It is impossible to remember autumn and not gush about one of my favourite memories of the season. The month was October and the destination was Pampore in Kashmir. I was there on a saffron trail right in the peak of fall. Autumn is my favourite time of the Indian calendar and I love being in my hometown, Kolkata during those months. The Indian mainland basks in languorous weather at that time and the entire country starts gearing itself for endless festivals. Fluffy white clouds race across soft blue skies and cool temperatures bring forth the first bursting of winter blooms. It is a very lovely time indeed and contains the gorgeous autumn festival of Durga Puja which also happens to be my favourite festive celebration. Kolkata in West Bengal decks up like a bride and there is no place on earth I would rather be than at home in autumn. On that particular year saffron proved to be more irresistible than these charms and I can never say no to a Kashmir visit.
How saffron arrived in Pampore
One of the most precious and expensive spices in the world, saffron is predominantly grown in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India and the Kashmiri variety is considered to be of the best quality. Believed to have been brought to India by the Persian rulers around 500.B.C, the conquerors planted saffron corms into the local soil after taking over Kashmir. Local folk lore, however refutes this theory and according to traditional Kashmiri legends, saffron was introduced to the region during the 11th and 12th centuries A.D by two Sufi ascetics. The locals believe that Khawja Masood wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din wali, upon falling sick, requested cure for their illness from a local tribal chieftain. They repaid his kindness by gifting him a saffron crocus bulb and this charming story is heartily accepted throughout the lovely vale of Kashmir. The ascetics have a golden domed shrine dedicated to them in the saffron trading town of Pampore and even today, in late autumn, the residents of the saffron community offer thankful prayers to the two saints. However, not everybody accepts this theory and many scholars claim this herb to be nearly endemic.
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Is saffron indigenous or imported from Persia?
The famous Kashmiri poet and scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng, is one such person and he states that the plant has been cultivated in Kashmir for more than two millennia. The Kashmiri tantric Hindu epics of that era too, have well documented mentions of saffron cultivating traditions and Yusuf Teng writes, that “in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, fields of crocus sativus have heralded the dawn for close to 2500 years.” For a valley as beautiful as Kashmir, it seems quite befitting that the precious flower should be growing there for centuries and during peace time, it has high potential as an eco tourism prospect. Found to be growing in small patches throughout entire Kashmir and Kishtwar valley of Jammu province, this expensive herb is a specialty of Pampore, Khrew and Shar villages. Pampore even has an exclusive saffron or zaffran colony and that was my first destination upon landing into Srinagar.
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I could smell the saffron flowers even before Pampore arrived
That morning heralded a typically early Kashmiri autumn day. A light haze hung low over the controversial valley and the slight nip made the air crisp. Beautiful colours had mottled every corner into brilliant reds and yellows and the quintessential Chinar trees sported their rich golden brown cover. A thick carpet of caramel coloured fallen leaves crunched beneath the feet and it was a case of ” the journey being as beautiful as the destination”. My heart sung like a free bird during the short drive to Pampore and even isolated patches of bad road did not bother my good mood. Located quite close to the main city, Pampore was on the Srinagar Jammu national Highway and I could smell the flowers even before the fields arrived. Their fragrance was mild, but steady and they perforated through the thick dusty fumes of the highway traffic. I never saw a saffron flower before and had no idea of what to expect, when the violet fields of Pampore unfurled in front of my eyes.
The unfolding of a sea of violet at Pampore
The flowers grew like a carpet, close to the small ridged fields and bare branched leafless almond trees stood interspersed between them. Low back mountains bordered the horizon and in the distance golden chinar trees created rich rows. The walnut trees were leafless with their delicate branches spreading out in bare silhouettes and the only touch of green came from the willows, which drooped close to the fields. The morning sun was not yet visible through the rural haze and the endless stretch of violet fields melted into a soft, wispy distance. To me, it seemed like an unhindered sea of mauve and the flowers undulated all the way from the road to the silent stony mountains. In the midst of all the browns and violets, the occasional bright spots of colour were provided by the clothes of the saffron collectors, who were perpetually stooped from their waist for flower picking.
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Saffron harvesting s a family affair
The experience was a kind of nice visual shock and I took some time to get over the beauty induced numbness to explore the fields. The saffron blooms grew in clumps, close to the brown soil and each row held stooped over flower collectors busily piling the tender blossoms into their willow baskets. The flowers were in various stages of maturity and beautiful varied shades of violet ranged through the fields. The young ones blushed folded lilac, while the mature flowers flaunted their precious deep red stigmas from their cup like hearts. The fields belonged to the owners who also doubled up as saffron collectors and their entire families participated in the operation. Being a very delicate and precious crop, expertise was needed to cultivate saffron and Kashmiris, having the inherent qualities of extraordinary finesse and eye for details, were perfectly equipped to handle the painstaking harvest.
