Drawing the White Curtain

Winters of disquiet in Kashmir

01 January 2020
View Gallery

LAST YEAR, during what locals were touting as the coldest winter in 12 years, I made a visit to Srinagar. Despite it being the tail end of chillai kalan—the period from late December to the end of January, the coldest and harshest part of the season—the city received a fresh fall of snow. Winter in Kashmir has three stages. Chillai kalan gives way to chillai khurd and eventually to chillai bache—bache means “little child”—which is gentler than the previous two and gives way to spring.

As a first-time visitor to Kashmir, I was told by Kashmiri friends that my trip would be incomplete without a foray, even a short one, to Gulmarg—to experience it in peak winter as much as to see the markers of militarisation along the route there and at the destination. As the city roads gave way to the highway, every so often we saw army convoys cross in the opposite direction. Upon reaching Gulmarg, the atmosphere appeared festive. Every few metres, Kashmiris wearing pherans—a traditional garment—ropes slung across their shoulders, pulled enthusiastic Indian tourists down the slopes on makeshift wooden sledges. The scene was heavily reminiscent of the British, during the Raj, being pulled along in hand-drawn carts while perched on cushioned seats; the situation was only somewhat lightened by the comic element of the vacationers’ discomfort as they tried to maintain some poise. There were also more conspicuous echoes of occupation. As we turned a corner, we spotted a couple of skiers resting near a lodge, while a soldier in army fatigues, white snow boots and dark glasses stood guard nearby, holding an assault rifle. The tourists’ excited shouts were interspersed with the whirring of a helicopter that, I was told, was flying to an army base at the top of the hill.

Gulmarg was a reminder of the duality that is Kashmir: a population simmering under a seemingly tranquil surface. While the media represents Kashmir as being ridden with conflict, it is, at the same time, regarded as a “paradise,” its beauty coveted as a backdrop to Bollywood dance sequences. This dichotomy is palpable in the photographer Sohrab Hura’s ongoing work Snow. Photographed over five winters, since 2015, it takes shape across the three stages of winter in Kashmir.

Sohrab Hura lives and works in Delhi, and is an associate member of Magnum Photos.

Keywords: Kashmir conflict photograph Kashmir Valley