. One thing is agreed upon by all historians that Pheran has been our outfit at least since the 15th century. There are many myths around the origin of Kashmiri pheran. While some believe it was Mughal emperor Akbar who introduced the long garment in the Kashmir Valley, others believe it came from the Persian travellers who invented the garment to protect themselves from the freezing cold of Kashmir during winters.
As per the history when Moghuls invaded Kashmir and tried to enter the valley in 15th century, Kashmiris fought gallantly under the rule of Yusuf Shah Chak. Earlier his father Ali Shah Chak had defeated the armies of Babar and Humayun. Akbar offered friendship to Yusuf Shah Chak and invited him to Delhi. When the king went to Delhi, he was arrested and sent to prison in Bihar, where he died and was buried in Nalanda and his tomb is in a dilapidated condition. His son Yakub Shah Chak was finally defeated by the mighty Moghul army. Akbar thus captured the land and ensured that Kashmiris remain tied to their Pherans and remained a lazy community. In his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’, Sir Walter Lawrence, the Settlement Commissioner for Jammu and Kashmir during 1889-94 also confirms and blames Akbar for promoting this garment. Moghuls were followed by Afghans with Ahmad Shah Abdali invading Kashmir in 1753 and his progeny ruling Kashmir till 1819. The Afghans forced the men and women to wear the same dress, the Pheran, as their attire at all times. The Kashmiris never liked both Moghuls and Afghans but became used to and finally fond of the Pheran. It went through the Sikh and Dogra regimen without any further interference.
The garment is also a witness to the recent troubled history of Kashmir. It allows many things including fire arms to be carried inside its spacious interior. The militancy started to thrive under its cover in 1990’s. Militants would transport weapons under the Pheran. The forces were paranoid about anybody wearing it. Whenever they would see a person approaching in Pheran they would get alert and ask him to take it off. Militants would use the long garment to hide AK-47. But now it is all changed, as we see militants dressed in battle fatigues. In spite of this change the role of Pheran in the militancy in Kashmir, can never be ignored.
Well known politicians, including Dr Faroukh Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, in their official meetings and addresses use the new style Pherans. This has actually become a characteristic and identity, of theirs over the years. Many politicians from mainland India have also started addressing public to woo for their votes clad in Pherans as was seen in the recent elections of the District Development Council (DDC). Modern new designs of Pherans are available in the well-known markets including fancy Residency Road and Polo view shops in Srinagar. They are becoming increasingly popular with visitors and tourists. The ladies Pherans with bright colours and designs are available in many parts of the country and is a fashion seen at many formal occasions too.
Pheran has over the last several centuries become a symbol of Kashmir, and every Kashmiri, whether in Australia or California is proud of its inheritance.
Prof Upendra Kaul is a Cardiologist, Recipient of Padma shri and DR B C Roy Award