Weddings in Kashmir
A wedding feast in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla

When thirty-year-old Muneera Rasool got engaged to Muneem Farooq in a modest ceremony at their residence in January this year, their families imagined the marriage to be lively and typical of the extravagance that is common to Kashmiri weddings.

Marriages in Kashmir are colourful and involve elaborate traditions, largely held at residences of the bride and groom. Tents are pitched in lawns or public spaces to host the guests as traditional cuisine—wazwan—is served on and shared by four guests from each of the large copper plates called traem placed on long spreads of dastarkhan (tablecloth).

Generally, preparations takes months but Ms. Rasool and Mr. Farooq’s families had chosen the month of April–just three months away–to hold a three day marriage function. The preparations began immediately with the booking of venues and the wazas—traditional cooks who work in teams to not only prepare wazwan but also serve it at the wedding feast.

Mr. Farooq, 29, is the first in his family’s younger generation to get married, for which a “huge celebration” with about 600 guests, coming from different parts of the Valley and the country, was planned by the family. “Invitation cards were printed and some were even distributed,” he said. 

However, the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic in the country and the nationwide lockdown, announced on 24 March, to contain its spread not only delayed the marriage by a month but also compelled the families to scale down the celebrations. Marriages are among the few occasions when friends and extended family gather in celebration.

Three decades of strife in Kashmir has meant that marriage functions being delayed, cancelled, or downsized is commonplace but this time it was different. The spread of the disease in large gatherings has made weddings in Kashmir, where guests are not only in close proximity but share food from common plates, more vulnerable for transmission.

On 30 May 2020, the planned extravagance of the Kashmiri wedding was substituted for simple rituals observed by both families at their homes, five kilometres apart in the Dialgam village of Anantnag district. Due to the pandemic,” he said. “The marriage turned out to be a small and private affair. Even our friends couldn’t come and just 15-20 people could actually make it to our wedding day.”

Instead of vibrant celebrations, an unease gripped the ceremony as family members remained cautious of the need to maintain physical distance, the only effective method to stop the disease’s spread in the absence of a vaccine. “Everyone was wearing masks all the time and food was served separately to everyone because we didn’t want to put our loved ones in danger,” said Mr. Farooq. “Traditions couldn’t be followed because safety was the criteria.”

Like her husband, Ms. Rasool was also the first in her family to get married. “All my wedding

preparations were done,” said Ms. Rasool, with a hint of sadness. “I was the first girl in my family to invite a makeup artist for my wedding but all these things got wasted because of the pandemic.”

This is the second consecutive year that the wedding season has been disrupted. Last year, the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited autonomy on 5 August and the ensuing lockdown had led to many weddings being scaled down or cancelled or postponed for this season. Weddings are also important to Kashmir’s economy, involving different businesses.

The wedding season has already begun in Kashmir, reaching a peak every year between the months of April and September. At the same time the Covid-19 has spread at one of the fastest rates for any pandemic so far, dampening the mood this year.

While Ms. Rasool and Mr. Farooq chose to go ahead with the marriage amidst the pandemic, several families in Kashmir have cancelled or indefinitely postponed weddings, scheduled this year, in the wait for an end to the pandemic.

Twenty six-year-old Seema Bashir, a doctoral candidate, is considering going ahead with her marriage as per the already decided date on 8 August this year. “The thought of postponing the wedding did cross our minds,” said Ms. Bashir. “But reports suggest that [the coronavirus pandemic] is here to stay for a long time. That seems like a long time to wait for.” 

Even though the weddings haven’t been postponed, the preparations had come to a halt due to the lockdown. Ms. Bashir has not been able to shop for her wedding, not even the trousseau. “I haven’t done much shopping yet and I don’t know how to buy anything now,” she said. “It is not at all safe to go out shopping, one might just get in contact with an infected person anytime.”

Now, her family plans to hold a low-key wedding with a limited guest list even though for Ms. Bashir, the last in her family to get married, her marriage was supposed to be a day of celebration with friends. “I had also planned to have a photo booth with props to make memories with my family and friends through photographs,” she said, uncertain of how her wedding will look like. “One cannot be sure about who the infected person is.”

However, matters are more complicated for twenty-four-year-old Khalid Faik, an electrical engineer in Srinagar, who had planned to get married to a Kerala based chartered accountant in August. The couple has decided to wait till the pandemic ends. 

“We both belong to different cultures so we had decided to have the nikah ceremony in Kerala and the reception in Kashmir so that both the families are satisfied,” said Mr. Faik, adding that the plan had become difficult given the current situation. “So we have decided to wait because we want everyone to be really happy at our wedding but the pandemic doesn’t guarantee that.”

The pandemic has changed the scenes at weddings that Kashmiris have long become accustomed to. The white shalwar kameez worn by the wazas has been replaced by full body protective gear at some weddings while small bottles of sanitisers have made their way to the dastarkhan. In some instances the traem has also been replaced with smaller plates for individual guests.

However, there are still weddings and other social functions where not everyone is conscious of the threat of the pandemic. Mir Abdur Raouf, 30, attended one such wedding last month. “I don’t think social distancing was met there,” he said. “Some wore masks. I had expected hand sanitizers to be everywhere but couldn’t locate one.”

The administration in J-K has restricted the number of guests at weddings between 30 to 50, depending on the threat perception of an area, and mandatory prior-permission and social distancing. However, Mr. Raouf said that it wasn’t possible to restrict social proximity and hence it was not wise to go ahead with weddings till the pandemic hasn’t ended. 

Even though the attendance at the wedding was limited, “food was served in tramis which again should not have been the case”. Ironically, he “noticed that people were reluctant to shake hands with each other and hug each other.”

This story was published in the 29 June – 5 July print edition.

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