Kashmir Nostalgia Origin


‘Koshur Khandar Sab’ – A painting by Pt Rajan Wattal

A few days back, I received a painting depicting a traditional Kashmiri Pandit Marriage feast or ‘Khander Saal Sab’ over WhatsApp. Unfortunately, the name of the painter/author was missing from the WhatsApp ‘forward’! The painting and its description moved me back to the treasure trove of memories of how marriages used to be organized in Kashmir before our forced Exodus in 1990. I turned to another painter friend, Pt Ravi Dhar, to know if he could identify the painter. Ravi Ji put me on to Mr. Rajan Wattal, the Jammu-based artist who has painted this memorable piece; I sought permission from Mr. Rajan to use his painting to put on record my memories and share with my own kids if nobody else!

Our lives in Kashmir, it appears today, belonged to a totally different era. We were living, as a community in a 135 km x 32 km valley over the last 5000 odd years, scattered all over the valley. Five centuries of living under tyrannical Muslim rule shaped the thinking, habits, and lifestyle of our community as we got reduced to a minuscule minority in the land of our origin! A community so proud of its history and lineage tried to close flanks to protect its customs and socio-cultural moorings. Nowhere was this peculiarity more pronounced than in our marriages and other social functions. Children born post Exodus would obviously have no idea about how functions and events were organized in Kashmir, having seen only the Caterer/Tent House/waiter and now, the Wedding Planner/ Destination Wedding era!

The Who and How:
Kashmiri Pandit marriages were mostly family-managed affairs with almost 100% dependence on community/neighborhood. The only external factor used to be the cook, better termed as ‘Waza’ in Kashmiri. Master Wazas commanded respect for their skills and subject knowledge yet, unfortunately, were shunned socially, considered below par, like our Priest(gour) community. Master Waza would bring a team of associates and assistants, numbers depending on the guest list for a particular day. All activities, including purchasing materials, would start as per the ‘shubh muhurat’ or ‘Saath’ decided by the family Pandit Ji. Marriage dates, too, would be decided by the Family Pandit Ji after consulting the horoscopes of the bride and groom. The workforce for arrangements/ execution of various tasks would come from the neighbors, relatives, and friends since the concept of ‘hired help’ (read waiters) was not there. The concept of illuminating the house was not there; decoration consisted of dyed sawdust used for demarcation and for laying of Vyoog(rangoli), saris of women folk used as arches across the lane, and colored paper strips glued to a string, used as buntings. Neighbors would gladly open up their homes to accommodate guests coming from outside the city, provide extra bedding as backup, and overall, get involved in every day-to-day activity, particularly in a girl’s marriage – the entire locality would consider the girl as their own daughter!

Project Marriage obviously would have multiple stages involving planning, logistics, procurement, and finally, execution. Marriages in Kashmir mostly would be a daytime affair, probably due to the cold climate and to avoid the extra hassle of making arrangements for a night's stay by guests. Rains in Kashmir could be expected in any season. This made people look for covered spaces where a feast for 200 or more guests could be arranged. Since Kashmir did not have the concept of Marriage Halls (honorable exceptions like Vikram Guest House, near Ratan Rani Hospital, that became available in the 1970s, apart) or dedicated spaces available commercially, functions/ feasts were arranged in a spacious ‘kanee’ (top floor of the house) or in ‘dewankhan’ of big houses in the neighborhood. At times, lunch was arranged in a spacious ‘aangan’ which was covered by ‘shamiyanas’( ceremonial tents) from a tent house though the threat of rains always loomed! It is interesting to note that neighbors always made their space available for marriages – be it the ‘angan’ or the ‘kanee’/ ‘dewankhan’. I recall my Matamal at Khankahi Sokhta, Srinagar had 2 big dewankhans on the fourth floor and those would invariably be utilized for marriages by neighbors, including Muslims, at no cost!

