In the Himalayan valley of Kashmir, the year 2021 was greeted by one of the heaviest snowfalls in the last 10 years in terms of snow depth accumulated during January 3 and 6. The highest accumulation of 4.49 ft was recorded at Qazigund, a highway town, 73 km south of the capital city of Srinagar, followed by 3.13 ft at Konibal, a village in the southern district of Pulwama. Srinagar recorded 2.12 ft snow accumulation while the two famous hill resorts of Gulmarg and Pahalgam in north and south Kashmir, respectively, received 1.89 ft and 2.61 ft deep snow. The snowfall threw life in the Valley out of gear and days after the last flake had fallen several areas were still inaccessible. A resident of Uranhall village in south Kashmir had to hire a JCB to clear snow on a link road and take his cancer patient wife to a hospital in Srinagar.
Snow is to Kashmir what blood is to the human body. Heavy snowfall in winter is the harbinger of a merry summer. The deep frozen snows on mountains and highlands keep its streams and rivers joyously flowing during hot summers, sustaining its beauty. Heavy snowfall in mid-winter thrills the agriculturist most, for it guarantees sufficient water for his rice field when needed the most in summer. White flakes of snow carpeting its mountains, gorges, meadows and plateaus turn Kashmir into a magic land exhilarating an adventurist, a pleasure seeker and a commoner alike. A little snow means a bad harvest. Such is the delight of a Kashmiri on seeing thick snowflakes falling from the sky that he immediately greets others by the salutation, Barfi nau aftad sad mubdrak bad (The new snow has fallen, a hundred congratulations to you).
Since old times, the Kashmiris follow the custom of Sheen Shart (snow bet) according to which they play jokes upon one another on the day the snow first falls. A person would take a piece of the new snow, conceal it in paper or something and give it to a friend as if passing on some important thing. Or, he would apply some snow to the bottom of his kanger, a firepot used by locals to keep themselves warm during winter,and ask his friend to hold it for a while pretending that he had to do some urgent work. Should this friend take and open the wrapped paper or hold the kanger, then he is very much laughed at, and has to pay a trifling forfeit. The custom is somewhat similar to April Fools’ Day.
There are several proverbs and sayings in the local language related to snow. Some of these are Sheene peto peto; Bayi yito yito (Fall, O snow! Come, O brother!), highlighting yearning for the absent one’s return and Sheen dishith yi gagur kari ti chhukh rupeyi dishith karaan (What the rat will do when it sees the snow, that you are doing when you see money). Old Kashmiris believed that rats can tell from the quantity and character of the snow upon the mountains whether the winter will be a very severe one or not. Should it augur badly, then each rat will gather for himself as much as six sers of rice-grain. A ser was an old unit of dry volume equivalent to about a kilogram. There is also this adage, Yiwen daulat pewun sheen; Tsalawani daulat galawun sheen (Wealth comes like the falling snow (i. e., slowly); Wealth goes like the melting snow (i. e., quickly).
Snowfall in Kashmir happens anytime during winter. As a rare phenomenon, however, it can also occur as early as in October or as late as in April. In 1831 when harvest was ripening, early, heavy autumn snow caused terrible famine. In recent history, we have witnessed heavy snowfalls on 30 April in 1969 and 2004, causing much damage to property and orchards and uprooting giant chinars (Platanus orientalis). A light snowfall also occurred as recently as on 6 April 2017. However, the propitious time for a snowfall is the chillai kalan or the king winter, reckoned as the harshest 40-day period of chill beginning on 21 December. A local medico, Dr. Mohammad Shafi Bhat, aptly sums it up, “A snowless chillai kalan makes Kashmir Rajasthan“, reference being to a western state of India known for desert temperatures.
The chillai kalan, a combination of two Persian words – chilla and kalan, separately meaning as a solitary retreat observed by people in different forms among different communities; and great, huge or major – is followed by 20 days of chillai khord (little winter) and 10 days of chille bacchi (baby winter). By the end of February, the winter in Kashmir wraps itself up for the year, paving the way for spring. Chilla kaatna is a ritual wherein a person completely isolates himself or herself from the outside world to concentrate on his or her spiritual or professional pursuit. The Kashmiris would virtually shut themselves in their homes during harsh winters.
