Kashmir’s Chillai Kalan – The hibernation before spring
Srinagar : The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has seen some of the greatest days of development in the past year concerning Railways, Roadways, Tunnels, Education and Employment, Power Development, and Health, despite the threat of the coronavirus. With this glorious year closing in, the Kashmir valley is going in a hibernation mode for 40 days, perhaps taking a much-needed sabbatical before the valley metamorphoses into a Smart City. This period will mark the beginning of a new dawn in the UT — the quiet before the storm of projects and projections that the Center has planned for 2022.The 40-day harsh spell of winter known as ‘Chillai Kalan’ started on December 21. Chillai Kalan is a combination of two Persian words — Chillai and Kalan; Chillai means Forty and Kalan means Bigger. In a manner, it is a solitary retreat observed by people of the Valley which gives one a chance to detach from routine and gain perspective on life. Earlier Kashmir used to remain cut off from the rest of the world in this period.According to Persian tradition, the night of 21st December, the winter solstice, is celebrated as Shab-e-Yalda – Night of Birth, or Shab-e-Chelleh – Night of Forty. Iranian Azerbaijanis call it ‘Chilla Gejasi’, which means the beginning of the first 40 days of winter.Chillai Kalan is followed by 20 days of Chillai Khurd (small cold) that takes place between January 31 – February 19, and finally 10 days of Chille Bacchi (baby cold) which occurs from February 20 – March 2.People mostly stay indoors and busy themselves with activities like preparing ‘Wagoo’ (local reed mat), making ‘Patig’ (paddy grass mat), weaving carpets, and rearing sheep. Art and Craft is the only source of killing time. Children build snow bunkers and play ‘Sheen-Jung’ (snow fights) with ‘Sheshergant’ (icicles) used as a sword and destroy the opposite team’s bunker using snowballs. The daring ones ski using plastic bags on high hilltops, play cricket on the frozen Dal Lake, and remove snow from rooftops. The younger ones sit at their window sills all day waiting for the snow. Some are too overwhelmed to sleep, fearing that they would miss the snowflakes twirling down overnight. And when it does snow, the heaven of white upturned saucer looks closer to earth. And at that time, children take delight in eating the falling snowflakes and munching on icicles from rooftops, pretending them to be ice cream.
Chillai Kalan has also been a muse for Kashmiri literature and folk; the naked trees, snowflakes, and the quiet winter chill have inspired innumerable songs and stories, that Dastan Goi (storytelling) became a profession. Mothers narrate Daastan (fictional stories passed through generations) of Chil-Bab to children, few to weave magic in the dark days and few to discourage children from going out in the harsh cold. In the villages, the rich often invite Kitabkhans (storytellers) to mesmerise people under the dim light of an oil lamp. Their love and war fables are either native tales like Ake-Nandun, Heemal-Nagrai, Wuzra-Maal, Beebash Noor, Taalav-Razdaen, and Gulnoor or localised versions of Persian fables like Gulrez, Lael-Majnoon, Shirin Farhad, Shahnaama, and Jung-e-Khawar.Many families prepare the traditional Shabdeg on the first day of Chillai Kalan. It is a winter delicacy where a huge goose is kept in a large earthen utensil on low heat for the entire night on the eve of December 21 and served on the following morning. People enjoy delicious ‘Harissa’ (minced meat mixed with rice flour) with ‘Naan’ to keep themselves warm. A cup of ‘Shahi Kehwa’ or ‘Nuun Chai’ (salt tea) follows every meal.Other special dishes of 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), ‘Hokh Gard’ (dried fish), ‘Ale-Hachi’ (dried bottle gourd), etc. A special mention must be made for vegetable pickles enjoyed most during this time, especially the ‘Nadru Achaar’ (lotus-stem pickle). Dried vegetables are stocked from the summer through autumn for this period. However, with the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway almost becoming an all-weather road, fresh vegetables are available in the market throughout the year and the tradition of drying vegetables is slowly dying.The arrangement for this winter spell is made much in advance. People buy ‘Pulhor’ (footwear made of paddy straw) to prevent them from slipping on snow, ‘Pherans’ (traditional knee-length woolen cloak), ‘Kangers’ (firepots woven in wicker), caps, etc. They spend a large part of their day in Hamaam, a central heating room where hand-hewn rectangular slabs of limestone are laid over a hollowed floor. Brick columns support the slabs at the joints. The hollow space below is used to light the wood to make the stone slab warm.It is this harsh snow that charges the glaciers of the Valley and Ladakh and revitalises the perennial reservoirs that feed the rivers, streams, and lakes in Kashmir during the months of summer.’Sonth’ (spring) arrives in Kashmir after this period marked with the blossoming of the ‘Yemberzal’ (Nargis, or Narcissus flower). This flower is seen as a symbol of good fortune and happiness in the East. And with the wave of development in the valley, soon enough “Wandetchali Sheen Gali beyiyi yi bahaar (winter will pass, snow will melt, and the spring will return)”.