Discovering the patriarchy entrenched culture of Kashmir through a marriage ceremony
As someone who is deeply interested in the political history of South Asia, visiting Kashmir had been on top of my bucket list since as long as I can remember. The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is located in the Northern most part of India bordering Pakistan. Its geographical and demographical situation played a crucial role in shaping Indian politics during the partition and it’s the only state in India that has its own flag and a separate constitution.
Kashmir’s mesmerizing natural beauty and its amazing history had always been a subject of fascination for me. So, this July when my friend invited me to her house in Kashmir for her ‘Nikah’ or wedding ceremony, I immediately booked my tickets to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, without giving it a second thought.
Our friendship, as far as I can remember, developed due to sheer curiosity about each other’s life. We lived in the same hostel while pursing our bachelors at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and I often found myself going to her room and talking about her life back in Kashmir. I loved listing to the stories of partition that her grandparents used to tell her.
I also found it amusing how she would wake up every morning around 4:00 am for her morning prayers and diligently offer Namaz five times a day. The elegance with which she would cover herself with floral printed long dresses from head to toe in 45 degrees Delhi heat, while I, like many others, could barely tolerate wearing a pair of shorts and a tank top was also amusing.
She led a very disciplined life back in college. While I already knew a lot about Kashmir’s history and politics, she introduced me to its unique culture. She would often ask me about my family and friends in Nepal and talk about her lifestyle in Kashmir in great detail.
My first day in Kashmir
July 4, 2018. I landed at the Srinagar airport. My friend had sent her cousin to pick me up. He was bearded, tall, fair, and had blue eyes – exactly how we imagine a stereotypical Kashmiri guy to look like except he was wearing a western outfit. That was not how I thought Kashmiri guys would dress up. Due to my shallow understanding about Kashmiri culture, I expected him to wear traditional attire (a male version of what my friend would often wear to college).
As we got out of the airport, Kashmir valley reminded me of Kathmandu (with bigger roads, of course). My friend’s cousin started playing loud RnB and rock music in the car. He asked me about the kind of music I liked and played them too.
I was enjoying the ride and I started taking Instagram stories from inside the car. “Isn’t Kashmir beautiful?” he asked me. “Everything that they show on media is just one side of the story. We all are nice people and we love living peacefully,” he said and I completely agreed with him.
Meanwhile, he also seemed to be planning a surprise for his girlfriend. He was deciding which flowers to take and was planning to buy a cake from the best shop in the valley. For some reason, I found him completely different from my friend who had never spoken to or texted a guy in her entire life. She would often tell me that she would never talk to any guy before her wedding. She considered talking, interacting, and going out with other men ‘unsafe’ and ‘haram’ (forbidden by Islamic law). “Maybe Kashmir is more liberal for men,” I thought to myself.
I reached her house in about half an hour. As I entered her house, I was greeted with happy faces, hugs, and kisses from the women in her house. They served me some warm Kashmiri tea called Kehwa (made of saffron) and some delicious Kashmiri bread. I was already wearing a long full-sleeved ‘kurta’ inside her house but I was told to cover myself with an extra shawl in front of the men. In no time I realized that, like all other cultures, Srinagar too was deeply entrenched in patriarchy. Yet again, it was the women who were at the receiving end of it all, confined to their private spheres.
The engagement story
The same evening, I was excited to hear my friend’s engagement story. She was in her first year of masters and her parents had decided to get her married off. She seemed happy and extremely excited for her wedding. Everyone in the family looked happy too. “Her fiancé is from a really good family,” her mother told me in her broken Hindi as Kashmiri is the first language there.
I forced my friend to narrate her engagement story. I wanted to know everything about the person my friend was getting married to. She blushed and told me that he was an engineer, had a government job, and a handsome salary to boot. That was about everything she knew about him.
In her first year of masters, her parents had arranged for a marriage broker to find her a suitable groom. This time when she went home for her vacations, the man’s family wanted to meet her. So she was told by her mother to go and meet them at their neighbor’s place. In less than two days time, the groom’s family decided that they wanted their son to marry her. When they got the news, in half a day her father found about the man and his family and decided to get his daughter engaged. That evening, the two families met at a park. Both of them brought a ring along with them.
At this occasion, if the extended family also liked each other, the boy and the girl would exchange rings and get engaged. And that is what happened. Her ‘Nikah’ was then held 20 days later. And I was in Kashmir to attend that ceremony. In their culture, it is said that a girl and a guy cannot talk to or meet each other before the ‘Nikah’. My friend, who has always been disciplined, followed all the rules. She would ask others about her fiancé, his habits, and his family. But she never spoke to him before the wedding.
The big day
July 5, 2018. This was the big day we had all been waiting for. Kashmiri ‘Nikah’ was completely different from the traditional Hindu wedding that I was so used to attending. We were told that the girl would go to her husband’s house only a year after her ‘Nikah’ ceremony. In that time, the bride and the groom would get to know each other. The ‘Nikah’ would officially declare them to be husband and wife and they would finally be allowed to meet and talk to each other.
The ceremony was also different because the groom was not present there. He had the same ceremony in his own house that was three hours away from the bride’s home. The ‘Maulana’ (a Muslim religious scholar) first came to the girl’s house to conduct the ‘Nikah’ and then went to the groom’s house for the same. The ceremony did not take more than 10 minutes.
In the evening, there was a big feast. A few people from the groom’s family came to give the bride some jewelry.
After the groom’s family was served with the most expensive delicacies found in the valley, we were made to sit in a big hall inside her house. Most Kashmiri houses have big carpeted halls with no furniture inside them. Apparently, big halls inside their houses represented their affluence and prosperity. My friend’s house had three huge halls.
The women and girls in the house first sat down for the feast. The male members of the family served us food. The feast was called Wazwan, and it was a multicourse meal and four people had to eat in one huge plate.
At first I was a little apprehensive about eating from the same plate because the concept of ‘jutho’ is deep in our culture in Nepal. But a while later it all seemed very normal. They had about 24 varieties of meat cooked for the celebration and everything was simply delicious.
July 6, 2018. On the third day, we decided to go on a Srinagar trip. Srinagar is a huge valley that looked like a beautiful amalgam of Kathmandu and Pokhara. Their most popular lake in the valley, the Dal Lake, even resembled Fewa Taal. To me, the mountains looked very familiar, but it was their culture, religion, language and their history that made this place so different from home. The hills looked recognizable yet the people living in them looked so different.
The highlight of Srinagar was its picturesque and well-maintained gardens with beautiful flowers. It looked like a well-planned city and people there were extremely friendly too. It was difficult to imagine how such a peaceful and beautiful place could be a war prone zone. But suppressed acts of rebellion could be visible on the streets. Phrases such as ‘Give us freedom’ or ‘Free Kashmir’ could be spotted very commonly on the walls and bridges. This gave us a hint of something cooking beneath the calmness of the valley, making us often wonder how long the peaceful façade would hold up.
We decided to have our last dinner with the bride. Back home, our bride looked extremely happy. She was already planning to go on her first date with her husband. “We will go on a Shikara (boat) ride in the Dal Lake,” she told me. She had a twinkle in her eyes that I had never seen before. She was talking, texting, and flirting with a guy (her husband) for the first time in her life. She almost seemed like a teenager newly in love. She would still need her husband’s permission to study and to work but she was looking forward to a new life with him. And, seeing her happy, I felt extremely happy too.