Much like Kashmir’s ethereal landscape, its culture is rich and unmatched. The culture is a reflection of its history that is shared by the many rulers, religions, and schools of thought that spent time in Kashmir and contributed to the distinctive identity it holds today. Having been a seat of ancient learning, Kashmir is known as Rishivar- or the abode of rishis (sages) and derives its name from Maharishi Kashyap.
A Melting Pot of Cultures
Buddhism had a vibrant presence in ancient Kashmir and it was a hotbed of spiritual and philosophical quest much into the 13th century. With the advent of Islam in the 14th century, Islamic influence began to spread and infuse Central Asian features to Kashmiri life that are seen in their lifestyle, clothing, and architecture.
Post-independence Kashmir went through rapid and turbulent changes and although this paradise on earth remains stripped much of its glorious past, its culture and way of life has not been able to divorce itself from its ancient, profound roots. Kashmir holds a unique position in its food, language, clothing, jewellery, architecture, handicrafts, rituals, and folklores.
Language of Kashmir
Kashmiri or Koshur is the language spoken in the Kashmir valley. It is Dardic by origin but has evolved to have a vocabulary including Dardic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian elements. It was originally written in Sarada script but the Persian script has come into use, although the Persian script is restrictive and not equipped with symbols for the many Kashmiri vowel sounds. Religious differences are evident in the vocabulary and choice of script.
Muslims use words of Persian origin and script whereas Hindus favour words derived from Sanskrit and write in Sarada script. The significant dialects of the language spoken are Kistwari, Poguli, and Rambani.
Kashmiri embroidery known as Kashida is an exquisite needle and thread work that involves a single long stitch to make designs mimicking Kashmir’s distinguished natural beauty like maple leaf, twigs, branches, trees lotus bloom etc. The embroidery is carried out on wool, silk, and cotton. Pashmina is the lightest and highest quality of wool that is made into shawls and coats Bejewelled with Kashida embroidery.
This thread work is carried out on pastel colours and is used to embellish a variety of clothing and linen including sarees, Salwar Kameez, Jackets, Kaftans, cushions and bed covers. They make up for some unique and everlasting traditional Indian handicraft that you can add to your collection.
Traditional Clothes of Kashmiri Men and Women
The traditional dress for both men and women of Kashmir is Pheran or Phiran. It is a long one garment that extends to the feet and consists of two woollen gowns worn one over the other providing double layer of insulation. Kangri an earthenware pot covered by wickerwork filler with simmer charcoal is held underneath the phiran to keep warm in the harsh winter the valley witnesses each year.
This practice has significantly reduced the dangers of poisoning and burning attached with it. There is a cotton version of the phiran for the summers. Phirans are usually decorated with embroideries or flower styles made with thin metal threads known as Tille in Koshur.
Kashmiri jewellery is old and traditional and commands a style that is hard to imitate. Ornaments are generally made of gold and silver, studded with precious and semi-precious stones like jade, agate, turquoise, rubies etc. The designs imitate nature and often depict shapes of almonds, grapes, cherries, chinar leaves, birds, snakes, dragons, and wild animals.
The jewellery is adorned across religions among people and some famous types of ornaments are Jiggni/Tika for the forehead, long, chained earrings a style typical of Kashmiri women known as Bala, Dor-Hor, Alcahor, Kanadoor, Jumaka, Deji-Hor, Kana-Vaji, heavy Jewelled necklaces, bangles, and anklets.
Kashmiri Wood Carvings
Kashmiri wood carving and carpets hold world standards of craftsmanship and distinctiveness. Kashmir walnut wood carving holds a Geographical Indication. The Juglans regia tree that grows widely in Kashmir is used for this particular kind of wood carving. The wood is hard and durable and its close grain and even texture facilitates fine and detailed work.
Kashmir is one of the few places where the Walnut tree is found in such abundance and the wood is carved upon making one of a kind tables, jewellery boxes, trays, chairs and more.
These are heavy knotted carpets having anywhere from 200 knots to 900 knots/sq. inch in wool & silk yarn. They have attained such excellence that they rank amongst the finest in the world. Carpet weaving is a laborious and highly skilled work, weavers that are often families, sit together on a carpet, completing which can take an average of 2 years to complete.
The designs or motifs on carpets have been used for centuries and passed down from teacher to student. Some of the popular carpet motifs are Gulabdar- Kashmiri Rose, Tree of life, Gumm -maze pattern, Dabdar- box pattern, Khatam Band- intricate wood-art inspired motif to name a few.
Folk Dance of Kashmir
Dumhal is the popular folk dance performed in the Wattal region of Kashmir traditionally by men although today the dance includes women as well. Rouff is another traditional folk dance performed only by women. Both dances are performed wearing long, colourful robes and tall conical caps studded with beads and shell.
The dancers sing in chorus and are assisted by drums. The dance is performed in the Wattal region only on set locations for specific functions and it is considered a privilege to be able to perform this dance.
The glory of Kashmir is pronounced even more by its vibrant architecture. Much like everything in Kashmir, its architecture is an example of its blended traditions and beliefs of ancient Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Stone architecture seen in Kashmir derives their origins from ancient Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries and stupas.
Later Turkish rule infused wood and brick architecture that is seen in Muslim shrines and mosques. The art of Naqashi (painted lacquer) and Khatamband (woodcraft where wooden pieces are fitted into one another) was brought by Persian and Central Asian craftsmen to Kashmir which was carried forward by the Mughal and Afghan rulers.
The influence of this style remains to be seen throughout Kashmir in its shrines, temples, mosques, houses, Shikara, and houseboats. Houseboats wear the Kashmiri architecture with pride and boast of geometric wooden lattice work known as Pinjra-Kari and Kharamband ceilings.
Traditionally houses in the valley were made from wood and mud which provided necessary insulation through the rough winters but with the passage of time brick and cement houses have gained popularity. The famous architectural splendors of Kashmir are shrines like Khanqah I Mualla, Naqshband Saheb, Dastgeer Sahib along with its mosque.
Fair and Festivals of Kashmir
Many fairs and festivals are enjoyed in Kashmir which include both religious and non-religious celebrations. Vethtruva was a festival celebrated across caste and religions to commemorate the day on which the source of Jhelum was supposed to have been created by Bhagwan Shiva. The popularity of such secular fairs and festivals have dwindled due to the removal of Pandits from the valley. Iduz-Zuha, Shab-e-Barat, Nouroze, Diwali, Dussehra are some other festivals celebrated with fervour in Kashmir.
Kashmir has an incredibly rich history of art, craft, poetry, philosophy and has been one of the greatest civilizations of the world. It’s a syncretic identity made from foreign and local cultures gave birth to a unique blend of culture, distinctive and golden in every way. Each social group has its own characteristics based on their ancient values and ethics, yet the Kashmiri society is a composite of these freely differing thoughts and lifestyles.
Kashmir will enrich your spectacular scenery as much as it will enrich the art, tradition and culture seeker inside of you, it will laden you with beautiful pieces to adorn and decorate your home with. Once you visit Kashmir, its unforgettable essence will remain with you for a long time.