Given its Persian origin, chillai kalan isa later day entrant to the local lexicon and is absent from the rich fund of Kashmiri proverbs. According to the old Kashmiri calendar, the Great Winter begins on 6 or 7 Poh which corresponds to 21 or 22 December. The 12 months of Kashmiri calendar include Tsithur, Vahekh, Zeth, Har, Shravun, Badrupeth, Ashid, Kartikh, Monjhor, Poh, Maag and Phagun. The Kashmiri and Gregorian calendars correspond to the cycle of the sun phases. In the Northern Hemisphere (Kashmir included), winter generally begins on December 21.
The Kashmiri Pandit (minority Hindu community of Kashmir) astrologers record in their jantari (calendar) this day as ‘utrayan shuru‘, highlighting the journey of the sun from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer.
In olden times, the harshest period of Kashmir Winter was known as Shishur. Old Kashmiris divided the year in six seasons, each lasting for two months, including sonth (spring) from 15 March to 15 May, greshim (summer) from 15 May to 15 July, wehra’t (hottest period) from 15 July to 15 September, harud (autumn) from 15 September to 15 November, wande (winter) from 15 November to 15 January and sishur (coldest period)from 15 January to 15 March.
According to Walter Lawrence, famous settlement commissioner of Kashmir at the fall of the 19th century and author of the Valley of Kashmir,these are Grist months or months of agriculturists. The introduction of Grist calendar is attributed to Sultan Shamsuddin, founder of Muslim Sultanate in Kashmir in 1339 AD. The people of yore in Iran and Turkey were known to celebrate 21 December as a religious festival while the Egyptians would worship the sun on this day.
People in Kashmir prepare themselves in advance for winter. Provision for woolens, especially pheran (a long, loose traditional garment worn by them during winter), charcoal for kanger and wood for hamam (an exclusive room with stone slab flooring underneath of which exists a hollow space for burning wood to keep the room warm) is made before the arrival of winter. Sufficient stock of food is also ensured well in time.
In the bygone years when due to heavy snowfall the Valley would get cut off from the rest of the world for months, they drew from their stock of dry vegetables. Vegetables such as tomatoes, turnips, bottle gourds, brinjals and spinach were sun-dried during summers for use in winter months when import of green vegetables was not possible and local vegetable fields remained under a thick cover of snow. Over a period of time, these dry vegetables became delicacies and are still cherished by Kashmiris who have a taste for traditional cuisine.
A winter in Kashmir must be experienced to be realised. For the locals, chillai kalan is the time for leisure, enjoyment and party. They celebrate it with relishing harisa, a traditional mutton delicacy eaten with oven fresh bread followed by a cup of nun chai (salty beverage).
The harisa vendorsin the old city of Srinagar are thronged by people during early hours of chilly mornings. Many enthusiasts eat the delicacy there only while others take it home to relish with family. Other special and traditional dishes specially prepared and savoured during this period include nadir gaade (fish with lotus stem), razmah gogji (kidney beans with turnip), batak palak (duck with spinach), nadir gogji (lotus stem with turnip), phari (smoked fish), hogade (dried fish), ale hachi (dried bottle gourd), wangan hachi te moonge dal (dried brinjals with moong), wangan hachi (dried brinjals), ruwangan hachi (dried tomatoes), gogji aare te tchaman (dried turnip with cheese) and wari (dried cakes of mixed paste of various spices especially red chili powder).
Locally prepared aanchar (pickle) is also a special winter delicacy. Yaji, a poor cousin of Pizza, made of rice flour, walnuts and black cumin, and steam cooked in mustard oil and water is another winter delicacy, especially relished by Kashmiri Pandit families.
On Amavasya (moonless night) of Poh, which falls in mid chillai kalan, Kashmiri Pandits observe a special day known as Khaetchi Maavas when they cook khaetchir, dish made of split pulse and rice boiled together, as an offering to Kuber, a yaksha (nature spirit) who, according to their belief, is the custodian of wealth and visits them in a chilly winter night to distribute wealth and gifts. They offer him khaetchir. Kuber is the Santa Claus of Kashmiri Pandits. During night, the offering is kept outside the living place along with flowers and a burning lamp. It is believed that the short statured yaksha wears a cap and anyone who can take it away and keep it under a hand-mill is bestowed with wealth. The non-vegetarian Pandits also make offerings of mutton or fish while the vegetarians among them cook cheese instead of red or white meat.
Migratory waterfowls, hunting of whose is now banned, were also bought to add colour to the dastar khawn (meal setting) during chillai kalan. In spite of the ban, illegal hunting of the winged visitors has not completely stopped. The famous waterfowl habitat of Hokersar in central Kashmir receives tens of thousands of migratory birds every year who arrive from as far-off places as Siberia, China, Central Asia and North Europe, apart from the Indian sub-continent. Water birds that stay in Kashmir during severe winter include asmaen enz (greylag goose), niluj and thuj (male and female mallard), sokh pachhin (pintail), khrokh (pochard), toor (red crested pochard), tsarav (white eyed pochard), kollar (coot) and kuis (common teal).
