Under a mild autumn sun, Majeed, accompanied by his grandchildren, bends over to carefully pluck a small purple flower. It is a technique he is happy to pass on to the enthusiastic children, and it is a skill they will use come harvest time.
The children eagerly join in, separating the flowers from the stems and placing them in baskets and bags. These are the slopes around the town of Pampore in Jammu and Kashmir, a state in northern India. Once collected, the flowers will be carefully handled and stripped down to make saffron — the world’s most expensive spice.
Every year during the month of November, thousands of men and women gather in the velvety blue fields around Pampore to pick saffron flowers. Saffron is Kashmir’s cash crop and is used mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food. Legend has it that it has been cultivated in Kashmir for thousands of years. However, historians beg to differ, and say the practice was imported from Iran five centuries ago.
“Saffron cultivation has been going on for generations and it is the crop that makes Pampore a special place,” says Majeed, a 65-year-old saffron farmer who has been harvesting the crop for more than 50 years.
Each flower, just inches from the ground, has to be carefully picked and handled with care to be able to later produce saffron.
The crop is cultivated on nearly 4,000 hectares of farmland that is mostly made up of karewas — huge lacustrine deposits that form low flat mounds or elevated plateaus. From mid-October to November each year, the entire area comes alive with the blossoming of millions of purple flowers.
Families collectively engage in the harvesting of flowers, and the area is passed over three times to maximise the harvest and pick flowers that are in full bloom each time.
“The flowers don’t sprout all at once, and so we pluck the same ground again and again, each time after some days,” Majeed explains.
The flowers are usually collected in Kashmiri willow baskets and then taken to individual homes, where the tedious process of separating the stigma from the flowers begins.
“It is the stigma of the flowers that is the expensive part, or in simpler terms, the spice itself,” one farmer explains.
On average, each saffron flower has six purple petals, three golden yellow stamens and one red pistil. The pistil itself is made up of three stigmas — or filaments — and it is these that are dried to become saffron.
The word ‘saffron’, or ‘kong’ in Kashmiri, is derived from Arabic word ‘za’faran’, meaning yellow, and ‘sahafarn’, meaning thread. Indeed, Arabs were instrumental in spreading the cultivation of saffron to Spain, Greece and Italy, and the flower is native to southern Europe.
Saffron is said to have been brought to Kashmir from Persia by two Sufi saints, while other accounts attribute its introduction to an Indian Buddhist missionary, Madhyantika, who sowed saffron corns in Kashmir. Historians also cite ancient Chinese herbalist Wan Zhen, who wrote that Kashmir was the land of saffron when it was offered to Buddha around the third century. He also wrote that it was used to add scent to wines.
Pampore, where most saffron cultivation in India takes place, derives its name from ‘Padmanpore’, which meant ‘Land of Gold’ — a reference to saffron’s vibrant colour.
During harvesting, the temperature must neither be hot nor too cold. The plant thrives well in cold regions with a warm or sub-tropical climate, and requires a rich, well-drained, sandy or loamy soil. All of these conditions are found in Pampore.
Saffron cultivation requires extensive manual labour and the flowers need to be picked individually by hand. The flowers are then dried naturally in the sun, taking about five days to dry out. Nowadays, however, some farmers use solar dryers to complete the drying process in about eight hours. The dried flowers must then be processed by hand, with the precious stigmas carefully removed. The top of each makes for the best quality saffron, and the lower makes for inferior quality spice. Right now, top-quality saffron sells for Rs200,000 (Dh11,550) or more per kilogram. It takes about 170,000 flowers to make up each kilogram of saffron.
In November and early December each year, families gather in the living rooms of their homes to separate the stigmas. It’s also a time for storytelling and singing, passing on the shared saffron heritage of Pampore through the centuries.
Every part of the flower is used, with the petals eaten as a vegetable, animals get the stems, and the red stigmas used to make Kashmir’s purest saffron.
There are also medicinal properties associated with saffron. It is used as medicine against various diseases including some types of cancers, and is used in the cosmetic industry for improving skin complexion.
“Saffron is also diaphoretic, generating sweat or perspiration, for children and as stimulant, tonic, and stomachic — beneficial for digestion– an aphrodisiac, and an anodyne and a sedative, diuretic and laxative,” one local scientist claims.
Saffron is used in cuisines across India, Europe, the Middle East, and Turkey and is used in ice creams and special dishes. It is widely used in India for religious purposes and as offering to Hindu deities.
Saffron is also important in Ayurveda medicine where it is used as a remedy against cold, headaches and the retention of urine. In Kashmir, saffron is the main ingredient of its famed saffron Kehwah — a tea-like beverage consumed at most festivities and special occasions.
Kashmiri saffron is of the highest quality and is prized for its strong colour and flavour.
The final product is sold as a loosely matted mass of dark, reddish brown flattened stigmas with a characteristic aroma and bitter taste. It is traditionally sold in small batches or tolas —about 10 grams — much like gold.
Saffron is closely linked to Kashmiri culture and language, and is a part of day-to-day phrases.
Saffron season usually starts with offerings to the shrines of two saints who, according to one version of history, brought the flowers and spice to Kashmir. Last December, a unique saffron festival was held in the open fields of Pampore, where poets, writers and people celebrated culture and poetry associated with saffron. The town is also home to renowned poet Habba Khatoon.
“Habba Khatoon was the poet and the last queen of independent Kashmir married to the last king, Yusuf Shah Chak,” explains Farooq Nazki, an eminent broadcaster and writer. “We find Habba Khatoon in poetry, in the flowers of saffron, in the almond blossom and it is no sin. She emerges as a strong woman, someone who strengthens feminism.”
The local tourism department also organises the Pampore festival every year, and it draws a large crowd from the rest of the country and beyond, with the saffron fields under a full moon considered to be especially enchanting.
Nearly 16,000 families are engaged in saffron production in Kashmir. But there are difficulties now as the yield has declined from as high as 17 tonnes to just two tonnes. Distressed farmers have been forced to sell their prime land to real estate developers, a trend that’s threatening the industry.
The government of India has set up a National Saffron Mission (NSM) at a cost of Rs4 billion to increase the yield to around 5 kilograms saffron per hectare from the present yield of less than 1 kilogram per hectare.
“With technology and better crop management, we can boost the production to 18.57 metric tonnes, and then to 28.50 after regaining the original 5,700 hectares of saffron farms [lost to development],” says Dr Firdous Ahmad Nehvi, the supervising scientist on the programme.
The biggest issue facing saffron cultivation has been the advent of erratic weather patterns linked to climate change. A crucial rainfall that used to happen every September and October has been eluding Kashmir, lowering the saffron yield.
Farmers are pinning their hopes on the modernisation of pre-harvest and post-harvest cultivation of saffron under NSM but there have been allegations of a delayed implementation of the scheme.
Agriculture Minister Ghulam Nabi Lone Hanjoora on a recent tour to Pampore ordered officials to complete sprinkle irrigation facilities by the end of December, a move that helped propel Kashmir back to becoming the second-highest producer of saffron globally, behind Iran which ranks first in the world production of saffron, with more than 94 per cent of the world yield.
Haroon Mirani is a writer based in Srinagar, India.