Every year, as Chillai Qalan declares its arrival and the weather changes from warm to bitter cold, Kashmiris prepare to embrace the severity of winter’s rebukes. Despite Kashmir’s humongous hydroelectric power potential, electricity supply to homes during winter takes a hit with most districts braving long hours of curtailment. It rules out any electricity-driven interventions that people could use during winters. Gas heaters flood the market and over one lakh quintals of wood is burnt in mosques alone. The winter in Kashmir — because of poor architectural interventions and lack of electricity supply — is unbearable for Kashmiris, many of whom undertake a seasonal migration to warmer climes for escaping the pangs of cold.
For those who must stay behind, winter becomes an ordeal that they must survive. However, these problems seem to have aggravated in the 21st century. The older generation of Kashmiris often points out that the Valley used to be much colder in the olden days. And yet, we managed to keep our homes warm without expensive heaters or oil-burning radiators. For most of the old and wise Kashmiris, the answer lay in using traditional methods of architecture, construction and heating. With some simple design solutions, alternate energy sources and age-old methods of heat conservation, they were able to ride the deep freeze without making a big dent on their pockets.
Previously, homes of affluent Kashmiris were furnished with hamams, the stone-floored rooms with hollow bases that are heated by burning wood underneath the stone base. For the rest, the design and build of the houses played an important role with insulation. These houses were warmed from passive sources such as the sun, the heat emitted by occupants or the warmth of household appliances. Traditional Kashmiri houses faced south to absorb the maximum sunlight. They usually had a single entrance and rows of windows. The houses had thick brick walls plastered with clay and straw on the inside to prevent the cold from seeping in. However, as new architectural interventions arrived, homes became colder than the traditional mud houses. Fashion replaced convenience. Now, as Kashmir shares the consequences of extreme seasonal temperatures with the rest of the world, it would be wise on our part to revisit the traditional construction practices so that winters become more tolerable, if not enjoyable.