The bread of faith
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Around this time of the year, when summer is showing its last bout of strength and autumn starts making its presence felt in the Valley, Kashmiri Pandits celebrate a ritual called Punn (Kashmiri for thread). Held around Ganesh Chaturthi, called Vinayak Chorum by Kashmiris, deep-fried wheat bread, called roth, is made and distributed among relatives, neighbours and friends.
Punn can be celebrated on any of the four-five auspicious days over a fortnight (this year, the dates fall between 24 August and 5 September). In the pre-militancy days, before 1990, if you happened to walk through certain neighbourhoods of Kashmir at this time, a heady aroma would waft from houses, just like the scent of vanilla which announces to the world that you are baking.
Like all rituals, Punn is a matter of faith and belief: Your prayers are granted, you offer roth. In my house, for instance, the ritual was started on the birth of my father. Neeta Bambroo Bakshi, who has been living in Ukraine since 1995 and is from Anantnag (which the family left in March 1990), started the ritual when she moved into her new house in Kiev.
But it’s also about identity. Mridula Kaul, who has been living in London for over a decade, says that for her it is about keeping “Kashmiri traditions alive and preserving our culture as best as we can”.
The ritual is handed down from one generation to the next. Kaul, who has worked in the financial services space and the UK cabinet office, grew up in Pune (her parents migrated there from Srinagar in the early 1970s), watching her grandmothers and then her mother and mother-in-law follow the ritual.
The main ingredients that go into a roth are wheat, sugar and ghee, with black cardamom seeds and poppy seeds adding a unique flavour. The quantity varies from family to family. Bakshi, who owns a tea import and distribution company, says you generally start with 5 pav (pav being equal to 250g).
Some families used to make roth in industrial quantities. For instance, Namrata Wakhloo’s joint family of over 20, which lived in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar area till 2002, used to make 25 pavs. Now her parents, who live in Delhi, make only the mandatory 5 pav.
In Kashmir, you didn’t make roth alone, there would always be a neighbour or relative to lend a helping hand. It would usually be made early in the morning, which meant the women would be up at the unearthly hour of 4am or even earlier. First, the kitchen would be washed and the utensils thoroughly cleaned. Next, sugar, wheat and ghee would be measured out, and the sugar left to dissolve in lukewarm water. A huge wok filled with ghee would be put on the stove and heated. One person would do the kneading, another would roll out the roth, and the third would fry and sprinkle poppy seeds on them. The roth would be left to cool in a large wicker basket. The entire process was like an assembly line.
The family would then gather in the kitchen for puja. The ritual involves narrating a Punn story, making an offering of rice grains, grass and flowers, and tying a red thread on the wrist. Then it was time to partake of the naveed (prasad), with steaming, fragrant cups of kehwa.
After this would begin the marathon task of distributing the roth among family and neighbours. In the season of Punn, you not only gave but also received roth, which meant that for the next 10-15 days you were having roth with kehwa, roth with salted, pink tea, roth with chai—relished by believers and non-believers alike.
Now that the neighbourhood as we knew it resides only in memory and Kashmiri Pandits are scattered all over the world, the ritual has become a muted affair. But like other rituals, this too has travelled fuss-free from one geography to another, surviving the passage of time. This year too, as families celebrate Punn and count their blessings, they will all be united by one factor: the memory of home and that time of the year when there is a nip in the air and the season is starting to change.
As Wakhloo, who works for a global fashion brand, says: “Punn reminds me of those autumn mornings when our grandmother would get the whole family together in our kitchen and lead the puja. She would tell the story of Punn religiously each year without missing a single detail.”
■1.2kg wheat flour
■Ghee for kneading and frying
■2-3 tsp poppy seeds
■5-6 crushed black cardamom seeds
Mix together the flour and cardamom seeds. Add ghee and mix with the flour to get a crumbly texture. Add the dissolved sugar (alternatively, add powdered sugar), and knead to make a not-too-soft, not-too-tight dough. The ratio of wheat to sugar is 4:1, but you can vary the sugar quantity as per taste. Leave the dough to rest for 10-15 minutes. Make balls, and roll out into the shape of a thick stuffed paratha. Make incisions with a knife to prevent the roth from rising. Slide into a wok of hot ghee and deep fry on both sides till medium-brown. Remove and place on a rack, sprinkle poppy seeds (moistened with a bit of water) and leave to cool.
A drier version is made on the griddle. Roll out the roth thicker than the one made for frying. Place on the hot griddle. Let it cook, both sides, on a low flame. Keep adding ghee from time to time, and cook till it’s crisp like a biscuit. As part of this ritual, zu-varkhi (two-layered) phulka, is also made and distributed with the roth.