A common Kashmiri fights winter chill with kanger while the affluent sit in their hamam where special sessions of harisa and nun chai are held for the family and close relatives and friends. Use of pressure cookers has facilitated preparation of harisa at home and most households have since switched to self-cooking. A kanger is the trusted armour of a Kashmiri against winter. Modern warming gadgets like electric blankets, blowers and split air conditioners have failed to ease it out from a Kashmiri home.
Until recently when digital medium entertainment such as cartoons, rhymes and video games were unknown, snowfall was the time for great enjoyment for children. The joy of walking over fresh snow, leaving foot marks on it and enjoying the crispy sound it generated was unmatched. Children would literally go mad playing with snow, fighting sheen jung (snow fight) by throwing snowballs at each other, and making snowmen with naked hands. They eagerly looked forward to the arrival of chillai kalan as it meant a lot of snow and a long recess from school.
Educational institutions would break for winter vacations around Christmas and reopen on 1 March. Woolens were a luxury not everyone afforded. Garments, especially pheran,were made of cotton fabric known as shaitanter and falalein (flannel). A wooden sandal known as khraav was a common footwear even in the city. In villages, typical footwear known as pulhor, made of paddy straw, saved the user from slipping and falling over frozen snow. The ankle high duckback, much sought after rubber shoes, came later. Breaking icicles hanging from rooftops, and licking them as if it were ice cream, was another proclivity of children. Some icicles would gain length of several feet and huge thickness. Ignoring hazards of exposure to severe cold, the children would not stop from playing with snow for long hours even if it caused painful shuh or frostbite.
Winter nights being long, listening to stories of heroes from local folklore narrated by the eldest member of the family, usually the granny or grandpa, was a common pastime of children. Adult members of the family would also join these tempting sittings. Professional storytellers literally held village folk captive to their narration of daastan (folklore) during long, chilling nights of winter.
These love and war fables were either indigenous tales like Ake Nandun, Heemal Nagrai, Wuzra Maal, Beebash Noor, Taalav Razdaen and Gulnoor or localized Persian and Arabic fables like Gulrez, Lael Majnoon, Shirin Farhad, Shahnaama, Saam Naama, Jung-e-Khawar and Jung-e-Khaibar. Under the dim light of an oil lamp placed on zoor (niche for a lamp carved in a wall) in a room filled with keen listeners and the storyteller weaving magic through his narration created an absorbing atmosphere. His fee was paid in kind, besides a sumptuous meal prepared after slaughtering a domestic fowl.
At other times, members of the family did different jobs under lamp light like males weaving a tchadar (woolen blanket), the lady of the house working on a spinning wheel or weaving a tchaengij (circular mat made of paddy straw) and children doing their homework.
Besides children who have fun, animals, as locals believe, also make merry during a snowfall. Canines, in particular, are observed to go in a playful mood at the sight of falling white flakes, the joy of which is likened to the long awaited visit of a maternal uncle for children. James Hinton Knowells, the 19th century Christian missionary who wrote Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs and Sayings, was told about this belief by a Kashmiri Pandit who, when asked where he had heard this, replied that all children in Kashmir were so taught and that he did not know any reason for this.
People born in Kashmir before the 1960s say that, barring some instances of heavy snowfall in recent years, the Valley now receives little annual snow. In olden times, heavy to very heavy snowfall was a common feature of winters. During 1890-91, for instance, Kashmir had “the heaviest snowfall for the past fifty years” which began on Christmas or the fifth day of chillai kalan. During those times the volume of snowfall was measured by reference to the human body. Lawrence was told by old men that during the rule of Maharaja Gulab Singh (1846-56) the snow was up to a man’s shoulders and in Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s time (1856-85) up to his knees.
Another yardstick for telling the depth of snow was brari zang and huen zang (a cat’s and a dog’s leg) for one foot and two feet snow accumulation, respectively. We also have it from Lawrence that in a severe winter season as much as forty to sixty feet snow fell in the Kashmir valley, and mountains, and on the higher ranges. According to him, the average depth of the snowfall at Srinagar in an ordinary winter was about 8 feet. In 1902, the snow at Sonamarg was measured 13 feet and in the following year 30 feet. During the 1950s-60s, Srinagar city would receive 3 to 4 feet deep snow. Elders then talked about their youth when snowfall as high as a storey in the countryside was not uncommon. Hassan Khoihami, local historian of the early 20th century, writes that sometimes as deep as 2 yards (6 feet) of snow accumulates in the city.
