Saffron cultivation in Kashmir valley - myth and realities

Greater Kashmir

Present study revealed that there is no habitat specificity for Saffron cultivation in Kashmir valley

The state of Jammu and Kashmir is the place where Saffron is predominately cultivated in India. In fact Kashmir is considered to be one of the three (Iran, Spain and India) largest cultivating places of Saffron all over the world. According to historical evidences, Saffron was brought to India by the Persian rulers around 500.B.C. The Persian rulers transplanted the Persian Saffron corms to the Kashmiri soils, once they conquered Kashmir. However according to the traditional Kashmiri legends, Saffron was brought to the region by two sufi ascetics, Khawja Masood Wali (R.A) and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali (R.A) during the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. Both the foreigners having fallen sick beseeched a cure for illness from a local tribal chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a Saffron corm as payment and appreciation. To this day grateful prayers are offered to the two saints during the Saffron harvesting season in late autumn. The saints indeed have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the Saffron trading town of  Pampore. However, the famous Kashmiri scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng, differed from this history of Saffron and stated that the plant species had been cultivated in Kashmir for more than two millennia. The Kashmiri tantric Hindu epics of that time mention about Saffron cultivation as well. In Kashmir valley, fields of Saffron have heralded the dawn for close to 2500 years. During the present investigation under Saffron Project sanctioned by DBT, Government of India to the Department of Botany, University of Kashmir, under the able guidance of Prof. Irshad A. Nawchoo, conducted the interviews to Saffron growers across Kashmir valley. Upon enquiring the history of Saffron cultivation in Kashmir, they answered that the corms of this spice crop has been brought to Kashmir by Shooq Bab Shaib- a local saint and he made special prayer to God to bless the soil of Pampore for successful cultivation of Saffron. From that time it was thought that it was only the Pampore karevas that has been gifted by God for the cultivation of this golden crop. The people of  Pampore were fond of saying that there is a certain magical element in the soil of the area which helps this crop to bloom only here. But thanks to some progressive farmers of  Budgam district and National Saffron Mission that has changed the view that Saffron can only be cultivated in karevas of  Pampore and Kishtwar. Now apart from Pampore, Saffron is cultivated in most parts of Budgam, some parts of the district Srinagar and Anantnag as well. The present study also revealed that Saffron can be cultivated in Apple and Almond orchids as mixed crop and also under Populas and Walnut trees; Walnut is considered to be one of the strong allelopathic plant species which does not allow the other plant species to grow nearby but Saffron grows successfully under walnut trees. One of the interesting observations of present study was the highly asynchronous and temporally isolated vegetative and flowering/fruiting phases between Saffron and other fruit trees (Apple, Almond, Walnut etc.) which help the farmers to attend both these crops without any problem and also both the plant species utilize the resources available without any competition because when Saffron attains its vegetative phase the other fruit trees are in dormant phase and at the time of fruiting phase of Apples, Walnuts  and Almond, Saffron remains in quiescent phase. The prized plant species (Saffron) has been cultivated in plain, undulated lands, slopes and where not. The present investigation also revealed that the Saffron grows along an altitudinal gradient of 1585-2050m asl i.e. from Neehama (Budgam) to Buzgow (Nilnag-Gogipatheri). The present investigation brought into light that this plant species can  grow under shade and open sun, the area which experience low temperature (Buzgow) and the areas with high pollution levels as well. The area which is most polluted in Kashmir valley is Khrew area of district Pulwama, particularly the area near cement factory (Bathind,  Bajnadi) where most of the plants does not grow, however, we noticed that Saffron was cultivated in that area successfully.
The present investigation revealed that type of soil and intensity of light is not important for successful growth of this plant species. It has been observed during the present study that under shade the plants of Saffron flowers early and also yield is more as compared to open fields; the only problem is that age of corm is less under shade as compared to open sunny conditions. After critical examination we found that quantitatively there is no difference in the yield of Saffron in Pampore and other parts of the valley. Our study has shown that there is no special habitat for Saffron cultivation in Kashmir valley and in our opinion it would have been better if some areas of Baramulla  e.g. Kreer Wuder from Sheikhpora to Kharpora , Poto-shahi area of Bandipora and Mutand karevas of Anantnag from Krangsoo to Kanganhal-Achabal  has also been brought under National Saffron Mission.
During autumn (15 october- 15 November) the plants are at blooming stage and the flowers are collected in baskets made from tender branches of Willow. The outstanding feature of the flowers are  lilac to mauve colour and its three stigmas  which are 4.5 – 7 cm long, which droop over the petals, that is what is collected as Saffron and have the commercial importance. The stigmas of Saffron cultivated in Kashmir are extremely long and with a thicker head. They are also of a deep red color. Kashmiri Saffron is known for its best aroma, flavor and colouring power. The flowers are taken home to toil through the night, separating the different parts of flowers and nothing is wasted. The petals are eaten as a vegetable or canned to make a medicine which is used against cough and cold locally known as ‘Khambeer’. The floral stalks are given to animals and of course, the red stigmas alone are the purest Kashmiri Saffron-The golden herb. The major problem of farmers is some Rodent species which ate the corms and Allium sp. as weed in saffron fields.
Saffron is used as an indigenous medicine across India. Saffron enjoys great reputation as a drug which strengthens the functioning of the stomach and promotes its action. It counteracts spasmodic disorders and sustains involuntary muscle contraction. This prized species is also used against fevers, melancholia and enlargement of the liver and spleen. A combination of Saffron and ghee is used to treat diabetes. Saffron also merits usage as a strengthening agent for the heart and as a cooling agent for the brain, also increases memory power. It has been found beneficial in the treatment of urinary problems. It acts as a diuretic if soaked overnight in water and administered with honey. The spice is useful in promoting and regulating menstrual periods. It soothes lumbar pains, which accompany menstruation. Saffron is also beneficial in the treatment of other ailments concerning women such as leucorrhoea and antidepressant effects. Ancient texts on ayurveda have information about the herb’s use as an aphrodisiac. Saffron is a promising herb of pharmaceutical industry due to its immense medicinal properties ranging from mild fever to cancer and DNA repair.
Keeping in view its high market potential, traditional medicinal importance, promising herb of pharmacology and its wide habitat range, the cultivation of this prized herb should be appreciated by the Government, Agricultural Department and scientists of the related subject across the whole valley particularly in the areas where staple food crops are not cultivated.
The authors are working at Dept. of Botany,
University of Kashmir and can be mailed at;