The use of mortar and pestle is a symbol of Kashmir’s rich cultural heritage and its connection with ancient culinary techniques.
A screeching car rumbles down the street and produces a plume of dust. The deafening noise and the grating mist break the meditative stance of a sexagenarian man surrounded by stone and wooden articles inside his Saderkot Bala shop.
The man starts questioning the society’s ‘absurd sense of routine’ in a sulking state. The intense introspection propels Haji Sanalluah to talk about the changing habits, traditions and modern lifestyle that have created ‘misfits and malady-ridden mortals’.
The old guard looks gritty. The world around him is changing fast and has long discarded the traditional tools, but he’s still upbeat about the vintage vessels.
“We’ve been carving stones for almost 100 years now,” he begins his business briefing in a brooding manner. “First, it was my father, and then it came down to me.”
The stony mortar (kanz) and the woody pestle (tchou’ti) is an integral part of the food culture in Kashmir. In local cuisines, these twin tools are used to grind spices, make pastes, and create traditional dishes, like Wazwan.
But beyond this festive utility, the routine household use has long faded and replaced by the contemporary devices.
The big mortars and pestles have mostly ceased to exist with time. Women of yore would take turns to grind grains and spices with these tools in their courtyards.
The passing of this cultural practice makes Sanalluah nostalgic about the time when mortars were used in every household in Kashmir.
“People used to grind their spices and barley in them,” says the man with 55-year-long stone-carving journey. “But machines changed everything.”
Sanalluah’s hometown, Saderkot Bala, is a sleepy village—located seven kilometers from Mansbal—in the northern side of Bandipora district. The practice of stone carving started some 100 years ago and became a cultural heritage.
The natives would ferry stones from mountains after paying royalty to government. But a 2016 edict put an embargo on stone extraction and further troubled this traditional practice. The decree came at the same time when stone quarry in an urban hillock was put under a blanket ban.
“The sanction on stone extraction was an insult to our injury,” says Omer Ahmad, a young stone-carver. “Earlier, we used to fetch stones from mountains by creating a big hole with a deadly compression explosion. That perilous practice consumed many lives here, but for the sake of tradition we continued it.”
Saderkote Bala’s topography, locals say, favours stone carving. The area is surrounded by mountains with low-composition soil.
“We extract devir stones from mountains here,” Omar continues. “These stones can be easily molded into mortar.”
For centuries, mortar and pestle—as a set of two ancient tools—is used for grinding, crushing and mixing ingredients.
“Earlier we used these tools for extracting barley or grinding spices,” says Mugal, an elderly woman in Saderkot Bala. “We would gather ingredients from our kitchen gardens and make homemade spices.”
But now, Mugal laments, the machine-made spices have entered kitchens and ended the tradition.
In Saderkote Bala, where these traditional tools are still being sold as a matter of an old practice, the change is stark. Unlike the big mortals and pestles made and used earlier, stone-carvers now sell small kitchen grinders.
“Back in the day,” recalls villager Abdullah Wani, “the dry paddy would be ground in mortars and store in pots. The powdered rice would be consumed with salt tea. It was our way of life in Kashmir.”
But since hardly anyone uses courtyard mortars and pestles these days, Wani says, homemade rice powder and spices have now become rare items.
Inside his stone and wood tools shop, Haji Sanalluah is castigating the community for shunning healthy traditions and adopting unhealthy lifestyle.
“The mortar and pestle holds a significant place in Kashmiri’s history and cultural heritage,” the elder says. “But sadly, we’ve reduced them to a mere kitchen item despite being important tools in the region’s food and culinary traditions.”