Kashmir Enjoying A Peaceful Summer
16 September 2005
Srinagar: Of all the signs the India-Pakistan peace process is producing tangible results, one stands out: Kashmir is running low on chickens. Chickens are the key ingredient in the traditional Kashmiri wedding feast, and with the region experiencing its most peaceful summer since the start of its Islamic insurgency in 1989, this year's wedding season is among the most festive in years. Kashmir lies at the heart of the India-Pakistan rivalry - the neighbors have fought two wars over the predominantly Muslim region, which is split between them but claimed by both. On Wednesday, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said they would continue to pursue peace in Kashmir after meeting on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in New York. 'Our nations must not remain trapped by hate and history, in a cycle of confrontation and conflict,' Musharraf said Wednesday in an address to the U.N. General Assembly. 'For this to happen, it is essential to find a just solution to the problems of Jammu-Kashmir.' It is statements like that have Kashmiris again celebrating late into the night - swaying to soulful old wedding songs at parties that often have more than 1,000 guests. 'Weddings were not as much fun a couple of years ago as they are now. One can't enjoy if one lives in fear,' said Aijaz Banday, a 42-year-old banker. 'A lot has changed over the past few years. You couldn't imagine staying out and partying so late in those days.' Tourists, most of them Indians, are also back in record numbers - 600,000 so far this year with two more months of season left. Those are the highest numbers since 1989, and almost double that of last year. And everyone is eating chicken. 'There is a big shortage of chicken. I am getting frantic calls,' said Riaz Ahmed, owner of Shaan Poultry in Srinagar. To meet the soaring demand, Ahmed is trying to order chickens from other parts of India. But the supplies must meet the approval of finicky Meraj-ud-Din, the latest in a long line of legendary Kashmiri chefs who have for generations prepared traditional weddings feasts of up to 40 courses, known as a 'wazwan.' Wazwan platters - each shared by four people - include succulent pieces of lamb, rice and vegetables and are crowned by at least one whole chicken that Meraj-ud-Din, who uses only one name, demands weigh between two and three pounds. Heavier or lighter birds would look too small or too big on the platter, he says. Less violence means more festive wazwans. 'There are so many weddings this season, Kashmiris will be eating out all of this month. There is great pressure,' said Ahmed, the chicken seller. Attacks in Jammu- Kashmir were down 25 percent from January to July compared to the same period last year, dropping from more than 1,600 to just over 1,200, officials say. More than 66,000 people have died since the start of the insurgency. 'This has been a far better summer than many summers before,' said Police Inspector-General Javed Makhdoomi. 'The atmosphere has changed. People feel more secure and safe.' As a result, another wedding tradition has also been revived - the stopping of wedding caravans on the first bridge they reach so the driver of the bride and groom's car can be paid a customary fee for crossing the span. The groom pays the fee. In years past, stopping long lines of cars on the iron and wooden bridges of Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's summer capital, would be strictly forbidden by skittish Indian soldiers who feared the vehicles could be packed with explosives. These days, however, soldiers stand aside and watch the ceremonies, which involve feverish honking, cheering and clapping on car-choked bridges. 'These days I am reminded of my childhood, when I went to weddings holding my father's hand,' said Mohammed Zakariya, 31, a trader.