SRINAGAR: By early December, the flights out of Srinagar are full once again with the annual exodus to the plains having begun. By then, the chinars have lost their orange brilliance and there is a nip in the air. The boatmen on the Dal spend hours snoozing, security guards are swathed in ever more layers of blankets and the night creeps up onKashmir
with startling suddenness. The Kashmiri winter is here. But which one?
Early December is early days; everyone waits for the real thing, chille kallan or the mature winter. By the third week of December, Kashmir starts to feel chille kallan, which lasts 40 days and means such intense cold that everyone carries a kangri in their phiran. Local legend has it that the kangri was specially introduced by Emperor Akbar in order to make the Kashmiri slothful. True or not, there is nothing more likely to induce lethargy than a glowing kangri.
A popular folk song about the kangri goes as follows:
October/ Kartikh came and I put some embers in you, hay kangri
November/ Mojihor came and we became concerned about you, hay kangri
December/ Poh came and I filled you up with toh, hay kangri
January/ Mag came and you were hard to get, hay kangri
February/ Phagun came and a plot was laid against you, hay kangri
Song or not, the kangri is indispensable in the chille kallan.
Chille kallan is the time water freezes in the pipes. In December 2010, a pipe in Gulmarg burst at night and by morning, the water had frozen into a replica of the Amarnath Shiva linga
— eight feet tall, three feet wide.
Come Christmas, all eyes are on the sky. "When will it snow" is the only topic of conversation anywhere in Kashmir, from chai stall to newspaper editorial. Night temperatures plummet to minus six, the airport grows more crowded with those leaving, the editorials are ever more shrill as they wait for snow.
Then magically, one day, it happens. Last year, Srinagar woke on December 29 to a quiet knocking on the rooftops. The snow had arrived. Every bare tree, the dirty ice, everything was clean and new — swathed in a giant white blanket.
For the Kashmiri, snow in December is a good omen, signifying that the mountains will freeze and the streams will be full in summer. It is a slow time, seemingly meant for reflection and endless cups of noon chai as one mulls over the dying year. Even the stonepelter has a slogan that calls for action, albeit in distant June. Life is at its most somnolent, a melancholy appears to have descended on the Valley, shops shut by five and everyone rushes home to the bukhari, the kangri, the electric blanket and the hot water bottle.
Then comes the season that Kashmiris call chille khurd or old winter. Temperatures rise, the snow begins to thin, and the kangri can be held a bit further away away from the body. These 20 days are the time people start to think about the year ahead.
Of all the descriptive names in the world, chille bach or the child winter would surely win hands down. For 10 days, the snow continues to fall, but never for very long. By now, the tulips that will bloom in spring are safely in the ground, the shikaras have been given a fresh coat of paint and the hotels start to accept summer bookings.
Between February and the magical bahaar will come jumbhar, a Kashmiri belief that earth and sky will heat up to melt the snow, turn the streets to slush. After 70 days of snow, there is finally a hint of green. The first sign of spring is here. Winter is over.
It is entirely unsurprising that Kashmiri has so different names for every facet of its long winter. Without the snow, there would be no almond blossoms or gushing streams. No circle of life. Winter may not have the green energy and flamboyance of spring, the splendour of summer, or the romance of autumn but it has serenity and offers an all-embracing blanket for blemishes.
Long years ago, Wilfred Thesiger wrote about the deserts of Arabia: "No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can hope to match."
Kashmir's desert of snow may have much the same quality.