Last week, Rohail, scion of the Khwaja Saifuddin Gunna family, promoters of the Saifco group and now Taj Vivanta, the Taj group’s first hotel in Srinagar, married Adiya, granddaughter of Ghulam Qadir Kowousa. The wedding was preceded by six days of merrymaking and feasting by friends and relatives gathered from around the world. Some 10 acres of apple orchards surrounding the bride’s family home in Nishat were lit up with fairy lights. The wedding feast, the wazwan, comprised of 18 courses. “It’s almost as if we are breathing again. After years we are seeing a wedding like this in our family and since the situation is quite peaceful now, it was unanimously decided to have a grand celebration,” says Rouf Shah Kowousa, the bride’s uncle. The groom’s house, right opposite the high-security Badami Bagh cantonment, saw fireworks late into the night.
The big, fat Kashmiri wedding is back with a bang. In the last two decades of violent conflict, traditional wedding celebrations had been hit hard. Fear of the gun, militant diktats and a number of attacks on wedding celebrations had made people go in for small, quiet ceremonies where the biggest casualty was the wazwan. Just kahwa and roti at the bride’s place and a hurried ceremony became the norm during the troubled years. Even last year, when the stone-pelting protests led to violent clashes, several people who had planned big affairs were forced to abandon them.
Kahwa and roti at the bride’s place and a hurried ceremony became the norm in the troubled years.
For many years, people had stopped any form of celebrations after dusk. Now, just a few days ago, when retired government official Ghulam Rasool celebrated his daughter Pakheeza’s wedding at Dalgate, the groom reached the bride’s place at 11.30 pm, by which time most of the 1,200 hundred guests had eaten. “The relative peace in the Valley this year is an opportunity for people to have late-night celebrations. There is no night curfew, security forces do not stop people at night on the streets, so baraats have started arriving very late. Never mind if everyone is exhausted by then!” laughed his son Arshad Rasool. He admits that friends and relatives tried to dissuade the family from going ahead with the sumptuous nuptials, fearing things could go wrong. “But we took a chance and, Inshallah, everything went off very well”, he says. With Ramzan falling in August and a good summer so far, there’s been a rash of weddings even though the traditional season is later. And it looks like austerity is the last thing on anybody’s mind now (see box). “You see, weddings in Kashmir are all about wastage and the sentiment now is that no one should stop us from doing it,” smiles a family member. Just to be able to hold a noisy marriage procession on the once menacing streets at night, and to burst fire-crackers (another new introduction) is a novelty many Kashmiris cannot get enough of.
Lavish wazwans too are back on the trami (a Kashmiri plate from which four people share food). The wazwan, of course, is the heart of a Kashmiri wedding. It is a multi-course, mainly mutton feast, whose sheer lavishness makes it a status symbol. Though the standard wazwan comprises of seven dishes led by the Meithe mutton and ends with the favourite Kashmiri delicacy, Gushtaba (soft mutton balls cooked in curd), the average wedding today has 10-25 dishes. At the Rasool wedding, which had 15 wazwan dishes, more than 900 kg of meat was consumed. “A lot of it goes waste as people cannot eat so much of it, so there is now a trend of offering polythene bags with the trami so that people can take the extra food home. It took us up to two hours to serve all the courses to each person, but anything less is looked down upon,” says Arshad.
This then is also boom time for the wazas, the cooks who make the wazwan. Vasta waza Abdul Rashid and his 40-member team say they have already done 40-odd weddings this year. The wazas are paid according to the amount of mutton cooked. Many of them had left the profession in the last few years as demand for wedding feasts vanished. “People used to make do with just 50 kg of mutton during the unrest. Now there’s no wedding that consumes less than 300 kilos,” says a happy Rashid. “Now it’s 3 kg for each trami, whereas earlier it was just a kilo or less. I charge Rs 8,000-12,000 per quintal of mutton cooked.” (The 18-20 course wazwans have had some not-so-good side effects too—an epidemic of food poisoning in Srinagar. Every day, 25-30 people report to Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical sciences with bad tummies and hundreds have been hospitalised in the countryside. But a touch of food poisoning is hardly a dampener in the ongoing orgy of feasting.)
“Weddings in Kashmir are all about wastage and the sentiment now is we need to indulge....”
City trends like multi-cuisine banquets and buffet style meals in hotels have also begun in Srinagar, but tradition still dictates how the majority of weddings are conducted—and they are almost always at home. A three-day celebration is a must for even families of modest incomes. The mehndi raat with all-night singing and dancing by women, the actual wedding with wazwan stretching for hours and the walima on the third day at the groom’s house are the minimum these days. Rouf Hamid, guest at the Kowousa wedding, ruefully remembers his own marriage in ’09 which took place in the shadow of the Shopian incident and the resultant protests. He had planned a grand celebration with 450 guests, but days before the wedding, curfew was imposed. “Just seven people accompanied the baraat and we had to get curfew passes for them. We barely had time to have kahwa and roti at my wife’s place and rushed back after a hurried ceremony,” he recalls. This year’s feverish revelry, then, is quite evidently an outburst of bottled up aspirations.
But these are early days, it’s too early to assume that things are returning to normal. Rouf Shah, like many others, insists the return to grand wedding celebrations is just their way of coming out from the oppression of the last few years. As Imran Sheikh, a leading Kashmiri businessman, puts out, “It’s after years that we are seeing colourful, musical weddings in Kashmir. We just want to be a little extravagant, before the next phase of unrest hits us.” Long may it last, not the sound of gunfire but the crackle of fireworks resounding on the streets of Srinagar, lighting up the Kashmir night sky.