Culture & Society

Kashmir As Wedding Destination Paradise

Destination weddings have picked up pace in Kashmir. Though it’s an expensive affair, but that has not stopped people from pouring in to the Valley to do wedding recces

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Fairytale Venue: Scenes from a marriage at a hotel in Srinagar
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As the bride emerges from Srinagar’s Lalit Grand Palace hotel, she is greeted by lush lawns, towering chinars and the distant Zaberwan Mountains in the backdrop. Reminded of the Bollywood song sequences shot on the verdant grounds, she heads to the serene Dal Lake. With loved ones by her side, she smiles, approaching adorned shikaras at Lalit Ghat.

As she awaits her groom in her bedecked shikara, he emerges from Taj Vivanta, overlooking Asia’s largest tulip garden. He heads to another ghat, boarding another flower-adorned shikara. Their boats glide to Bollywood melodies over the cold waters of the iconic lake.

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The bride and groom’s shikaras head for the Sheri Kashmir Convention Centre on the lake’s banks, where they exchange vows in a ceremony filled with Bollywood melodies, sealing their bond at the mandap.

After the abrogation of Article 370, destination weddings have picked up pace in Kashmir. Last year, there was a sudden spurt in such lavish weddings, especially among wealthy industrialists from various parts of India who wanted to have their loved ones wed in Kashmir, long known for its iconic beauty.

“We arrange weddings in even more exotic locations than this one,” says Mohsin Bhat, 40, sitting in his office at Karanagar.

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Bhat used to specialise in organising smaller events and gatherings, but in 2019, before the abrogation, he transitioned to hosting weddings, starting with a mammoth wedding event for Dubai-based non-resident Indian (NRI) families in the Valley.

While the trend of hosting elaborate marriages in Kashmir has picked up pace, Bhat admits there is a common concern in the inquiries they receive about hosting wedding events in one of India’s newest union territories—fear.

“They have both love and fear for Kashmir. This perception has not changed over the years. They want to have their wedding here, but they fear whether the place is safe for such an event,” says Bhat.

Clients, he says, are escorted to different potential locations in Srinagar to quell any doubts. “Once they see the place for themselves, they finalise their dates. I have never seen anyone who came (to Kashmir) on a wedding reconnaissance trip and didn’t choose to have their wedding event organised here,” Bhat points out.

Last year, Bhat organised 25 weddings, each costing between Rs 5 and Rs 10 crore. He recalls arranging a wedding for a wealthy Gujarati diamond merchant’s family. “Just like everyone else, they too were also worried about the place and had safety concerns. I think these concerns are understandable. Nobody wants any trouble during a wedding,” says Bhat.

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After successfully organising the wedding in the Valley, they asked Bhat to organise another one in Ahmedabad for a relative.

While Bhat is a relatively new player in the destination wedding arena, Amit Wanchoo is a seasoned professional and a go-to person when it comes to organising destination weddings in Kashmir.

Wanchoo’s journey as a destination wedding organiser in Srinagar and nearby locales started in 2011. There were blips in his journey, of course, like the tense phase around the abrogation of Article 370 and the prolonged Covid lockdown.

However, once the restrictions were lifted, Wanchoo started receiving inquiries about organising small scale weddings in tourist destinations like Gulmarg and Pahalgam. After January last year, inquiries started flooding in. By the end of 2023, Wanchoo had successfully organised over 40 weddings, including five on a grand scale in Srinagar, where the guest list spilled over 1,000 invitees.

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Despite conflict, the Kashmir wedding market flourishes, witnessing growth in destination weddings and pre-wedding photoshoots, with over 200 shoots last year. Wanchoo says that Kashmir as a market for such high-profile events is evolving, with destination anniversaries gaining popularity, but clients still harbour safety concerns until they actually visit the Valley.

While the return of Kashmiri Pandits continues to remain a popular government slogan, some Kashmiri Pandits have been returning to their roots, specifically to conduct their wedding rituals in the Valley. One such example was a wedding between the Wakhloo and Kashov families last year in the Valley. The Wakhloo family had yearned for a wedding theme in Kashmiri Pandit tradition and Kashmiri songs.

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In June 2023, Wanchoo orchestrated one of Kashmir’s largest weddings, uniting a bride from Gujarat and a groom from Assam. Meanwhile, in Srinagar, a Sikh man married a Hindu woman in a grand ceremony attended by 1,000 guests. Other weddings featured a Canadian bride and an Indian groom.

Popular venues for such grand destination weddings include Lalit Palace, Taj, SKICC, Radisson (new and old), Khyber, Vintage, and Pine and Peaks in Gulmarg. Even the Amar Singh Club emerged as a choice as a wedding venue due to its heritage charm, along with the Karan Mahal, situated on the banks of the Dal Lake, which catered to a more private affair.

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After the wedding, many couples explore Kashmir’s spiritual heritage by visiting Sufi shrines and temples. Some wander through Srinagar’s old city, while others seek blessings at revered sites like Hazratbal Shrine or Baba Reshi Shrine in Gulmarg. Couples often commemorate their union with a photo shoot at Gulmarg Valley’s quaint church, lighting candles and capturing memories. Pre-wedding rituals commonly occur at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Ganderbal, along the Srinagar-Sonmarg road.

At most weddings, the backdrop is intrinsically Kashmiri in essence, with families preferring a Kashmiri setting, complete with traditional handicrafts as props, including costly shawls with intricate designs and fine silk carpets.

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Kashmir, as a wedding destination, promises diverse weather. Some are enchanted by Kashmir’s snowy winter, while others seek solace in the embrace of its summer sun. Then there are those who fall in love with Kashmir’s autumn, when the chinar leaves transform from a golden hue to a fiery red, painting the landscape in breathtaking colours.

“Last year, we had a wedding at Gulmarg when it was snowing. The bride and groom wanted to conduct all the wedding rituals and formalities in the snow. Both of them just sat in the snow and got them done,” Wanchoo adds.

However, Kashmir is not an inexpensive wedding destination. Costs soar, ranging from airfare to hotel charges, with Delhi to Srinagar flights among the country’s priciest. Accommodation ranges from Rs 15,000 to Rs 40,000 per room, adding to expenses. Despite government inaction to curb costs, wedding planners utilise Kashmir’s natural beauty itself as their décor, in order to ‘naturally’ save on costs.

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Limited vegetarian cuisine options continue to pose a challenge, which planners like Bhat and Wanchoo are striving to address.

Last year, a family from Kolkata wanted their beloved Kolkata tea at the wedding. None matched the taste of the tea available in Kashmir. “So, we roped in a cook from Kolkata to ensure they could enjoy the tea they love,” says a wedding planner.

“In Kashmir, we face two main challenges. Firstly, assuring guests that the place is safe for hosting a grand wedding. Secondly, ensuring that we can cater to their specific food preferences. We have been successful in overcoming both challenges so far,” he says.

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Despite challenges, Kashmir’s allure as a wedding destination persists, with couples drawn to its beauty and charm, creating timeless memories amidst conflict.

(This appeared in the print as 'Destination Paradise')

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