The season of snow

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Decked in snow, Gund village in the Valley. -

Decked in snow, Gund village in the Valley. -

As winter descends on the Kashmir Valley, the golden splendour of autumn disappears and the landscape transforms into a freezing expanse of white.

A BLUISH smoke hangs low in the evening over the warm gold of the ripe paddy fields. People are busy until late evening, scything the stalks, threshing them, tying them into precise bundles and splaying them in neat patterns on their fields. Nearby, there are large, shining, engraved metal samovars filled with tea to keep them warm and energetic. A fortnight later, the paddy and the wheat will have to be cut even if they are not ripe. They will not ripen any more because of the rushing cold.

It is early October and the evenings are chilly. The hay is being stacked in dome-shaped ricks - to serve as fodder for the cattle in winter. Pheran, a long tent-like garment of thick shoddy wool manufactured in Amritsar, begins to be worn. Shepherds and Gujjars hurry down from the alps and meadows with their cattle and sheep. Many Bihari vendors sell cheap Ludhiana shawls and woollens from cycles and carts. From the roofs of homes in the villages, vegetables that have been dried for winter are taken down. It is also the time to stock up against the winter shortages and higher prices of essentials.

This is the first phase of the harsh winter. In early November, the birch trees turn golden, the apricot red, the willows and poplars bright yellow and the giant chinars bright rust. One corner of the Valley - from Pampor to Khru - is abloom with the kong posh, known to the world as zafran or saffron of the best quality; zafran from Iran and Spain is used to adulterate the Kashmiri species. In another week, the bluish purple flower with delicate yellow stamens will have been plucked, dried and stored in many homes. Peasants hang dried grass for their cattle from the trees. The ground is a riot of colour with the dry leaves of chinars, poplars, willows and apricots. These are slightly burnt and turned into coal for the kangri, the small, brightly designed earthen stove from Siir, Zainapora or Chrar-e-Sharif that Kashmiris carry under the pherans and even sleep with at night. The haze and scent of the smoke of burning leaves is inseparable from the sensuous early winter of the Valley.

When the trees are bare, the fields are ploughed and manured, and mustard and wheat sown for spring, Kashmir is ready for chillai kalan - the coldest stretch of winter, which begins on December 22 and lasts until January 30. There is no colour left, yet the brightest of Kashmir's seasons is about to start. With snow, even a dark and cloudy day lights up. With sleeves hanging loose from the wearers' shoulders, pherans burgeon at the midriff as people clasp kangris to their stomachs. Chillai kalan is upon them.

The snow that falls during this period stays until summer, melting slowly. Nature has been quite fickle over the past decade in the Valley. For many years before 2002, there was hardly any snow. Last year and near the beginning of 2003 the snow was late, but in early November in 2003, Kashmir's upper reaches had already had their first snowfall. Then on December 15 and 16, Kashmir had its first heavy snowfall, indicating an end to water shortage in the towns and better crops for the farmers. If it continues to snow through this season, it will remain in the higher reaches through chillai khurd (small cold) that occurs between January 31 and February 19 to chillai bachh (baby cold), which is from February 20 to March 2, and will provide water for the fields until next autumn.

Billions of snowflakes fall in a moment and not one of them is the same. The snow covers the Valley's hills and hollows, the oppressed and the oppressor, gardens and houses, Army camps and hovels, boulevards and dirty alleys. For a time there is peace and quiet all around. Even a footfall seems sacrilege. Everything is white, yet there is much variety. Buildings, bridges and embankments create patterns in the snowscape.

There are imposing rock temples of the 10th and 11th centuries at Nuranag, Martand, Bandy and Pattan. Snow carpets their intimate contours, highlighting their massive grandeur. On the boulevard next to the Dal Lake, there is an old and ample house, whose exquisite architecture must have been planned with snow in mind. Its filigreed outlines are exceptionally lovely in the snow. The burnt wreck of the old and graceful cottage industries house looks decidedly cheerful. Even the opulent houses built with more money than aesthetic sense temporarily acquire a faint allure about them. Snow transforms everything into beauty.

