It was in 2015 that I had passed through Pampore, a town 15 kilometres away from Srinagar, which is the home to Kashmiri saffron. Our very proud Kashmiri guide had pointed towards the vast purple coloured flowers that nurtured the saffron spice - a must for any Kashmiri and Indian kitchen.
He had spoken about this red gold in very highfalutin terms and rightfully so for saffron is a treasure hidden in the highlands of Kashmir.
Saffron or zaffran made its headway into Kashmir before 750 BCE according to Kalhan’s Rajtarangini — with the book stating that saffron cultivation had preceded the rule of the famous king Lalitaditya (724-760 CE) while some accounts also suggest that the Iranians introduced the spice to Kashmir Valley.
Saffron fields, however, dutifully also find a striking mention in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari as prospects that could enchant those who were most difficult to please.
The saffron flower while making these appearances in historical texts also became a part of the intellectual discourse in the valley — for example through the literary journal Kwang Posh (1949-1952) that gave Kashmiri writers like Somnath Zutshi and Nadim the creative bandwidth to express their thoughts.
These writers and their contemporaries, inspired by the revolutionary Progressive Writer’s Movement and influenced by the likes of Maxim Gorky went on to make significant contributions to Kashmiri literature.
Nadim, due to his writing prowess embellished Kashmiri literature through his afsanas or short stories and his opera Bomber tee Yamberzal (Bumblebee and the Narcissus Flower). The song ‘Bhoombhro Bhumbro” that is a cult classic was his creation as well.
Cultivation & everyday use
Despite this short diversion, we are back to deliberating on saffron — the principal cash crop in Kashmir that sells at Rs 3 lakh per kg and rightfully so, for its rare and precious variety grows in Khunmoh, Konibal, Laddoo, Khrew, Dussu, Namblabal, Woyan Balhama, Zewan, Hatiwara and its peripheral villages in Tehsil Pampore.
Saffron is cultivated by 16,000 families located in 226 villages —the majority of whom have holdings of less than half a hectare. Unsorted corms of different grades are used for fresh plantation, according to another writer in the Millennium Post.
Whatever may be the exact figure, it is a crop that is the pride of Kashmir.
Saffron is part of everyday’s existence of the Kashmiri population. It is added in their cuisine generously and all stews, and broths do include saffron as an ingredient. It is also an Integral part of kehwa —the quintessential Kashmiri tea, served aesthetically in a samovar that typically soothes the soul.
This tea is interestingly consumed by pregnant women in Kashmir that points to its herbal and medicinal qualities. The phirni — a sweet popular across India also sees a generous doting of saffron that blends well with the sweet giving it a distinct flavour.
In fact, for a Delhiite like me, chawal ki kheer cannot be made without a little sprinkling of saffron for saffron’s aroma adds a unique favour to this sweet dish.
While saffron is a delightful addition to our diet — collecting saffron spice is a labour intensive activity. The petals of the indigenous saffron flowers have yellow and red strands and it is the latter that gives us saffron.
There are three varieties of saffron in Kashmir valley - ‘Laccha Saffron’ - with stigmas separated from flowers and dried without further processing, ‘Mongra saffron’ in which stigmas are detached from the flower, dried in sun and traditionally processed, and ‘Gucci Saffron’ which is similar to the first variety barring the fact that latter’s stigmas are packed in air tight containers, according to journalist Sangeeta Kandavel who writes for the leading daily The Hindu.
To make saffron accessible and to ensure that saffron cultivators are not taken for a ride, this cash crop has been awarded with a Geographical Indication (GI) tag and the National Mission on Saffron (NMS) has been set up. The latter is a flagship project by the Indian government that envisages the rejuvenation of 3,715 hectares of land where saffron is grown.
But despite these well intentioned projects and initiatives, this crop has still not been promoted well — to the extent that word of mouth publicity can increase sales.
Although highly valued for its quality, the sale is still limited to the domestic market in Kashmir. This anomaly needs to change. In fact, its Iranian counterpart is preferred for its cheaper rate and controls 95% of the world market.
As markets open up now after two years of the pandemic, it is important that this ‘red gold’ is promoted and sold in larger quantities so that the cultivators get their due and Kashmiri agrarian economy sees a quick recovery.
While government initiatives have ensured large yields in recent years with the yield touching 15.04 metric tonnes in 2021, the produce has to be sold well so that the farmers can make substantial profits.
Efforts must also be made at the same time to make saffron a mandatory mass product in our homes — so that saffron becomes an indispensable ingredient not only in our kitchens but also in our lives while safeguarding its purity and its distinct identity as a spice from the highlands of Kashmir.
Anuttama Banerji is a freelance features writer & political commentator
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.