There are lots of native legends about how saffron got here to Kashmir. One goes again to the 12th century, and says that Sufi saints Khawaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali offered a neighborhood chieftain with a saffron bulb after he cured them of an sickness whereas they have been touring. One other claims that the Persians introduced it in 500 B.C., as a way to additional commerce and market. A 3rd dates the spice again to the Hindu Tantric kings, when it was blended into sizzling water to create potions that incited emotions of romantic love.
Whereas the myths arouse discord, there’s one merchandise of consensus: Kashmiri saffron is the sweetest, most treasured spice on the planet. Its strands are thicker and extra aromatic than its counterpart from Iran, which accounts for greater than 90 % of the world’s saffron manufacturing. For Kashmiri farmers, crop sells for as a lot as 250,000 INR or $3,400 USD a kilogram, or $1,550 a pound, in what was as soon as a booming trade. Most of Kashmir’s saffron is grown in Pampore, south of the state’s summer season capital, Srinagar. Thirty years in the past, it might take Fehmida Mir’s household six to seven months to select after which bundle their crop; she recounts recollections of winters stuffed with the spice’s perfume and palms golden from working with it. As not too long ago as a decade in the past, Mir would have the ability to harvest 200 kilograms of saffron, half of the 400 kilos her dad and mom would get within the 1990s. Three years in the past, her crop dropped to 20 kilograms; in 2016, it dropped to 15. Final yr, the crop weighed lower than 7 kilograms; this yr’s produce has been the identical. In all of Pampore, farmers have suffered comparable fates, unable to account for his or her manufacturing for the final two years, because it was so little.
In different phrases, saffron manufacturing in Kashmir is at one of many lowest recorded in historical past. “Once I was a younger lady, there could be no place to take a seat after harvest,” says Mir, whose household has owned land for 3 generations. “On the day we picked the flowers, we’d all come round and sing to the fields. It was probably the most special occasion of the yr. We might take months to complete processing the crop: my dad and mom, my entire household, my brothers and sisters,” she says. “Now inside a month, we’re performed.”
Because the farmers have begun to say, “the red-gold is popping to grey.” Because of ongoing regional violence, droughts, and the still-unfolding results of local weather change on the land, Kashmiri saffron has slowly begun to vanish. “I attempted to develop apples right here on this land a decade in the past,” Mir says. “However they didn’t fruit! This land is supposed just for saffron. With out it, it means nothing.”
Kashmir is a Muslim-majority belt within the north of the Indian subcontinent, and probably the most militarized area on the planet. Kashmir at the moment consists of a area that lies on each side of the border between India and Pakistan. Indian-administered Kashmir is the territory inside the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir consists of a area additionally known as Azad Kashmir together with the extra distant Gilgit-Baltistan. Kashmir turned the topic of conflict between the 2 nations when the Indian subcontinent gained independence in August 1947, and on the similar time was cut up into two. Since 1990, Indian-administered Kashmir has been totally occupied by the Indian armed forces to quell pro-independence insurgencies. Within the ’90s, Kashmir noticed a spell of intense communal violence following the occupation, resulting in the departure of Hindu Kashmiris from the area and giving rise to a interval of civil battle and oppression that continues at the moment.
Greater than 47,000 individuals have died within the battle since 1989, excluding these termed as disappeared. In mid-June 2018, the state authorities dissolved. In line with native information organizations, by October 2018, greater than 300 individuals — together with military personnel, militants, and civilians — died within the valley simply that yr, of which 139 have been in South Kashmir, the place Pampore is situated. An estimated 500,000 Indian troops stay deployed in Kashmir. Within the area, the conflict has inevitably develop into a conflict on the land, immediately impacting the area’s agriculture, which constitutes greater than 80 % of its livelihood and economic system.

Pampore, solely 30 minutes away from Srinagar, the summer season capital of the state, advertises itself as “Saffron City.” “Youngsters’s footwear and saffron obtainable right here,” says a younger store proprietor named Tariq Shah as I ask him the place to get tea. “Or go there, vegetarian restaurant, however with saffron,” he provides, pointing to a small shack wherein rice cookers steam by the dozen.