The number of guests for various events was discussed with ‘Waza’ and he would dictate the quantity of ‘masala’, rice, and other requirements for various events. Procurement of rice, masala, and vegetables was often the responsibility of an experienced relative or neighbor. The first major activity related to marriage used to be procurement and cleansing of rice – the staple diet (wheat was rarely used). Close female relatives and neighborhood ladies would join the ladies of the house in sifting (tchatton, in Kashmiri, using a shup) and picking out other impurities (tcharun in Kashmiri) from several quintals of rice. This used to take over a week and the ladies would be served ‘sheer chai+ katlam for their ‘services’! Similar activity was undertaken for unground spices – dried turmeric, de-seeded dried red chilies, and dried ginger and later getting those powdered. This obviously was before the ‘ready-to-use' spices came into existence.

Top of the procurement list would be the Mutton requirements, particularly the Rogan Josh numbers. Once a figure was arrived at (depending on the number of guests), the matter would be discussed with the butcher(pujj) and, on the night prior to the event, the butcher(pujj) would come to the host’s place to cut mutton into pieces as per requirement; for Rogan Josh, a mutton piece would need to be of minimum 100gm weight from specific parts of the sheep. Likewise, for ‘Matchh’, Yakhni, ‘Kabargah’ mutton only from specific parts was used and the ‘pujj’ would know the requirements quite well. Still, while cutting the mutton, an ‘experienced’ person from the family would sit with the butcher to supervise and guide! Utensils for cooking and serving were procured from neighbors and relatives. I have seen during my childhood, our ‘degchis’, ‘Thaals’, and ‘chilamchis’ borrowed by needy neighbors and relatives for their functions. That might have been one reason why all the utensils had family names or identification marks on them to avoid getting mixed up or lost.

The principal events in KP marriages were Maenzraath, Devgon, Mekhal (if applicable), Barat, and Ghar Atchun (in that sequence). Livun, a family/ immediate neighborhood event marked the beginning of the marriage process, particularly the singing of religious Kashmiri hymns called Leelas, accompanied by ‘tumbakhnaer’ (a typical instrument made of clay and sheep skin membrane). Devgon was also an immediate family event – more of a pooja. Maenzraath was a community dinner (mostly vegetarian) for family, neighbors, and relatives followed by a musical session of Kashmiri singing and application of Mehndi to the bride/ groom by the bua( Mami would only wash the feet of the bride/groom while bua would collect cash from people to whom Mehndi was distributed. While mostly participating ladies would hold the fort for singing, professional singers were occasionally invited to make the night more enjoyable! Ghar-Atchun, was the Crème’ de La Crème’ of events, reserved for selected guests, mostly from the ‘in-laws’, numbers ranging from 50-100. Each function is rich in rituals and comes with a hoary background – one can write pages, describing each of these functions and the associated rituals.

Tumbakhnaer – a typical Kashmiri instrument used for marriage-related singing

The Kitchen (Vurr):
This was the Nerve Centre for the event, an open space(angan), invariably covered to protect from vagaries of weather! Here, the ‘Waza’ would build a traditional brick n clay wood burning stove, 6-8 ft x 2ft x 2 ft in dimension, for cooking. It had to be in the vicinity of Bhandar or the Store for obvious reasons. Also, the supply channel, from the Vurr to the feast hall had to be kept in mind so that food would reach guests in a sizzling hot condition. The family would put a very experienced and responsible person ‘in charge' of the Vurr because he had to control the Store, manage the Waza and his Team and, when the feast began, oversee the supply chain of dishes.

The Feast:
What made KP feasts peculiar, if not different, was the manner in which food was served. The floor would be covered with mattresses and topped with colorful ‘masnands’. Guests would sit on the floor in rows of 40-50 persons each, facing each other with a long piece of white cloth (known as Pott) in between and food would be served to them at their place only. This sitting/ gathering was called ‘sab’. This ‘Pott’ was for keeping thaals, one for each guest, in which food would be served. Before serving food, each guest was helped in the washing of hands – a team of 2-3 ‘workers’ would come to each guest carrying a jug of clean water and a ‘chilamchi’ (a kind of metallic mini tub; this obviously was before the advent of the plastic era); soap or clay was offered as per individual’s choice. The team would also carry a towel for drying hands, post washing. This was followed by another team of two ‘workers’ with metallic thalis – one would keep the thali and the other would clean it with a piece of clean cloth or small towel. Then the process of serving food would start –a team of 8-10 workers (depending on the number of items on the menu), each carrying one dish (starting invariably with haakh) would walk through the ‘sab’, offering it to the guests. As a worker would run out of stock, a relay runner would be ready with replenishment. The penultimate item to be served was white boiled rice followed by Kaliya (veg or non veg), the only dish served by the Waza. The service (of offering refill of rice/ items) was repeated several times, with as many servings as the guest wanted till all the guests had their fill. Then, the guests would get up to wash their hands at designated spots and the ‘service team’ would rush to pick up the used thalis – to be washed and cleansed for the next ‘sab’.