The heavy snow on the mountains that surround the Valley lasts until late summer and is spectacularly beautiful. Zoji La, the pass to Ladakh, is soon buried under eight metres or more of snow. The passes are closed. For a few days after every snowfall, the Banihal, the all-weather route to Kashmir from Jammu, becomes temperamental and risky around the avalanche point near Banihal village. The airport is closed for a couple of days more than necessary because of inefficiency - sometimes it is because there are too few bulldozers to clear the snow. The grim, fortress-like, slatted, slanting airport building with snow heaped on it looks like a lot of white bushy eyebrows.

After heavy snow, it is best to wait for a couple of days for the snow ploughs and labourers to clear the Jammu-Srinagar road before starting out. This road route is the best introduction to the magical experience of Kashmir in winter. Once you cross the Banihal tunnel, the pure white Valley spreads before you to the north, east and west. From Qazigund at the base of the Pir Panjal, as far as the eye can see, everything is bright with snow. Qazigund has been frozen in an older time as well, but within a few years, it will change into a brighter future, for Kashmir's railway will start from here. The long line of snow-engulfed trucks waiting for the road to Jammu to open at Qazigund under snow-covered trees is a dramatic curtain-raiser. Cricket bats made out of the plentiful Kashmir willow hang optimistically outside shops on the almost straight road to Srinagar.

An unfamiliar hush has settled over the whitened city. Before the snow starts to fall there is rain and sleet and the noise of traffic and the shouts of vendors are loud and clear. Next morning all sounds are smothered. The snow ploughs, the first internal combustion engines to venture out, push through the snow from early morning, crumpling it into dirty sidewalls. Sounds of dislodged clumps of snow falling from tin roofs are amplified. Squeals of children playing, and segregated snow fights - girls versus girls and boys pelting boys - are louder than normal market sounds and rush hour frenzy.

The Jhelum is reduced to a sluggish trickle and the polluted, rapidly suffocating Wular, Dal and Nagin lakes have a film of snow over their stagnant and weed-choked sections. Ahrabal's famous fall is starved of water. Amidst the snow, the cheerful symmetry of the Mughal gardens stands out. Their rows of silent fountains, tiers upon tiers of ornate and spacious pavilions, and bare chinar trees underscore the architects' vision of perfect geometry complementing unbridled nature. The pattern is not so starkly visible in the leafy flower seasons. One of the most moving experiences I have had has been in the freezing upper pavilion of the Shalimar Bagh. Late one evening, I was strolling in it with snow everywhere when, from inside its grandly decorated acoustic-friendly canopy, encircled by an immense arched verandah, where emperors had once walked, came the sound of a lone flute, sometimes hauntingly recalling a snow-trapped winter, sometimes lively and lilting, reminiscent of a summer meadow alive with playful lambs and children. I waited on frozen feet until the music stopped.

The myriad wires that stretch untidily over downtown Srinagar are covered with snow and have transformed an ugly sight into something uniquely attractive. The dark branches of leafless trees have several centimetres of snow clinging to them. Some poplars keel over under the weight. The powerful bare limbs of the chinars thrust rugged snow-covered frames against the sky. The houseboats are like wedding cakes; their `To Let' signs are the only indication that they had once seen life. The carefully contorted branches of the twisted leafless trees set in the geometrical lawns of the Chashm-e-Shahi, frame the Dal Lake below I and the Pari Mahal above it. Pari Mahal, alas, is now inaccessible. The snow-covered Zero Kadal (bridge), dominated by the Zaindwan hill, is suddenly impressive, its normal crumbling despair covered by snow. Below Hari Parbat's stern fort walls, built by Akbar, the gracefully arched entrance and the immense dome of the Zaindwari mosque, now hidden by a vast, snow-encrusted chinar, harmonise with the distant Pir Panjal range. Under the marble portal of the entrance to this complex of monuments sit a couple of determinedly hopeful beggars waiting for the cold to loosen the purse strings of sympathy.

