Chillai Kalan is the 40 day harsh winter period in Kashmir. This period sends shivers down one’s spine. Chillai-Kalan begins from December 21 and ends on January 31 next year.
Chillai Kalan is a Persian term. Chilla means 40, Kalan means bigger, which in literal sense means “major cold”.
Interestingly according to Persian tradition, night of 21st December is celebrated as Shab-e Yalda-“Night of Birth”, or Shab-e Chelleh. – “Night of Forty”. Iranian Azerbaijanis call it Chilla Gejasi, which marks the beginning of the first 40 days of winter. The Iranian concept also survives in Kashmir, where Chillai Kalan designates the 40-day harshest winter period.
It is divided into three parts called the Chilas: The Chillai Kalan, the Chillai Khurd, and the Challai Bache.
Chillai-Kalan is followed by a 20-day long Chillai-Khurd (small cold) that occurs between January 31 and February 19 and a 10-day long Chillai-Bachha (baby cold) which is from February 20 to March 2.
December 21 marks the beginning of Chillai Kalan every year and thus, begins the period of harsh cold and continues till January 31. In this 40-day period, nights are chilly and day temperatures thrive in single digits. Historically, during this period, Kashmiris stay indoors surviving on dried preserved food and enjoying folklore and traditional music.
The 40-day period brings a lot of hardships for Kashmiris as the temperature drops considerably leading to the freezing of water bodies, including the famous Dal Lake here.
During these 40 days, the chances of snowfall are the highest and the maximum temperature drops considerably. The minimum temperature in the Valley hovers below the freezing point.
Since many years there has been more snowfall and cold during Chillai Khurd and Chillai Bachha than during chillai kalan.
Impact on Daily Life of Kashmiris:
Kashmiris put on traditional pharan (Long woolen gown both for males and females) to protect from cold. Though modern day down jackets are available but Pharan seems to be affordable and more reliable in harsh winters
Kanger – a traditional earthen firepot – is used to keep warm and ward off freezing intense cold. Despite having different avenues of heating, Kanger in which coal is used is most reliable. It keeps a person warm for a day. The coal is replaced every morning.
Kanger and Paharen go together. Either of the two is useless without each other.
Traditionally, Kashmiris used to dry vegetables like tomatoes, turnips, brinjals and gourd during summers to be used during winters when the Valley would remain cut off from the rest of the country. The tradition continues in remote and far flung areas of the Valley.However, with the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway becoming almost an all-weather road, fresh vegetables are available in the market throughout the year and the tradition of drying vegetables is no more seen in cities and towns of the Valley. Dried fish, popularly known as Hokh Gard in Kashmiri, is, however, still used as a delicacy during the winter.