Kashmir in a hard winter is likened to a huge refrigerator. The temperature falls below zero degrees Celsius, freezing water bodies. The lowest ever known night temperature in January in Srinagar is minus 14.4°C recorded in 1893. On 20 January 1991, mercury in the capital city fell to minus 11.8°C. Temperature in higher reaches like Gulmarg drops several degrees below that of Srinagar. The lowest temperature recorded at Gulmarg in January since 1982 is minus 19.8°C recorded on 4 January 1991.
Following the last snowfall, the Valley is reeling under severe cold. The intervening night of 13 and 14 January was the coldest night of the last 25 years in Srinagar with temperature falling to minus 8.4°C. In 1177 H (1763 AD), Khoihami witnessed freezing of the Wular (one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia situated in north Kashmir) and people walking over it and carrying their load on their shoulders. The villagers on the southern bank of the lake walked over its frozen surface to reach Khoihama, a hamlet on its northern bank. On return, they carried loose paddy straw on their shoulders, some of which fell along the route and 14 horses came across the frozen lake to Khoihama while eating it.
The freezing of the Dal, an urban lake in the heart of Srinagar, has happened several times in the past. During winters it is often partially frozen especially along the shoreline but during severe cold its surface turns into thick and hard ice. In 1893, the lake froze and it was possible to skate all over it. In recent history, complete freezing of the Dal Lake was observed during the winters of 1962-63 and 1986-87. On both occasions, people freely walked and played on its thick crust.
In January 1963, the then Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, walked on the lake along with some of his ministers and bureaucrats and also drove on its frozen surface an open-hooded Land Rover jeep bearing registration number ‘J&K 5028’. From the Boulevard, the vehicle was driven to the lake after laying planks on stone steps of the ghat (embarkation point) near the present SKICC. A small rescue boat was also pushed on the frozen crust by placing round wooden poles underneath. The crust of the lake was said to have frozen about two feet thick. Late Professor Shamsuddin who claimed to have witnessed the event (he wrongly mentions the year as 1957) writes that for about a week the Gagribal bound residents of Brein village traveled over the lake.
There are some like late Azim Tuman, former Chairman Houseboat Owners Association, who claim that the year of the jeep ride on the lake was 1959. This author has remembered from his childhood the year as 1963. Currently (mid-January ’21), as Kashmir reels under sub zero night temperature, a major part of the Dal Lake has frozen with the government issuing advisory to people against stepping on its frozen surface.
Next, complete freezing of the lake was observed during the winter of 1986-87 following a heavy snowfall and a sharp dip in temperature. The snowfall had blocked the Srinagar-Jammu Highway and the long cavalcade of the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, who drove from Jammu with his family to enjoy snow at Gulmarg where they ‘fought’ sheen jung, was broken into two by a heavy landslide. Most of the bureaucrats and security personnel, including the Director General Information & Public Relations, Sati Sahni, were left stranded while Gandhi, his family and Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah made it to Srinagar. The ice bound Dal Lake had turned into a great source of attraction for people who walked and cycled over it and even played cricket.
This author also had a walk over the frozen lake from its eastern shore to the Kabutar Khana, a small island in the heart of the lake. A local Muslim lady, whose picture was published by a newspaper next morning, offered prayers on the icy lake. During intense winters, the Jhelum, principal river of Kashmir) is also known to have frozen as it did in 1087-88, 1658, 1759, 1764, 1780, 1816, 1835, 1879, and 1895. In 1657, people and horses freely walked over the river. Likewise, in 1759, when winter got prolonged, the Jhelum remained frozen till as late as 31 March. However, no such occurrence has been reported in recent history.
The romance of snow is not the complete story of Kashmir. There is another side of the picture – the rigours of snow. Even a moderate snowfall disrupts communication systems and if it were heavy the life is completely thrown out of gear. Both road and air connectivity gets snapped. Power supply is disrupted and cell phones fall silent. The import of essential supplies to the Valley stops. Water pipes either freeze or burst due to frost. During medical emergencies, it becomes near impossible to take a patient to the nearest healthcare facility.
Not to talk of old times, even today after every heavy snowfall reports come in from villages that a critical patient who could not be evacuated to a hospital in time due to a blocked road had died. Pictures of patients being carried to a health center on shoulders is often circulated on social media.