To my mind, this was a very unique gesture, typical of Kashmiri mehman-nawazi! This indeed was our tradition and culture - guests were equated to God and food was served to them by not any disinterested hired help/ waiters but by friends, relatives, and neighbors of the family, with a sense of belongingness and a smile on their faces. Family elders would be personally attending to the guests, ensuring every guest got proper attention and directing the ‘service’ team as per the need or as per the guest’s importance. At times the process of serving would get dramatized with the intervention of ladies from the host family, who wanted that guest from their in-law’s side to be attended to on priority; in the process, at times, two ladies could be tugging at the arms of a ‘service team member’ simultaneously, trying to pull him towards their respective relative, often sitting in different rows!

Another peculiarity of KP functions was the flexible/ extended timing! The ‘saal’ would generally start by 8.30 am to facilitate the ‘office goers’ – people who had to reach the office by 10 am. So, the guests for the first couple of ‘sabs’ would be exclusively male (working ladies were, by and large, very limited in numbers). Ladies and children would follow. In fact, mid-day gatherings would find mostly for ladies and children as guests, making it more sensitive and incendiary! Hosts, particularly the ladies would make extra efforts to ensure there were no ‘swollen’ faces due to ‘slights’, real or imaginary! I recall my first experience as a ‘worker’ in 1972 - it was my cousin’s marriage; the first ‘sab’ started at 8.30 am and the last sab (Durybatt) concluded by 4.30 pm. The exercise of running up the stairs to the devankhan (on the fourth floor) with a thaal full of Rogan josh or ‘Matchh’ for 7-8 hours was hard on my young legs but the josh was high!    

Post Exodus, everything changed for us, including the way marriages were performed. Families got scattered, and neighbors got lost. The buffet/ caterer/ tent house system made its entry silently at the cost of our traditional ‘sab’. Guests got reduced to a number (caterer’s plate count). The personal touch and emotional connection of participants went missing; the involvement of family members invariably got diluted. New items got added to the menu, and a number of ‘stalls’ at the feast became important as did alcohol consumption. At the time of my daughter’s wedding in 2014, one close relative preferred to attend another wedding since ‘drinks’ were freely available there! Even our Kashmiri language has lost out to other, more sophisticated languages, in line with the DJ/ Destination Wedding Culture! Due to long queues at various stalls, guests at the buffets tend to fill up their plates with as much food as they can lay their hands on so as to avoid standing in queue for a refill. This often leads to huge food wastage but then, who cares! Seeing the length of the queue in front of every stall, I once left a ‘reception’ without eating and nobody even cared! What a contrast to our Kashmiri tradition - "You are my honored guest. Please don't stand in the queue. I shall serve you while you are seated comfortably".

Not for a moment am I criticizing the change – it was inevitable and influenced by several factors including the disappearance of several of the support systems available in Kashmir. Besides, there was plenty in the old system that one can find fault with – disproportionate workload on women, for one! Whether we like to admit it or not, our womenfolk were an overburdened lot - an ‘Atlas’ like existence, carrying the household burden on their shoulders, without any acknowledgment from the man of the house. In the new system, women can afford to relax and showcase their zari-jamawar pashmina shawls and the Banaras Silks! No system is perfect – and change mostly indicates progress! It is the loss of old-world charm and mystique of the past that takes me down memory lane! Thank you, Rajan Wattal Ji, for reminding me of our past and heritage.


    • Suniel Kumar Dhar
      Suniel Kumar Dhar

      The memoirs written by Munshi  jee are always very interesting in nature and  everyone from our younger generation should read his content so as to know the unique cultural  traditions and social customs of our community.His writings always make me nostalgic about those old days spent in kashmir !🙏🙏👏👏

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