Srinagar, Dec 20: With the 40-day harshest winter period popularly known as Chillai Kalan all set to begin in Kashmir from Thursday, the annual winter phenomena sends shivers down the spine.
However, till a few decades ago, Chillai Kalan was a boon for the people, despite not having modern facilities to beat the severe cold.
“We used to celebrate Chillai Kalan. It was like a festive season for us,” 78-year-old Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a noted Kashmiri poet and historian, told Greater Kashmir.
From childhood to youth, Zareef vividly remembers how his family used to work hard in summer to store essentials for the harsh winter period.
He recounts how during Chillai Kalan, people hardly used to venture out of their houses except in emergencies.
“Kashmir used to receive around 5 feet of snowfall and all roads used to remain cut off. Chillai Kalan was like curfew outside, but houses used to bustle with activities. All family members used to sit together under oil lamps and even sleep in a single room for warmth. Chillai Kalan used to renew compassion in families and brought them together,” he says.
Zareef recounts how womenfolk in his house and neighbourhood used to وsun dry vegetables in summer, especially for Chillai Kalan.
“Having a long shelf life, Hookh Sioon (sundried vegetables) was on the menu of every household in Chillai Kalan. I remember how our family used to occasionally have Hogge Gaade (smoked fish),” he says.
Hailing from Srinagar downtown, Zareef says houses in Shahar-e-Khaas were constructed mostly with mud, bricks, and wood as these are good conductors of heat.
“Till a few decades ago, people mostly used traditional cooking and heating methods. We had daan, a traditional cooking stove made of mud, which used firewood as fuel. Most of the houses even had hamam, a small room, which was warmed from the floor by burning firewood,” he says.
People also used traditional Kashmiri firepots, Kangri to keep themselves warm.
“There were no taps and even water sources like water bodies used to freeze. People used to melt snow for drinking purposes,” he recounts.
Zareef says that before the advent of Islam in Kashmir, Chillai Kalan was called Sishar Maas.
“As traders from Central Asia gradually started to visit Kashmir in the 13th century, Sishar Maas was subsequently called Chillai Kalan, which is a Persian word,” he says.
Elaborating, Zareef says Chillai means 40 and Kalan means big.
“Winter in Kashmir spread over 70 days. Chillai Kalan (big cold) is for 40 days from December 21 to January 29, Chillai Khurd (small cold) from January 30 to February 18, and Chillai Bache (baby cold) from February 19 to February 28,” he says.
Zareef says that for centuries, Chillai Kalan was a boon for Kashmiris who had fewer employment avenues and were mostly self-reliant.
“Traders from Central Asia used to place orders to Kashmiri artisans mostly for embroidering clothes and shawls besides making wood carving items. Most of the Kashmiris had excelled as artisans. They used the Chillai Kalan period to weave carpets, make Pashmina shawls and wooden items within the confines of their houses amid heavy snowfall,” he says.
Zareef says people used to venture out of houses mostly to clear accumulated snow from their rooftops to prevent collapse.
He says, occasionally, people used to buy Harissa, a meat delicacy from shops at Aali Kadal and its neighbouring areas.
“People believed that consumption of lentils, meat, and spices would increase their resistance to bear the cold and save them from illness,” Zareef says.
He says that for children, it was like a fun time to hear folktales from their grandparents amid the chill. “Unlike today, Kashmiris in the past didn’t worry about shortage of vegetables or closure of the highway. Every family was self-reliant according to their economic stature. From poultry to sheep, everything was available in most of the houses decades ago in Kashmir,” Zareef says.
He minces no words to lament the change in Kashmir’s culture and environment.
“We have lost everything to modernity. We are dependent on essential supplies from eggs to meat from outside J&K. Closure of the highway means a nightmare for us,” Zareef says.
“Our cherished Chillai Kalan has become a bane now because we have forgotten our roots,” he rues.