The method for farming the crop begins in April, when the soil is plowed twice to permit moisture to seep in. The corms for the saffron — which price 50,000Zero rupees for one cycle — are sown in August or September, and the soil is pulverized and allowed to breathe. Following this, aside from minor tending, nothing a lot might be performed, besides to attend. In mid-October, the crops start to sprout by themselves from the soil, and for a month they’re picked, dried, and sorted.
“The saffron flower has three components,” says Raqib Mushtaq Mir, a saffron service provider. “There’s the flower petals — that goes in for medication, then there’s the yellow strands, which aren’t a lot use. The purple strands, proper within the center, are pure saffron, which is what we’re in search of.” A single flower produces simply three purple strands; one gram of saffron is comprised of round 350 strands. For a kilogram of the spice, greater than 150,000 flowers are sifted and scanned, and the rarity of the purple strand can result in shortcuts from much less scrupulous retailers. “Usually, available in the market,” Mushtaq Mir says, “the yellow are coloured with purple and blended into the bunch.”
Within the Indian subcontinent, saffron has many names: zafran in Urdu (from Persian), kesar in Hindi, Kong Posh in Kashmiri, and kungumapoo in Tamil. It was popularized by the Mughals — the Turkic kings from Central Asia that made the subcontinent their residence within the 16th century, who took saffron wherever they established courtroom and launched it into their delicacies. Underneath the Mughals, saffron, as a shade and scent, turned commonplace within the royal kitchens. It turned distinguished in biryani, wherein golden-colored rice stacked with meat turned a favourite meal. It was utilized in stews made with lamb; in breads like sheermal, a candy, thick flatbread dipped in saffron water that’s at the moment eaten in Lucknow, an ex-Mughal capital in India’s North; in fruit sherbets as a treatment from tiredness; and in phirni, a rice pudding made with spices and eaten throughout Delhi, Lucknow, and different components of India and Pakistan the place the Mughals had established rule.
“Delhi’s cooking is residual from the whims of kings,” says Sadaf Hussain, a advisor chef to Delhi’s Café Lota, who infuses mango with the spice to make one of many restaurant’s hottest summer season desserts. “In Kashmir, they’ve at all times approached it as a money crop, and used it in cautious measure.”
In line with Feroz Ahmad, a Waza Kashmiri chef primarily based in Srinagar, saffron’s presence dates again to Kashmir in as early because the fifth century. Kashmiris infuse milk with saffron to interrupt quick throughout Ramadan; use it in modur pulao, a candy rice dish made with dry fruits in instances of celebration; and sprinkle it on prime of yogurt. The spice is used as novelty, by no means in extra or in on a regular basis cooking. Its excessive worth lends it exclusivity even within the area the place it’s grown.

Throughout weddings and funerals, Kashmiris eat Wazwan — a standard meal cooked by skilled cooks that contains greater than 30 dishes. Right here, as a token of specialty, saffron is infused into the broths. “Saffron is the face of Wazwan,” Ahmad says. “The colour that it induces in several dishes is essential to the meal.” It additionally seems in rogan josh, a fiery lamb dish made with Kashmiri chiles, and lahabi kebab, pounded, spiced koftes cooked in a brilliant purple gravy. “It’s essential for Wazwan,” Ahmad says.
Whereas a glimpse of Kashmiri saffron might be seen in its delicacies, its most essential presence is, for Kashmiris, in kehwa — a slow-brewed inexperienced tea, infused with saffron and spices like cinnamon and cardamom, garnished with almonds, and sweetened with sugar or honey. Kehwa is consumed by way of the valley; deep golden, it’s an ode to native saffron, its shade and the perfume it brings.
“Folks need issues to seem like saffron; it’s not simply an ingredient, it is usually an idea in Indian delicacies,” Hussain says. “Usually, to duplicate the golden-orange hue, individuals will use turmeric and water. However actual saffron is a red-gold. There’s nothing else prefer it.”
