While we are waiting for the real big snowfall in the valley which is witnessing sub-zero temperatures, it is a good time to recapitulate about the Kashmiri winter, its problems and also the positives.
Winter is the fourth season which is the coldest and follows autumn and lasts for four months, from December till the onset of spring in March. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter falls in the months of December, January, and February, while the season spans between June, July, and August in the Southern Hemisphere. Regardless of when winter comes, it always gets the same name in English. The word winter is recorded in Old English and is related to the words wet and water.
In our valley it is generally not a sought-after season, rather it is an unwelcome guest. The weather between 21st December to January 29th is the period of intense cold called Chillai Kalan, a Persian word meaning major cold (Forty days of intense cold). It is followed by 20-day long Chillai Khurd, a period of small cold followed by 10 days of Chilla Bachha, baby cold.
During this period the minimum temperature hovers around freezing point. The snow which falls during this time freezes and lasts longer. It is this snow that adds to the glaciers of the valley and replenishes the perennial reservoirs which feed the rivers, lakes and streams during the summer. Snow falls after Chillai Kalan do not last long. Winter affects the daily life of the Kashmiris. The use of traditional Kashmiri dress the Pheran and the fire pot Kangri becomes ubiquitous and come to the rescue irrespective of the social status. Due to sub-zero temperature, tap water and pipelines freeze partially and at times the world-famous Dal Lake also freezes. Sonamarg and Gulmarg receive very heavy snowfall.
Though long nights are difficult and at times boring, the soft warm beds are soothing and make us rather lazy. Traditional Kashmiri homes have Hamams for giving the much needed heat. Hamam typically is a room with a hollow base for burning firewood which provides heat. It also ensures a supply of hot water through an attached copper tank (It is called Khazana in Kashmiri). It is a permanent solution and the family spends most of the indoor wakeful hours in this area, which is also invariably next to the kitchen.
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.
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 and crows their cawing. The hustle and bustle of business declines. The schools and colleges remain closed. The Govt offices since the days of Maharaja used to shift to the summer capital Jammu. However, this year after 149 years old official practice of rotating the seat of governance between the two capitals of Srinagar and Jammu on a six-monthly basis called the “Durbar Move” has been largely cancelled.
Government employees of the valley used to enjoy this and would get an opportunity to live in warmer climate and escape the intense winter and the shortages of everything especially the all-important electricity. Likewise, the employees of Jammu in summer would enjoy the mild weather of Srinagar and escape the scalding heat. The business men in Jammu would look forward to Kashmiri buyers during winters and make a good fortune for the rest of the year especially in summers when the business gets dull. In general, this move of cancelling the Durbar move has not been appreciated by the employees of the UT which numbers to around 5 lacks. The implications of this would be clear in due course. The senior bureaucrats and officers with connections, however, have already moved to Jammu citing important administrative reasons.
Winter is also the time for 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 and 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. In the national festival of 2020 Jammu and Kashmir bagged the highest medal tally which included 11 Gold, 18 silver and 5 bronze medals. This was followed by Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh.
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.
Winter in Kashmir valley is in general treated as an un-welcome guest because of the intense cold and poor facilities of heating and un-dependable electricity. However, it also is a spectacular sight with every thing glistening white with frozen snow. Life slows down and people who can move to warmer areas like Jammu do that. The abolition of Durbar movement, a centuries old tradition is going to make lives of government employees and their families a bit more difficult. Winter sports which are being given more importance may bring in 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.
Prof Upendra Kaul is founder Director Gauri Kaul Foundation. He is the recipient of Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy Award
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.