Poets have romanticized it, monks have worn clothes dyed with its color, emperors have dreamt of it and saints have worshiped it. Stories around the golden spice saffron abound. According to one, Mughal Emperor Akbar loved the smell of saffron so much, that the large windows in the bathhouses of his palaces, especially in Rajasthan, would overlook saffron fields so the scent of the golden spice could waft through the windows and perfume the air.
Part of our cuisine and especially used as a garnish during celebrations in India - Saffron has an interesting story and widespread use. Interestingly it is known by various names in different cultures and languages, but the roots are the same. It is Safran in French and German, Safrani or Zafora in Greek, Kesar or Zafran in Hindi, Azafrán in Spanish, Za'afaran or Zaafaran in Farsi and Zafran or Kisar in Urdu. The word saffron has its origin in the Arabic word Az-za’fran, which is said to be loosely derived from the Semitic herb SPR. It means something that takes on the color yellow.
Mughal Emperor Akbar loved the smell of saffron so much, that the large windows in the bathhouses of his palaces would overlook saffron fields
According to historical evidence, the earliest use of saffron can be traced back more than 3,500 years when it was used widely in Persian cuisine and daily life, in rituals, dyeing of textiles, medicines, and making perfumes. Saffron’s journey to Kashmir and how it actually was introduced there remains debatable.
British historian, Andrew Dalby in his book, Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices, believes that most probably it was the Persians who first introduced Saffron to Kashmir around the 5th century BCE. Dalby also states that the earliest literary reference to Saffron in Kashmir is by a Chinese herbalist named Wan Zhen who wrote in the 3rd Century CE .
‘The habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha. The flower withers after a few days and then Saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow color’.
Wan Zhen also stated that the robes that the monks wore during the Buddha’s time in India were dyed in vegetable matters and spices such as turmeric and saffron, making it yellow or orange. Over time, the ‘saffron’ robe became ubiquitous with Buddhists and Hindu ascetics.
Kashmiri saffron even finds mention in the Sanskrit drama Ratnavali, dating to the 7th century CE, composed by King Harshavardhana of Kannauj (590-647 CE) where he refers to the saffron of the ‘Kashmira’ country which was the finest in color and scent. Kashmiri scholar and historian Kalhana in his work on the political history of Kashmir the Rajatarangini mentions the fact that Kashmiri saffron was cultivated in 725 CE.
However, based on local legends and folklore, the story of how saffron reached Kashmir is quite different. It is a popular belief among Kashmiris that saffron was brought to Kashmir around the 12th or 13th century CE by two Sufi saints, Khawja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali. It is believed that these two Sufi mystics fell ill while travelling in Kashmir and a local tribal chieftain is said to have cured the ascetics. To express their gratitude, they gifted him a saffron crocus bulb, leading to the beginning of saffron cultivation in the valley. Even today, saffron cultivators offer prayers to the two saints in the town of Pampore where a golden-domed shrine and a joint tomb for the two Sufi saints has been erected to commemorate their memory.
One kilogram of the best Kashmiri saffron is priced anywhere between Rs 1,00,000 to Rs 1,20,000 and could go up to almost Rs 2,50,000.
Another theory claims that a local Kashmiri saint named Shooq Bab Shaib brought this scented spice to Kashmir and offered special prayers to the gods to enrich the soil (particularly in the Pampore area).
Whatever may be the truth, saffron is a much sought-after ingredient and kashmiri saffron is the best and most expensive in the world. Pampore, a historic town 15 kilometres from Srinagar, is known as the saffron town of Kashmir. Traces of saffron cultivation can also be found in Shrew and Shar villages and in certain areas of Budnag, Srinagar and Anantnag, though in limited quantities. However, the silken strands that grow in Pampore are the most famous and expensive and are considered to be more valuable than even gold. More than a lakh and half flowers are crushed to make one kilogram of saffron. That is why these golden strands cost a bomb. One kilogram of the best Kashmiri saffron is priced anywhere between Rs 1,00,000 to Rs 1,20,000 and could go up to almost Rs 2,50,000.
Also known as the golden zest the fertile karewas, which were originally the lake bed of the great Kashmir lake, is ideal for the cultivation of Saffron.
How Saffron is Made
Locally known as Kong, saffron is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, popularly known as saffron crocus. Each flower has three stigmas, (the female part), two stamens (the male part), and a long white stem. The spice is made from the stigmas, which are plucked carefully by hand and dried. They produce the best quality saffron followed by the stamen. The plant is generally sown in autumn, somewhere between August and mid-September. Plucking takes place in October and November. Once the harvesting is done, these flowers are kept for drying for around five days, after which they make their way into airy containers to retain their texture and to maintain optimal quality. It takes thousands of these flowers to produce a few grams of saffron, making it a tedious and labour heavy job.
The Indian variety is of three types: saffron lachha, saffron mongra and saffron zarda. The saffron lachha and saffron mongra are hard to obtain.
Iran is the world’s largest producer of saffron, accounting for almost 90% of world production, most of which is exported. Yet, Iranian saffron costs half the price of Kashmiri saffron. This is because Kashmiri saffron is of the best quality because of the agro-climate in the valley, which gives it a deep maroon colour. The darker the colour, the better is the quality of saffron. High traces of crocin are also found in the Kashmiri variety.
Saffron is intrinsicly connected with Kashmir. Not only is the valley home to the finest saffron in the world, this is a spice that can be found in every meal here. From the Kashmiri kahwah to the pulaos, sweets, Rogan Josh (a lamb dish) and the Yakhni (light curry/broth); the use of saffron is integral to Kashmiri cuisine. No wonder famous Kashmiri poets such as Peerzada Ghulam Ahmad and Agha Shahid Ali have used the imagery of the delicate spice to depict the beauty of Kashmir.
But like a lot else, Kashmir’s saffron is also under threat. First there are the fakes. Cheap substitutes like safflower, horsehair and even corn silks are passed off as the original. Sometimes, traces of tartrazine, a synthetic dye used for food coloring, can be found in saffron powder to give it that orange color, thus fooling customers. Then there is the smuggling, mainly from Iran, which is the world’s largest saffron producer. This has hit Kashmiri farmers. Moreover, despite promises made and help offered by both the state and central government, little has been done. Funds and infrastructure to increase the output of Saffron are both needed.
Looking at the situation, many believe that the future of Kashmiri saffron is uncertain. This is sad because this golden spice is a not just a reminder of all the beauty, magnificence and glory of Kashmir, it is also a reminder of how central this region has been in our history.
Purva Desai is a writer and former journalist with over 10 years of experience in the online digital media and content space, having worked with brands such as Star India and The Times of India.
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