Within months, the centuries-old, lavish marriage tradition for which Indian-administered Kashmir is known has changed drastically in a region that already suffered months-long security lockdown last year.
The three days of feasting, elaborate rituals and huge gatherings have been replaced by muted ceremonies attended by a limited number of close relatives and neighbours.
Months before the pandemic, Haseeb Mushtaq had drawn up a guest list of hundreds of guests and made grand plans for celebrating his wedding in May.
But then the pandemic prevented him from going back home for his wedding from Dubai, where he has an engineering job. When he finally arrived for his postponed wedding in September, he was only able to invite about 100 people, mostly from his extended family and close friends.
“Marriage is a once-in-a-lifetime affair and I feel really bad that we couldn’t invite most of our relatives, friends and neighbours,” Haseeb said at the ceremony.
Still, Haseeb considers himself lucky. One of his friends, who works in Saudi Arabia, was unable to travel home for his own marriage and had to postpone it to next year.
Kashmiris normally hold elaborate marriage feasts, with meals cooked over open fires through the night by teams of chefs called Wazas. Hundreds of guests are invited for lunch and dinner and served up to 30-course meals. The feast is called a Wazwan.
The peculiarity of a Wazwan is that every part of a lamb, except the hide, head and hooves, is used to make different dishes.
In the past, guests would gather in groups of four around large copper platters heaped with rice and various mutton and chicken dishes. The Wazas move among the guests, dressed in crisp white baggy trousers and tunics, serving more food.
The Wazwan tradition is so entrenched across all classes in Kashmir that numerous attempts by social groups and the government to raise awareness around food waste have failed to result in any significant restraint.
The pandemic has largely achieved that in a matter of months.
Wedding ceremonies require prior permission from the authorities, and limits on the number of guests and physical distancing rules are mandatory. Most Wazwans are restricted to 10 dishes and the chefs are advised to wear protective suits and gloves.
Health officials say 63,990 coronavirus cases have been reported in the region through September 20, including 1,001 deaths.
For master chef Ghulam Qadir and his team of over three dozen cooks, the pandemic has impacted their earnings badly for the second straight year.
Last August, India suddenly scrapped disputed Kashmir’s statehood and imposed an unprecedented security clampdown, creating economic disaster and the cancellation of most wedding celebrations.
Qadir said the pandemic has posed another challenge to the cooks – keeping themselves and guests safe while cooking and serving the marriage feasts.
“It is sad to see our hundreds of years of tradition changing in few months due to the pandemic. We used to eat from one big platter and now we have a small plate for each guest,” Bashir Ahmed said at a relative’s wedding.
“It looks like a small change, but this kind of change saddens me.”