The situation is worse in far off villages. Life of a common man, especially from poor sections of society, becomes very hard. Closure of roads and streets means loss of wages for labour class and daily earnings for street vendors. One would recall news of this disruption of normal life always being captioned by local Urdu daily, Aftab, as ‘Wadi beeruni duniya se kat geyi; saag sabzi bazaar se gayab’ (The Valley gets disconnected from outside world; vegetables disappear from market).
Clearing roads of snow was and remains a big issue. Unlike today when mechanical snow cutters and dozers are available, the job was earlier done manually by municipal employees and hired labour by using spades. Frozen snow was sprinkled with powder salt to expedite its melting. One would often observe someone walking over an ice-bound street with a kanger underneath his pheran slipping and having a great fall resulting, at times, in burn injuries and fracture of limbs.
Such scenes provided amusement to onlookers who, more often than not, laughed at the poor fellow rather than come to his rescue. It would take days and weeks for life to get back to normal. A serious threat always faced by the people in Kashmir is the collapse of old residential houses under the weight of snow on rooftops. The aesthetically beautiful but structurally weak modern corrugated tin rooftops also collapse under this weight as was seen during the recent snowfall. Till a few decades back, trained men were employed to remove snow from housetops. The task was more difficult in rural areas where houses had thatched roofs.
Kashmir’s history is replete with incidents of blizzards and snow avalanches killing large numbers of people and leveling habitations. At the dawn of the 14th century when Simha Dev was the ruler of Kashmir, the Tartar warlord, Zulchu, with his hordes invaded Kashmir and slaughtered the people, took slaves, and set fire to Srinagar city. After eight months of occupation and depopulating the Valley, when he found provisions scarce, he took an unspecified number of Kashmiris as captives and tried to exit from the south but was overtaken by a snowstorm perishing him, his army and the unfortunate captives.
In the first week of March 1936, snow avalanches followed by heavy snowfall caused havoc in parts of north Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the then united Jammu & Kashmir now under Pakistan’s control. The worst hit areas included Gurez, Karnah, Uri, Bunji and Hajibal where hundreds of people were overwhelmed by avalanches and killed. It took weeks for information of the massive devastation to reach Srinagar. In Gurez alone, 110 persons perished.
Reports from Bunji spoke of “great damage” to life and property with a large number of residential houses overrun by avalanches and taking a large toll of humans and cattle. From Karnah, 86 deaths were reported till 12 March. In Geetra village of Teetwal, 24 people died under a heavy snow avalanche, destroying houses and cattle as well. Eleven persons were similarly killed in Dodran, Uri. A small village, Kail, in the Neelam Valley suffered 24 deaths. Tragedy also struck at Khilanmarg (Gulmarg) where the Ski Hut was buried under an avalanche killing three British Military Officers from Rawalpindi Garrison, Lieutenant J.L. Nolan, Lieutenant A.R. Hingston and Second Lieutenant J.K.C.M. Graham, and a local Chowkidar.
On 15 November 1986, a blizzard killed at least 21 people, mostly labourers from the north Indian state of Bihar, at Zojila on the Srinagar-Leh Highway. Unofficial reports, however, put the death toll at more than 60. About two dozen vehicles were buried under heavy snow and 500 people were stranded who had to be evacuated in a major rescue operation. The vehicles including passenger buses were on the way to Srinagar when they were caught in a snowstorm.
Likewise, during the intervening night of 14 and 15 January 1995, as many as 62 persons were killed after Jammu bound passenger buses and other vehicles were overrun by a snow avalanche near the Jawahar Tunnel on the Srinagar-Jammu Highway. In recent years, the worst tragedy caused by a snow avalanche happened on 22 February 2005 at Waltengo Nar in the southern district of Kulgam killing 180 people. These tragic incidents followed a heavy snowfall and, in most cases, due to the administration’s lack of preparedness for disaster or allowing vehicular traffic against weather advisory.
Due to the rigours and ravages of snow, a Kashmiri who otherwise loves and celebrates a snowfall, eagerly looks forward to return of the spring and sings optimistically: Wande tchali sheen gali beyi yiyi bahaar (winter will pass, snow will melt; the spring will return).
[Input: Walter Lawrence, J. H. Knowells, Aurel Stein, Ghulam Nabi Aatish, Achla Raina, Aamir Ali]
*Khalid Bashir Ahmad is a Srinagar based author who specializes in Kashmir history. His recent works include (1) Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (2) Kashmir: A Walk Through History, and (3) Kashmir: Looking Back in Time – Politics, Culture, History.