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The ‘Chillai Kalan’ refers to the harshest winter period in Kashmir - starting from 21 December till the end of January. 

Photo: Muneeb Ul Islam/The Quint)

‘Chillai Kalan’: Kashmir’s Harsh Winters Are Gloomy Yet Beautiful

‘Chillai Kalan’ refers to the 40-day period beginning from 21 December, when the weather is coldest and harshest. 

4 min read

The winter season in Kashmir is perhaps the harshest, yet the most beautiful. Starting from 21 December, the Valley endures a 40-day winter period known as ‘Chillai Kalan’, which roughly translates to the ‘harshest days of winter’.

The period is followed by the 20-day-long ‘Chilai Khurd’ (small cold) at the end of January, and subsequently the 10-day-long ‘Chillai Bacha’ (baby cold).

Daily Life Comes to a Standstill

With sub-zero temperatures across the region, daily life for its residents becomes fraught with challenges. Commodities of daily use are difficult to procure as key roads, including the Jammu-Srinagar highway, are shut, and even flight operations get disrupted. In fact, the locals stock up on food items and fuel before 21 December.

The water supply is also disrupted with frozen taps becoming a common sight. Frequent power cuts only amplify the cold and add to the discomfort of the residents.

In Srinagar, the minimum temperatures are expected to reach around -5 degree Celsius this ‘Chillai Kalan’, while the maximum temperature would hover in the range of 5-15 degrees.

It would be much colder in the touristy spots of Pahalgam and Gulmarg, with minimum temperatures in the latter predicted to be as low as -14 degrees, and the maximum temperature not going above the freezing point.

Last January, the snowfall in Kashmir was said to be the heaviest since 1992, with Gulmarg recording 7 feet of snowfall and Gurez up to 11 feet.

However, there has been a rise in average temperatures over the last few years.

Contrasting the present situation with the past, this article on Scroll even recounts how in the 1980s former Jammu and Kashmir CM Farooq Abdullah actually rode a car over the thick ice cover on the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

The Mainstays of ‘Chillai Kalan’ – Pheran, Kangri and Dried Food

To cope with the sub-zero temperatures, the Kashmiris turn to their traditional methods. Pheran – the knee-length cloak – is accompanied by the kangri – the traditional fire pot to keep oneself warm. Dry fruits, dry fish, as well as kehva (Kashmiri tea) and namkeen chai are consumed regularly.

Hamams – rooms heated by firewood – are also frequented by many during this season.

An interesting ‘ritual’ followed during ‘Chillai Kalan’ by many Kashmiris is to shave their heads, as it is said that the severe weather conditions can damage their hair.

An Inspiration For Literature in Kashmir

The literature and the folk culture of Kashmir have been inspired by the season of ‘Chillai Kalan’ for many years. The seemingly mundane subjects of bare trees, frozen rivers, as well as gloomy and isolated towns and villages, have provided a creative impetus to many writers and artists.

People say it (winter) is a sign of depression but to artists, it is something else. We enjoy it. We get a pleasure in seeing these colours and patterns of frozen water.
Masood Hussain, a Kashmiri artist to Scroll

Here’s an excerpt from a piece by Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali that romaticises about the winters and snowfall.

Snow gleams as if a lover’s gaze has fallen to earth. How the season whitens! Even the evergreens are peppered with salt, and only love can take the place of the mountain.

Another poem on Chillai Kalan begins as follows:

The pheran, the blanket, and the kangri

barely warmed the bones during the forty days of Chilai Kalan.

The icy air poured in from the drafty windows.

Each bed was like a tent: we slept completely covered.

When the morning broke we heard the sounds from the kitchen

mother making tea on the smoky stove

father saying his prayers after his bath in icy water.

When he had finished it was time to roll up our beds

and assemble around the breakfast sheet.

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