“I’d like to make use of it, in fact,” says Ghulam Ahmad Sofi, a famend baker in Pampore who bakes a few of Kashmir’s finest breads. “However who would account for its price? I can’t use a pretend, both: These are the saffron individuals, and so they know what it seems like, what it smells like.
“It’s not meals, it’s a sense,” he provides. “It’s no shock to me that it’s costlier in weight than gold.”
Whereas saffron has an overarching emotional presence in Kashmir and the remainder of the Indian subcontinent, its struggles are largely ecological: drought and lack of irrigation. In earlier years, farmers may rely on the winter snow seeping into the soil by way of spring and summer season, holding it moist regardless of the area’s robust solar. However local weather change within the valley has led to scarce rainfall and snowfall, main the soil to develop into dry and unsuited for the crop.
In 1997, greater than 5,700 hectares of land have been cultivated for saffron, in keeping with the Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Division, producing slightly below 16 metric tonnes. Because of a extreme drought, the early 2000s noticed a dip in saffron manufacturing, falling to as little as 0.Three metric tonnes in 2001. The following 13 years would see a median of 8.71 metric tonnes yield, even regardless of flooding in 2012 that introduced with it nice harm, washing vitamins away from the land.
“One saffron bulb can preserve producing flowers for 15 days whether it is wholesome,” says Hilal Ahmad Magray, a farmer primarily based in Lethipora, seven kilometers away from Pampore. However “the floods broken the standard of crop, and the drought broken the standard of the soil. Saffron requires a really exact constituency (known as karewa), a moist soil wealthy in humus content material. Now numerous bulbs that erupt are unfit for producing flowers, or diseased.”
In 2015, the crop totaled 9.6 metric tons of saffron, from 3,674 hectares of land. In 2016 and 2017, whereas the precise numbers haven’t been calculated, farmers and students each inform me that the output fell to lower than 10 % of 2015’s numbers.

Magray, who’s in his 30s, is without doubt one of the area’s few farmers to take full management of his father’s lands. “Saffron is at all times natural,” he says. “Saffron can’t be extracted from the soil on whim. When saffron is pure, it’s saffron. When it’s impure — it’s one thing else.” Underneath his model, Zamindar Saffron, he sells the harvest from his land, along with lentils, walnuts, chiles, and jams. Like some others, Magray has realized that completely buying and selling in saffron will not be a profitable enterprise, and that the spice can be utilized as an anchor to deal in different merchandise.
In 2010, the central authorities arrange the Nationwide Saffron Mission to revive saffron manufacturing in Kashmir. The target behind the mission, with a funds of 4.1 billion rupees (or $57 million USD), was to reconcile Kashmiri farmers with the altering nature of their job. The objectives have been manifold: to offer irrigation amenities within the type of sprinklers and faucets, to extend the standard of the seed sown for crop, to conduct analysis to additional productiveness, and to teach farmers about new strategies.
To fight the altering atmosphere, 108 borewells — made by drilling inside the bottom to retailer rainwater — have been constructed. However solely eight out of the envisioned 128 sprinklers have been arrange, and most aren’t in use: Advocates say native farmers, who’ve lengthy relied on age-old strategies, haven’t been adequately educated in regards to the altering situations, or the strategies for the betterment of their crop. “God constructed these lands, so water should come from [them], too,” says Noor Mohammad, a farmer primarily based in Lethipora. Mohammad’s skepticism towards the borewell mission is a standard one: Many farmers consider within the non secular sanctity of their lands, seeing the newer applied sciences as an unwelcome power. “This land is sacred,” he says. “These pipes are an intrusion to the divine.”
“An essential factor to know is that the saffron farming trade will not be one that’s accustomed to poverty,” Magray says. “The farmers consider that the land has at all times given, and so it would.”