Growing saffron in Pampore
Harvesting was not the only back breaking part of saffron cultivation and the preparation of the saffron fields also required intensive labour. The prepping of the saffron fields began in early July and the flowers bloomed by the end of October till early November. These delicate blossoms open their petals only in the mornings and are usually plucked on the third day of flowering. Thus every Kashmiri autumn dawn sees saffron farmer’s entire families pouring out into the fields where they quickly fan out in groups. While one batch of members collect the flowers, the others separate the precious stigmas from the blossoms. The stigmas are segregated, tied in small bunches as per grading and sun or press (newly introduced) dried. After drying, the stigmas shrink to one fifth of its size and their colour also deepen. The base of the dried stigmas are then snipped off, leaving only the purest red Kashmiri saffron in neat bunches and each of these small bouquets are more valuable than gold.
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A crop worth its weight in gold
About 150,000 fresh flowers yield 1 kilogram of pure saffron and it sells at approximately 10 USD per gram i.e around 3000-4500 USD/kilogram. It contains only the red stigmas, which attribute to the herb’s legendary flavour, aroma and colouring qualities and it is truly a crop worth its weight in gold. The lower and cheaper grade of saffron is produced by mixing the red stigmas with the yellow styles and these are also quite good. The discarded saffron flower petals are eaten as vegetables in Kashmiri cuisine and Khambeer, the traditional medicine for cough and cold is extracted from it. The stems are used as animal feed and most of the best quality saffron is packaged for export purpose. Three varieties of saffron can be found in the Indian markets and they have pretty names like Lachcha, Mogra, and Zarda.
Pampore in autumn is straight out of an Iranian poetry
Apart from its pretty colour and romantic names, saffron is also a heavily fragrant plant. It’s fields can be smelled from a distance and it is hard not to be overpowered by it’s intoxicating headiness. Needless to say, it was a most delightful morning for me and I lingered in the fields until noon. Kashmir is one of the most romantic places on earth and every part of its beauty, culture, custom seems to have been moulded from poetry. Faint Iranian influences are still very much visible in each Kashmiri moment and the farmers’ families lunching on carpets under almond trees reminded me of my Iran trips. Old Kashmiri men smoked water pipes, while their women busied themselves with their heavy steaming samovars and gossip. It was a scene straight out of my north Iran travel memories and the only exception was the heavy Kashmiri nun chai, instead of the crystal clear Iranian tea.
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Of nun chai and gossip with saffron farmers of Pampore
Nun chai was perhaps the Indian influence on Kashmiri tea habit and the pink coloured salty beverage is heavily laced with milk. Made from special tea leaves, milk, salt, pistachios, almonds, cinnamon and cardamoms, the addition of a pinch of baking soda gives it the pronounced pink color while the milk makes it velvety Indian smooth. I enjoyed my cuppa of nun chai with a friendly farmer’s family at Pampore and their simple home spun clothes, sun hats and baskets full of fragrant saffron painted a pretty picture. Time passed drowsily amongst them and eventually the sun rose high in the sky, thus burning off the haze and poetry like pall of romance. Rural Kashmir valley emerged like a sleepy child and the saffron collectors noisily took their lunch break. They rested in the sun to eat and gossip and their happy chatter rung through the violet valley.
“Oh! To enjoy a full moon night on the saffron fields of Kashmir” – Jahangir
My Pampore saffron autumn was nothing like I have ever experienced before and till today, the memory is as precious as the flower. The combination of blue sky, brown violet topped ridges, grey leafless branches and the aroma was just too poetic to be true and I remembered the Mughal emperor, Jahangir’s dream to enjoy a full moon night on the saffron fields of Kashmir. One of the most able Mughal emperors, warfare was an art for this great ruler and the legendary lover, was a die hard romantic. His passionate heart throbbed for the beauty of Kashmiri saffron flowers and it is not difficult to understand why. The experience of seeing the beauty of saffron fields in bloom was truly magical and the location of Kashmir valley heightened the pleasure of the king sized dream. It could have been mistaken as heaven on earth except for the occasional faint gun shots from the nearby army training academy. It broke my reverie, bringing me back to reality and today as the bone of contention war goes on, I can only pray for the restoration of peace. Kashmir is indeed heaven on earth, if only the bloodshed would stop.
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Pampore travel tip
The famous “Saffron Town” of Kashmir lies very close to Srinagar. The nearest airport is the Srinagar airport and Pampore makes a great day trip or stopover enroute to Pahalgam. A hired car is the best transportation to access the saffron town and visit Pampore in October to see the violet fields in full bloom.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE