When the sun burns coldly under a low grey sky and when the only alternative source of heat is the kanger , the traditional fire pot, you know that winter is putting footsteps in the Valley. At sunset the clouds gathered again calling it a night but of-course as they say, with the promise of a new dawn, the flowers sleep and trees show their bony limbs once more and a smile plays upon your cold face, yes ‘Chillai Kalan’ has come upon the people of the valley once again.
While the coldest seasons of the year is ordinarily known as ‘winter’ everywhere else, we Kashmiris call it ‘Chillas’. The most severe times of winter spread through three months and divided into three parts – ‘the Chillai Kalan’, ‘the Chillai Khurd’, and ‘the Challai Bache’.
‘Chillai-Kalan’ is the traditional 40-day period of harsh winter. It begins from December 21 and ends on January 31 next year. Instead of a gentle breeze the air turns into sub-zero temperatures, frozen lakes and rivers, and the demand for Kangri, electric blanket goes up.
According to a tradition, 21st December is celebrated as Shab-e Chelleh (Night of Forty), which refers to the beginning of the first 40 days of Winter. It is believed to be the longest night of the season, but not scientifically proven. The onset of Chillai Kalan is celebrated by preparing 40 kinds of dishes; people are dressed in their traditional dresses and perform traditional dance forms like Dumhal.
Kashmir Valley dons a white cloak. The air is tinged with blue and grey, and pools of water freeze on streets only to squeak when stepped on. The chances of snowfall are most frequent and maximum in Chillai-kalan. Life takes a slow pace in the valley till the end of January. People usually stock up essentials including dried vegetables, coal and kerosene.
During these winters when your floors are getting too cold to handle, ‘Hamam’ comes to the rescue. Hamams are rooms where firewoods are used beneath the floor, made of special stones, with the goal to keep it warm. And the secret of keeping oneself warm is by effectively layering up in woolen clothing, pheran, jackets and the fire-pot beneath the dress.
There is also a saying of Chillai Kalan- ‘A garlic a day for a healthy stay’, referring to have a garlic every day as a precaution to stay away from the common effects of cold and be healthy.
Thankfully, the harshest period is followed by the 20-day-long ‘Chilai Khurd’ (small cold) at the end of January that occurs between January 31 and February 19, and subsequently the 10-day-long ‘Chillai Bacha’ is from February 20 to March 2 (baby cold) which won’t be as harsh as the 40-day-period. Any snowfall during this season does not last long.
The colors of winter paint the valley with shades of grey and white. Winter here is not just a season, we hear about people going back to their roots in the biting cold.
Last but not the least, remember my friends, “No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.”