It is natural that we link experiences to sensations, trivial strands of stimuli weave the web of memories for one to peek into. Sometimes these smatterings of stimuli unfurl an experience we’ve never been part of. Greetings my dear readers, with this blog post, I’d like to etch in your imagination the various facets of an interesting phenomenon from a mystical land, Cultivation of Saffron in the Kashmir Valley.
The period beginning from late September spanning to early December witnesses the scenic valley adorned by mauve coloured petals.14 kms from Srinagar(the capital of Kashmir) the dwellers of Pampore tread softly every morning towards these fields to collect these jewels littered in their fields.These simple people bow down in fields and gently pluck these purple blossoms and carefully place this yield into their baskets, after all their ancestral occupation is to produce world’s extravagant spice. A single pound of saffron is worth 5000 dollars. Saffron justifies it’s exorbitant price owing to the labour and land going into its cultivation procedure and post harvest enterprises, about a single pound of saffron is obtained from 17000 blooms(flowers) and this takes about quarter of an acre to cultivate. The aforementioned numbers make saffron a valuable commodity for merchants, the natives see the entire operation as a labour of love. The natives of Pampore have their hearts tied with saffron or as they call it in their own tongue, “Koung”. To them the celebrations start as soon as the blooms appear in the lap of the valley. They march early morning towards their fields as winter breeze caresses them and dew pearls rest on the mauve petals. Saffron to be precise, is just the 3 bright yellow and orange stigma in the entirety of the flower, which are dainty. This makes the picking process delicate and is the reason that it is to be performed by hand only. Another factor that adds to the complexity of the already dexterous hand picking process is that sunlight affects the freshly plucked saffron flowers (also called crocus) by altering their chemical composition and to maintain the prominence of this treasure, they have to be picked before or just after sunrise.
Once these blooms make a trip from fields to houses, another step in the course of action post harvest begins. These flowers are laid out in Verandas where Women from neighbouring households clad in shawls, separate the stigma from petals as soon as possible to preserve it. This part of the procedure is often accompanied sometimes by tittle-tattle and other times by heart to heart communication. Once the stigma is segregated, it is dried and hence the saffron is obtained. Once the locals have saffron, they often invite each other to enjoy a delectable serving of Kahwah (a traditional Kashmiri tea). Kahwah is prepared in a metal urn called Samowar upon scintillating embers. Kahwah is quite similar to green tea infused with an abundant variety of whole spices and saffron, which gives it the characteristic odour, tinge and warmth. The invitation to drink Kahwah is akin to the season’s greetings in these parts of India. Significance of Saffron in the lives of these people does not end with the Kahwah as the season of cultivation coincides with the annual wedding stretch in the Kashmiri culture. During the wedding season brides-to-be are given saffron milk to aggrandize their beauty. Another authentic element of Kashmiri weddings which heavily relies on saffron is Wazwan, which is a multi-course meal prepared for the wedding procession. For about 1600 families, living in 220 villages across Pampore and neighbouring towns, saffron is kindred to the culture and life blood.
The Natives have a folklore behind the presence of saffron in their area. The tale is about 2 sufi saints – Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Sharifuddin, who reached Kashmir in 11th century.These mystics became ill upon reaching this land and were tended by a local chieftain. Upon their recovery, the pair of sufi saints gave Pampore the gift of Kesar.
The culture and folktales have their place in the hearts of natives but the cogent science explains the presence of Saffron from a different vantage point. The Optimum climate for growing saffron is warm, subtropical climate at an altitude of 2000 meters, the area of Pampore,Kharewa, Chandhora in the Pulwama District offer all the prerequisites. Following Pulwama Budgam, Srinagar and Kistwar districts offer similar conditions. The presence of saffron is an unequivocal boon for the entire region of Kashmir which thrives on a horticulture industry, often remarked as the backbone of the region’s economy.
Saffron is worth the investment on account of its magnificence in all the elements and aspects of consumption. Saffron lends a regal taste, exquisite aroma and a characteristic golden colour to the delicacies it is added to and often linked with what the royalty would consume. With the immense culinary legacy that spans over eras and across the globe, Saffron can also boast about its relevance in perfumery, extravagant organic textile dyes and alternative forms of pharmacy.
Sadly, saffron yield has been on a decline for quite a while due to environmental factors, inability to control pests, overuse of cultivable land and ineffective post harvesting course of action. Government has offered certain programs to boost the yield but the beneficiaries of governmental grants are far and few in this region, notoriously marred by violence.
Nevertheless, I take great solace in knowing that the honest and devout native cultivators take care of saffron, which is known by various terms across the nation, Zaffran, Agnishikha and most importantly Pampore’s beloved Koung. It is my belief that this gift given by saints shall tinge their lives for generations to come.