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Distinct from the rest of the country, Jammu and Kashmir sports a multi-faceted, multi-colored and unique cultural blend. Not only the geographical conditions of the state are different but it can also be set apart demographically with varied ethical and social entities, diversity of religions flourishing in the area, different language and cultural forms and heritage albeit with an over-reigning harmony that blends in with the serenity and beauty of the region. One gets dazed by the sheer diversity and richness of art and architecture, fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, seers and sagas, languages and mountains that thrive amongst the unparalleled cultural cohesion, which is exemplary.
Kashmir has been the highest learning centre of Sanskrit and Persian as Indo-Aryanic civilization has originated and flourished here. It also embraced the advent of Islam along with the virtues of Persian civilization such as tolerance, brotherhood and sacrifice.
The population living in the Valley of Kashmir is primarily homogeneous, despite the religious divide between Muslims (94%), Hindus (4%), and Sikhs (2%). The people of the Valley, share common ethnicity, culture, language and customs, which is no doubt the basis of "Kashmiriyat".
The people living in Jammu that profess Hindu and Muslim faiths are ethnically different from those living in the Valley in terms of ethnicity, language and culture. The people living in Azad Kashmir, share common religion with their counterparts along the line of control, but are not ethnically and culturally similar to the people living in the Valley who are Dardic. The predominant language of Azad Kashmir is Pahari and the people of Azad Kashmir are ethnic Punjabis. Kashmiri is only spoken in a few border areas of Neelum District.
The people living in Ladakh are primarily Buddhist and are of Tibetan origins. The Muslim minority in Ladakh belongs to the Shia sect. The Kashmir Valley is ethnically homogeneous with ethnic Kashmiris of all religions residing mainly in the Kashmir Valley, with Srinagar as its capital.
Kashmir’s culture is interlinked with its geography: cut off from the rest of India by high mountains, it lies along the once fabled Silk Route. For centuries it has thus been open to influences from Persia and the countries of the Central Asia. As late as the first decade of this century, some parts of the bazaars of the Old city used to be crowded with merchants from Yarkand selling porcelain bowls. With herds of yak, these merchants, clothed in colorful costumes, used to spend a few days at a hostelry close to the seventh Bridge of the Old City which still stands, now unused, as a testimony to Kashmir’s erstwhile trade with Yarkand. Other communities too have left their cultural imprint on Kashmir. These traces have been so inextricably woven into the fabric of everyday life that it is impossible to separate the strands of what was once imported, from that which is indigenous. Neither is modernity inimical to culture in Kashmir, for the history of the land has always shown the adaptability of the people to new elements, with no loss of the vital Kashmir essence.
Ask a visitor to Kashmir what image he associates most closely with the land, and his answer in all probability will be the shikara. Elegant, graceful, even romantic, this gondola-like boat has been figured as a graphic or logo on company letterheads so frequently as to have become a cliché. However, most Kashmiri's themselves do not see it as the most important adjunct to their way of life. Ask a Kashmiri what to him symbolizes his land, and chances are that he will refer either to the Kangri or the pheran.To most Kashmiri's, from the villager to the widely-traveled urbanite, life is unimaginable without either of the two.
The Kangri ("Kanger") is a clay pot surrounded by a willow basket with a handle. In the cold months of the year, glowing embers of charocoal fill the clay pot, and this marvel of invention is carried around under the cloak-like pheran.
There are several theories as to the origin of the Kangri. Some say that it is entirely indigenous, others that it is an import from Soviet Central Asia. One rather colourful theory has it that when the Mughal Emperor Akbar conquered Kashmir, the people were immensely strong and well-built. The only way he could subjugate them was by making them slothful. This he did by the simple expedient of forcing the population to wear woolen cloak-like gowns, baggy and shapeless, and to carry around Kangri under the gowns. If this be truth, it must we know about Kashmiri history up till that time (AD 1586) does not suggest that race-and so we must conclude that this explanation lacks in historical fact what it makes up for in fanciful imagination! Kangris are used throughout the Valley. They have their uses in the summer months too, when lighted charocoal required for hookah smoking is stored in them. But it is towards the end of autumn, when the first signs of chill are in the air, that great clusters of kangri begin to make their appearance in shops. In Srinagar, one of autumn’s most typical sights is that of dozens of kangris tied to motorcycles or piled into skiffs to be taken home. Coal too, frequently in short supply during the winter, must be bought well in advance and stored. In this respect, modern Kashmir exists quite happily with its past, with no sense of incongruity.
The kangri, an invention that dates back at least 400 years, is still seen as the best protection against the cold and not only among the older generation, the young man roaring through Srinagar’s crowded bazaars on his high-powered motorbike, will use a kangri just as naturally as his grandmother at home. Neither see it as a continuing tradition - it’s just there, and there’s nothing more convenient, not even a hot water bottle. Tied to its handle is a spatula for stoking dying embers. One’s feet can be curled comfortably around the wicker, and who has ever heard of roasting chestnuts on a hot waterbottle? The warmth of a kangri can be depended on, unlike central heating which cannot be carried out-of-doors.
Similarly, no jacket or blazer can compare with the comfort and convenience of the pheran. Knee-length and baggy, the sleeves are loose enough for the arms to be retracted into it. Pheran are made of tweed; dark browns and blues being the most favoured colors of this distinctive Kashmiri dress. Every man, woman and child wears a pheran during the cold winter months. Even during the rest of the year, a sudden drop in the temperature bring pheran out from store cupboards.
They are worn over the latest styles of acid-washed jeans with as much ease as over the salwar. The fashion-conscious add a collar here and piping there to the basic design, and the manual worker will hitch one side of his pheran over one shoulder for freedom of movement.
Women wear a modified version of this pheran throughout the year. While there are many materials to choose from, the most porized will always remain velvet. Women’s pheran are knee length, and the velvet ones are profusely embroidered in real silver thread at the throat, cuffs and hem. There are a few standard designs for the embroidery, the most lavish being stylized Chinar leaves around the neckline.
While a tailor sews the Pherans , the embroidery takes the skill of a needle worker. The customer buys silver thread in multiples of ten grams - the weight of the thread determines the design rather than the other way round. Silver embroidery on a velvet pheran is a status symbol. Everyone knows the prevailing rate of silver thread (the cost includes the embroiderer’s charges) and the worth of pheran can be evaluated in the twinkling of an eye! It has only just become fashionable for ladies to carry handbags and purses-before that,the pocket of the pheran served the purpose quite well. Even today, the matriarch of a household is likely to have pockets permanently weighed down with keys, spectacles, sweets, a handkerchief and an assortment of other articles of daily use.
Another Kashmiri tradition happily in little danger of dying out is the Wazwan or banquet.
The cooks, wazas as they are called, all belong to one particular community and no outsiders are accepted. The profession, with its long hours of arduous work, is rewarded financially if not socially,as banquets are held to celebrate events that range from the birth of a child, an engagement, a wedding to a return from the pilgrimage to Mecca, ensuring a steady year-round demand for waza chefs. The only time when business is slack is the month of Ramzan, a thirty-day period, whenall Muslims must fast from sunriseto sunset. During this time it would be sacrilegious to have a celebration calling for a banquet.