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The ‘Big Fat’ Kashmiri Wedding: Social integration or lavish extravaganza

From expensive clothes and jewellery for the bride and the groom to an extravagant feast, the Wazwan, prepared in traditional Kashmiri style for the guests, Kashmiri weddings are a unique extravaganza that bring families and friends together.

Although considered to be an occasion that strengthens the bonds of kinship between relatives, but over the years this social event has become more about show boding and lavish spending. Thus, transforming the Kashmiri weddings into an extravaganza that has become too expensive for common folks to afford, as many activists believe.

A social event like no other, Kashmiri weddings are more than an occasion of two people getting married, they are a loud pompous affair full of fireworks, expensive clothes and of course, good food. “ We Kashmiris love living life King-size and the same is reflected in our wedding ceremonies”, says Maqsood Hussain, a newly-wed and a contractor by profession. “ And then the fact that we (Kashmiris) are foodies , and what better excuse for eating good food than a Big Fat Kashmiri Wedding” he adds with a smirk.

The unofficial wedding celebrations start a couple of months before the actual date of the wedding itself as friends and relatives start flooding into the bride’s and groom’s house and this goes on until the Big Bash itself, the grand wedding day. “ Weddings in Kashmir are an occasion that are responsible for maintaining the tightly knit social fabric of Kashmiri society in general and Kashmiri families in particular in today’s individualistic and materialistic times, this is a healthy trend and should remain intact” believes M.Farooqi, a sociologist.

A brief history of changing trends

Celebrated with much fervour and a festive mood, Kashmiri weddings have experienced lots of changing trends since the last six decades and become and expensive affair especially since the last 10-12 years or so.

Traditionally, the Kashmiri weddings used to be simple affair in the old days, the weddings used to be conducted in a simple manner with the groom’s side taking care of all the expenses, a trend that went on till the 1940’s. From wedding attire (Vardan in Kashmiri) of the bride to feast (Wazwan), everything was organized by groom’s parents. At the end of the ceremony, guests were provided with return gifts known as “Bogh”.All the things required for the weddings were contributed by relatives.

The end of the Maharaja rule saw an economic surge in the valley resulting in many new rituals being introduced in the weddings, gold replaced silver as people had become somewhat economically stable.

Up until the mid-1980,s the wedding attire remained fairly traditional consisting of a canvas pheran (cloak) adorned with intricate zariwork and heavy silver jewellery for the bride. The late 80’s saw the rise of the dowry system in Kashmir, the groom’s side became more and more demanding and expected a lot of things from the bride’s side.

Western and mainstream culture gained ground during the early 90’s changing the trends in Kashmiri marriages once more as sari’s and other indian and western outfits started to replace the traditional wedding attire. The outlook of weddings celebrations also started to change as a more western/indian flavour started to creep in. But this era could not sustain for long due to the rise of insurgency and brought in an age of frugal marriages as conflict dominated the social scenario.

The dawn of the new millennium once again brought about a sea of change in the scenario of Kashmiri weddings as the situation improved gradually. Lavish and extravagant weddings with expensive décor and grand feasts started to be organised ,more focus was paid to the overall ambience of the location where the wedding feast was to be served and the wedding conducted.

The groomsmen (Baraatis) accompanying the groom in a convoy of expensive cars and the groom himself seated in a lavish luxury car en-route to the bride’s home for the wedding feast (Maharaaz Saal) gradually became a norm, especially in urban areas.

The Present Scenario

In recent times, Kashmiri wedding ceremonies have had another make-over as add-ons from Punjabi and mainstream Indian aka Bollywood culture seem to have crept in.

Kashmir weddings today have become more complex than ever and a fast growing trend in Kashmir especially in urban areas is conducting of marriage ceremonies in Banquet Halls or Hotels, where the traditional system of serving Wazwan has been replaced by the buffet system.

Sociologists believe that this trend has been brought about by the fast-moving hectic lifestyle prevalent in urban areas and breakdown of traditional joint families into nuclear families.

“See, it’s not a question of money, they are heavy spenders, but people living in nuclear families with a hectic urban lifestyle simply do not have the time or the human resources that can pull-off a traditional style wedding” maintains M.Farooqi. “ Moreover, they are socially disconnected from their extended families and thus do not have the required man-power who could lend a hand on such occasions” he adds.

Though believed to be an occasion that unites families and friends, social-activists believe that Kashmiri weddings are becoming more and more extravagant and expensive rapidly. An average wedding in Kashmir costs around Rs.10-15 lakhs that goes upto a crore if the family is well-off, figures that are well beyond a common man’s reach and often drives him into heavy debt in order to pay for the wedding expenses.