In Gulmarg, the aerial chair cars journey to Kodnori and back, way above immensely tall snow-laden evergreen firs that seem dwarfed from the glass-wrapped cars. The road to Gulmarg is always kept open as it is a popular ski resort. It has a large Army camp too since intrusions across the nearby Line of Control (LoC) are sometimes so brazen that Kashmiri youth picnicking here have been abducted. However, such incidents do not deter tourists. Over the past three years, tourists from all over the country have started visiting Gulmarg in large numbers in January to experience winter at its harshest and loveliest. However, Yusmarg, a popular tourist destination in summer, is in winter a wide, deserted, rolling, captivating expanse bordered by thick-needle fir forests stretching high up the hills on both sides. On the south rises the Pir Panjal. The whole panorama is an entrancing white. Even the hardy Gujjars have left. Their low, squat, snow-covered, flat, mud-roofed huts, encircled with crowns of crystal clear icicles, reach down to the snowdrifts that seem to buttress the huts. The road after Chrar-e-Sharif is hemmed in by considerably more snow until, a few kilometres from Yusmarg, there is barely room for one jeep to squeeze through the metre-and-a-half-high snow walls. There is not a soul in sight but now and then an Army patrol, knee-deep in snow, diligently goes about its tasks.

Sonamarg has too much snow for anyone to bother opening the road after Gagangir, but the Sind Valley is always magnificent no matter how far one can reach. The snow lies thick on the firs. Sometimes there is so much of it that it even hides the river in places. The mountains above it are more forbidding and intimidating than in summer. The steeply slanting snow-covered tin roofs do not let the snow stay on them for long but, for the moment, lend grace to the scene. The traditional roofs of mud and wood (called shingle posh) were pleasing but impractical as it was difficult to clear the snow off them. Better-off Kashmiris have replaced shingle posh with tin roofs.

After the first snowfall, Bandipore in north Kashmir becomes the last motorable point for the mail to go to Gurez beyond the Raidhan pass (11,600 feet, or 3,480 metres). Gurez's troubles increase when the pass is blocked. There is no medical service for emergencies. The two helicopters meant for emergency evacuations have crashed. Escape is impossible. Only the hardy can get out by following the top of the electric poles that are occasionally visible. There is no adequate food for the large number of children suffering from malnutrition. In the rugged and exquisitely beautiful Gurez and Tillel valleys, grain is stocked almost from the moment the route reopens after winter until it closes for the next winter. But grain alone is insufficient for the children's health. Angelic faces disfigured by boils, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks stare helplessly at you. In these two valleys, there are about 25,000 people, of whom about 6,000 are children, 2,000 of them undernourished. Not enough grows here to sustain the inhabitants. There is very little employment. The people of the region are Dardis, reputed to be of Aryan stock but now hardly the sturdy people of yore. Earlier they used to earn comfortable amounts as porters to the Army but after several leaks about positions that came under accurate fire from across the LoC, the Army trusts mules more than the local people. Some of their homes are log huts that cannot keep out the bitter cold winds. The Kishenganga valley is ideal for winter sports, but until some form of development, even winter sports, improves the living conditions in the region, the people can only struggle - almost hopelessly - to stay warm and healthy.

Meanwhile, snow on grass stored in the forks of bare trees makes bizarre patterns. A staircase, a roof, a motorcycle, a petrol pump, are temporarily covered with ethereal beauty. Birds fly aimlessly in search of nests buried in the snow. Dogs lie curled in any shelter they can find; sometimes a snowdrift is the only warm place they can get. Many people here cannot afford fuel, even for a kangri. They go to other parts of the country to look for warmth and temporary work.

Undulating Kupwara is kept only easily, but beyond it the strategic road to Tangdhar, parallel to the LoC, is closed for at least a couple of days after heavy snow. The Valley ends after Chowkibal and the road goes through a deep fir-forested defile. The 55-kilometre-long road is banked with snow through which gaps are made connecting villages to the road with footpaths. The marker stones show the distance from the LoC, along with the kilometres remaining to Tangdhar in India and close to Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). The Pakistani villages are above or adjacent to the Indian ones. The same snow covers them. They look just as beautiful. Villagers on both sides are as cold as each other. But that imaginary line is fixed indelibly in the minds of the residents on both sides. And despite assertions that infiltration is less after a snowfall, not-so-ghostly footsteps go past at night and even during a murky day. No one dares find out who is huffing through deep snow. The village dogs continue barking until all is silent again.

Romesh Bhattacharji, former Chief Commissioner of Customs, is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.

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