Due to its low yield, land as soon as used to develop saffron has develop into much less invaluable. Villagers and farmers each have begun to desert their lands, an act that can not be indifferent from the Indian army’s management of one of many subcontinent’s most fertile areas: surveillance, encounter killings, and oppressive power by the armed forces on Kashmiris have develop into typical occurrences. The Armed Forces Particular Powers Act, granted to the army in 1990, permits it to go looking, arrest, use power, and even fireplace upon these they think of armed insurrection, which has led to mistrust of the federal government.
“Agriculture wants younger individuals, wants motivation, [and] nobody desires to exit to be confronted by a gaggle of males holding weapons,” says Umer Sami, an aspiring Pampore entrepreneur who desires to spice up the presence of Kashmiri saffron within the on-line market. “Younger males have both begun to take up arms and stones towards the battle, or simply keep residence. Give it some thought — in your 20s, you reside in one of the violent locations on the planet. Would you do one thing that ties you to its land, or one thing that will get you out?”
Regardless of the violence and struggles, greater than 20,000 households are related to the saffron economic system in Kashmir at the moment. However Iranian saffron has additionally begun to enter India by way of what the farmers name “secondhand channels,” and due to its cheaper price, it’s packaged and offered as Kashmiri saffron. Although excessive in novelty, the spice is in no place to compete with its Iranian counterpart.
“The flavour of the saffron is distinct,” says Mahbir Thukral, the U.Okay.-based head of Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron, a startup that sells the spice overseas. “Whereas everyone seems to be conscious of its magnificence, little is being performed to additional the ingenuity of the spice.”

Mahbir additionally creates artisanal merchandise infused with the spice — like darkish and milk chocolate and an award-winning orange marmalade. Not too long ago, he launched his first savory merchandise: a honey mustard and whole-grain mustard infused with the spice. Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron works in collaboration with a neighborhood cooperative to maintain their market regular and get rid of the middlemen within the course of.
“Many individuals solely know Kashmir due to its border battle, and domestically, they think about it a troubled state,” Mahbir says. “By working with the farmers immediately, I wished to do my bit to assist them rework from an Indian enterprise to a world one. … That is our approach to present the nice issues Kashmir can produce, and why it’s price making a visit there when visiting India.”
In Pampore, too, some locals like Raqib and Umer want to begin push saffron by way of the web. “What Kashmir are we combating for if not for the land?” says Umer, as he walks proudly by way of the farms. “We’ve got to suppose forward.”
Saffron requires enterprise and intensive help from the state, but additionally a loosening of army management and a reinstallation of delight within the lands. Whereas the primary two are tangible objectives that may be achieved with effort, a free, peaceable environment for prosperity appears out of attain.
On my final day in Pampore, once I return to Fehmida Mir’s residence for tea, her mom calls me to the kitchen as she brews kehwa in a samovar, or a big copper teapot. “Have a look at this,” she says as she introduces three purple strands of saffron right into a cup of water. “Now it would flip to gold.”
As we anticipate the saffron to paint the water a deep reddish golden, neighbors begin streaming in to encompass themselves with the perfume of the tea. The scent of the spice is invigorating, the colour of it irreplaceable, the fuss will not be misplaced.
“Earlier than, we have been poor and the lands affluent,” says Fehmida’s mom, as we anticipate tea. “Now we prosper, and the lands are poor. It’s time to surrender on them, I inform my daughter it’s time to allow them to go.”
“That’s simple so that you can say,” yells Fehmida from her room. “You’ve lived with them your entire life.”
“In the event that they go, we’ve received nothing else,” says Fehmida’s mom. “In the event that they go, I am going too.”
Sharanya Deepak is a author from New Delhi; she writes about meals, gender, language and race and has written for Roads and Kingdoms, Style, and Popula, amongst others. Vikar Syed is a multimedia journalist primarily based in Kashmir who recurrently contributes to TRT World, BBC Urdu, Hindustan Occasions, and several other different publications. Truth-checker: Daybreak MobleyEditor: Erin DeJesus

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