By Raees Ahmad
WHAT fascinates a visitor to Kashmir? Its mesmerizing beauty, a convivial host, and its culture. Kashmiri cuisine, with Wazwan being its formal banquet, has arguably attracted far more attention than anything else. Usually served in marriage ceremonies and festivals, and prepared by master chefs of Kashmir called Wazas, Wazwan is a multi-course meat-based meal with its roots in Central Asia. However, wazwan has experienced evolution over the years.
Wazwan has not only been an addition to our cultural prestige and beautified our festivals and marriages, it has also played an active part in shaping our modern political history and political relations with mainland India. Many great world leaders have come to Kashmir and been swayed by its taste. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and Nikita Khrushchev fed each other Ghustab, during the latter’s state visit to India in 1955; thus ushering a new era of friendship between the USSR and India. Visiting EU parliamentarians were ensorcelled by Wazwan (along with Shikara ride) while Kashmir was held incommunicado back in October 2019.
An attempt was made by Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, with a socialist touch of the 70s, to phase out Wazwan for being a “vestige of aristocrats of Kashmir”. He wanted to buy all the utensils from the cooks to put them in a museum. Sadiq’s attempt failed, as did Vivek Agnihotri’s who attempted to saffronise it by having Kashmiris, one of the highest mutton consumers in the subcontinent per capita, eat “Veg Wazwan”.
Not only did Wazwan impress the Soviet leader but it has also been a tool of diplomacy for many Kashmiri leaders.
It’s widely believed that Wazwan saved the government of Ghulam Mohammed Shah who, in 1985 was facing threats of isolation from his Congress allies. Before his opponents could do anything, he flew to Delhi with a bunch of local Wazas from Kashmir to entertain Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv was swooned; thus power was influenced, tensions were eased and relations were built. Shah was saved.
The modern lavish evolution that Wazwan has seen, however, doesn’t seem warranted. No sane Kashmiri would even try to rationalise such unnecessary extravagance and alien trends. Such decadence necessarily seems to be associated with the “modern” culture; and it hasn’t left Wazwan unsullied. Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq would’ve been nodding his head all along.
But is Wazwan really a “vestige of aristocrats”? There are no aristocrats anywhere in the world anymore, let alone in Kashmir. So who are the so-called ‘aristocrats’ of today? It’s the Upper class ‘elites’ of Kashmir, who have, with novel alien innovations and additions made the dish unaffordable for common people. Let them eat haakh batte!
Substantial social pressure exists in Kashmir. The standard of profligacy, a standard unheard of before, has been set. More than 50,000 girls, a number so colossal in itself, have crossed socially-perceived ‘marriageable’ age in Kashmir and find themselves single due to reasons beyond their control. According to a Srinagar based non-profit organisation, Tehreek e Fala-Ul-Muslimeen, it is because of “unnecessary fashion and trend” — a phrase implying pompous ostentatious — is the reason that women are finding it difficult to get married in Kashmir. One of the most important reasons of these late marriages, they said, was “the competition set by a group of people wherein the underprivileged families try to compete with their neighbours belonging from the well-to-do families.”
Additionally, this traditional cuisine finds itself complicit in crimes that weren’t essential to it. With the stress and flattery of history, Wazwan has taken on an identity beyond itself. Whether it is being a broker in the politics of the day or being a badge of prestige for the elites who keep adding absurd innovations to it; Wazwan has had to take it all on.
Now, it has assumed a negative connotation in a common man’s vocabulary and brings along with it ills of various orders. For instance, while efforts are being made at the global level to rid our lives of plastic, Kashmiri Wazwan is wholeheartedly embracing its persistent and unneeded use. Mineral water is getting served in plastic bottles in our Wazwan; curd, which used to come traditionally in earthenware, nowadays comes with plastic along with beverages, another novel intervention.
From all these—undue squander, foreign waste as well as the political flattering—Wazwan needs preservation.
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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