Monday, May 29, 2017

A Touch of Kashmiri Hospitality

‘Just wait until we reach his place and you will see the hospitality,’ my friend told me. We were on our way to Anantnag from the Srinagar airport one mid-April evening.  For the next hour I could only wonder what she meant.


Just as the sky grew dark, we reached our host’s place. It’s a custom to hug when you meet someone in Kashmiri households. Usually the elders would kiss your forehead while welcoming you and bidding farewell. And that is exactly how every member of the host family greeted us, as if they had known us forever- we were immediately made to feel at home.

As we entered the Drawing Room, a striking thing came to my notice- there was not a single piece of furniture. From end to end beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets were laid and cushions dotted the wall. ‘Everyone sits on the same level. There is no distinction between rich or poor, higher or lower class. Everyone is equal and everyone is equally served,’ my friend and host told us later. 

As we sat down and I tried to process remembering the names and faces of the plethora of new people I was meeting, one of the host family members came in with a huge tray laden with juices and dry fruits. This was followed by the all-too-famous Kashmiri Kahwah with a variety of biscuits. The way these were served was overwhelming in itself. A long piece of cloth would be rolled out in front of you. This is called the all famous dastarkhaan. Everything will be served on this. The hospitality had already cast a spell on me and the wedding was still four days away.

While we usually get our friends and guests involved in all wedding activities, in Kashmir the situation is different. If you arrive as a guest, you will be taken care of with the most care. The hosts would make sure you face absolutely no issues, you wouldn’t have to worry about anything, and mostly you would be expected to be part of the wedding rituals and have a good time. No other expectations.

We were amazed by the number of times a member of the host family would come up to us and ask if everything was fine, if we needed something else, if it was too cold and if we had food and tea or not.

The tea. The Kashmiris love their teas and you would be spoiled for choice. A usual day in a Kashmiri household begins with noon chai and breads early in the morning followed by Lipton tea with breads before noon. These breads aren’t the usual packed breads we have in the market; instead they are home-made or freshly bought from local bakers and a lot heavier and larger. Evenings usually see another round of tea.

In the duration of my stay, we were offered as many as five different varieties of tea, each one strikingly different from the previous one. There was the kahwah (mix of 15 herbs in water), the noon chai (salt-tea), the Lipton tea (Not the brand Lipton, it’s just called ‘Lipton’ for some reason. This is the normal milk tea we have), a milk variant of kahwah and noon chai with sattu. Kahwah definitely became my favourite while my taste buds struggled to adjust to the salty noon chai.

The highlight of a Kashmiri wedding is definitely the food. It was no surprise that when my friend invited us for the wedding, the email contained one line of invitation and the rest of the page contained photos and details of the wazwan- the Kashmiri wedding feast. All I knew about the wazwan before having it was that absolutely delicious and finger-licking food is served in a huge plate which is shared simultaneously by four people. What I was to discover was way more than this.

There are several meat dishes prepared for the wazwan a day before the wedding. The cooking continues for 24 hours at a stretch before the feast. If you are a vegetarian or not-so-fond of meat (like me), wazwan is not the dish for you. As you sit cross legged on the floor with three companions- known or unknown- your hands would be washed in the tash-t-nari (a jug and basin combo) and then a huge plate with rice and a variety of meat would be placed in the centre.

There are several courses of food served. ‘It can go upto as many as 36 courses,’ our host told us. I used to be overwhelmed with just the first serving!

Wazwan preparation a day before the wedding; it's an age old Kashmiri ritual

A major difference I observed in the Kashmiri wedding ceremony was the absence of sweets. Our weddings are usually laden with ladoos and a variety of sweets which are prepared in the days preceding the wedding. It’s impossible to imagine our weddings without sweets. Here in Kashmir, there was an overflow of several variety of toffees- even being thrown in handfuls over the bride and groom. This and kids not running to catch the toffees definitely surprised me. :D

On the wedding eve, as drops of rain poured in the chilly atmosphere, singing of the traditional Kashmiri songs by the ladies of the locality moved outside the house which was now decorated with twinkling blue lights. The baraat was ready to leave. There was no dancing, no loud music, but there existed a consistent and beautiful old world charm as the entire convoy left. The singing continued. It was time to get the bride home.

On the way back to the airport in the early morning hours, four days later, as we crossed the acres of saffron fields with the snow clad mountains accompanying us in the distance all through the route, all I could think of was the amazing hospitality we had been host to in the last 8 days. I felt sad for how this beautiful land and its amazing people have been alienated from the world simply due to politics and a never ending debate.

For once, I knew I would definitely want to come back to this beautiful land again. This time more confident and without doubts on the simplest of things including ‘Are there functional ATMs in Kashmir?’

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3 comments :

  1. Could relate so much to every word that you typed. Absolutely loved your style of writing and engaging the reader.

    :)

    Shubham

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful post! Enjoyed reading it and loved the way you put crucial information about Kashmiri culture in a lucid, interesting manner.

    ReplyDelete

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