The Wazwan, a specially prepared multi-dish cuisine prepared on special occasions by the traditional Kashmiri chefs (Waaza), remains one of the most expensive commodities when planning the budget of a wedding.

At the special wedding feast known as Maharaz Saal (a traditional feast the groom and his relatives/friends (Baraatis) have at the bride’s house) on average, a single traami (plate) costs around Rs.4200 to 4500 that costs about Rs.50,000 for an average of 40 guests or ten plates.

At the normal wedding feasts at both the bride’s and groom’s home, a single plate costs around Rs.2200 to 2500 , and on an average of 400 guests or roughly a hundred plates costs around Rs. 2.5 lakhs for a mid-level wazwan meal with 16-17 dishes and 2.5 kg of mutton per plate.

Those who are financially sound, spare no expense on Wazwan and almost 36 dishes are served taking the figure to Rs.8000 per plate for a normal wedding feast and a whopping 12-15,000 for a special one.

However, the high society weddings in Kashmir are on a whole new level, exotic locations and posh marriage halls are booked to conduct the ceremonies and detailed attention is paid to the ambience of the place as a bright and vibrant décor beautified with majestic lighting is put into place.

Professional music bands are hired to play at the weddings, baskets of flowers and bouquets are used extensively to adorn the place where the groom is supposed to sit and professional photographers/videographers replacing the local shooting walas are flown in from outside the state to capture the wedding in an artistic manner.

Colossal shamyanas made of a special fabric ,embellished with intricate hand work designs and fitted with multi-coloured lights are put up and expensive catering services are hired who besides serving the traditional wazwan, serve continental and other indian cuisine to the guests.

The best of the make-up artists are hired so that the bride looks stunning on her wedding and the wedding dress itself is custom designed by some reputable designer.

Grand and colossal white-houses (shamyanas), special wedding feasts, costly gifts exchanged on both sides, post-wedding feasts/parties ,etc have resulted in enormous rise in wedding expenses.

“With their extravagant spending on weddings, those who can afford to spend set a bad example for those who cannot, this is a negative trend and should not be encouraged” feels Bashir Badgami, a social-activist from Badgam.

People who intend to organize simple weddings often succumb to societal pressures and finally decide to go for a lavish wedding for the fear of being seen as an outcast in the society. “ A common thing that you hear is – What are people going to say?, What will they think ?, those wishing to go for simple weddings often fall prey to societal norms and even run into debts to meet the expenditures” says another activist Nazir Ahmad.

Some years back the government had set rules for a limited course meal in Wazwan and to observe austere weddings but that seems to have been thrown out of the window.

“That idea seems far-fetched today as people are ready to spend whatever amount of money they have for a grand wedding, it has become a status symbol and a point of prestige for everyone” believes Ghulam Hassan, whose daughter’s wedding is coming up.

Kashmir being a Muslim dominated and highly orthodox religious society, rise in extravagant and expensive weddings has also received harsh criticism from religious leaders of all sects in the valley. “Islam teaches us to live a modest life and not to indulge in extravagant spending, having such type of flashy weddings are in direct contrast to the Prophet’s (s) sunnah (lifestyle)” says Mirwaiz Central Kashmir, Moulvi Abdul Ganie.

“Just think, how much good you can do with that extra money that you are spending only to feed your ego, A rich man can instead donate some amount to an orphanage or to some other noble cause and a poor person can use that extra money to provide better facilities and better life conditions for his family” believes Moulvi Abdul Ganie.

The introduction of elements from other cultures such as majestic lighting, music and sound arrangements, hiring of catering services, trend of hiring wedding planners, etc have only added to the grandeur and ultimately the expense on weddings.

While this may be the case but these grand weddings are becoming a booming business and the wedding planner industry has recently started emerging as a profitable business in the valley, especially in urban areas.

“ We had hired a wedding planner for our son’s wedding back in 2012 and it turned out to be a great decision, the pressure of planning , gathering and getting stuff to and fro was no more on our shoulders, they (wedding planners) managed everything from sending invites to catering , shamyaana, etc and we could enjoy our son’s wedding in a relaxed mood”  reveals Mohammad Ramzan , who after being satisfied with the wedding planners work last time around intends to hire them again for his daughter’s wedding later this year.

“Nowadays, weddings are more about how much one can afford, certainly if you can afford all other luxuries of life like a luxury car, expensive smartphone, etc, then most probably you can also afford a big fat Kashmiri wedding” reveals a wedding planner based in Srinagar.

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