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Monday, November 23, 1998 Published at 15:48 GMT


Gathering Kashmir's saffron

Saffron picking: Unchanged for 2,000 years

By India Correspondent Daniel Lak

Imagine a vast plain of grey-brown earth, shaded here and there with willow and almond trees, surrounded by snow-capped mountains gently warmed by the late autumn sun. Then cover that plain with swaying purple flowers, each exuding the most lush and beguiling scent.

Now people the fields with tens of thousands of villagers wearing homespun clothes, picking flowers at a furious pace, and heaping them into wicker baskets.

Their chatter and laughter rings through the clear air, old men smoke hubble-bubbles under the trees, and all you can do is marvel at a sight like no other anywhere in the world.

These are the saffron fields outside the small town of Pampore in Kashmir, just about half an hour's drive from the summer capital, Srinagar.

For most of the year, they're barren, as the bulbs of the crocus sativa germinate beneath the dry earth. But come late autumn, the fields turn purple.

An ancient harvest

It's been this way for over two thousand years, according to some. Certainly the way the people pick and produce the saffron hasn't changed much. They may arrive at the fields in a bus or a car, but from there on, everything else about saffron is authentically ancient.


[ image: No part of the purple flower is wasted]
No part of the purple flower is wasted
The crocus flower is a lovely shade of pastel purple, but its real value is found within the petals. Every flower has at its heart three red stigmas, the female part, two stamens that perform the male role, and a long white stem connecting all of this to the main flower.

Saffron pickers aren't finished their jobs when they've plucked several hundred thousand flowers out of the ground. And that's how many they must pick if they're to see any reward at all for their efforts. Oh no, a day or two's picking is just the beginning.

The sacks of flowers are taken home, or to labourers who toil through the night, stripping away the insides of the flowers.

Nothing is wasted. The petals are eaten as a vegetable. Animals are given the stems, and of course, the market - the world - covets the rest: stigmas alone for the purest saffron, stamens the next most sought after grade, and finally a mixture of all the bits for the cheapest saffron - the kind the growers and pickers keep for themselves.

Saffron as currency

All life revolves around saffron during the harvest. The flowers become currency for those few short days. Beggars roam the fields with small plastic bags, offering a blessing to pickers who give them a handful of flowers.

One raggedy man, Farooq he called himself, told me he walked about 20km every day, from picking family to family, and he earned about $4 selling his sack of crocuses at the end of the day.

Fruit sellers also move through the fields, selling bananas and apples in exchange for petals. The mood is jolly - you never see any quibbling at all over the size of the clumps of flowers offered in payment.

No matter how busy the picking gets, there's always time for prayer. Kashmir is known as the valley of saints, the heart of Sufi Islam in the subcontinent.

In ancient days, it was on the silk route to China, and was the favoured playground of the Moghuls. Its religious influences are rich, and the line between the Hindu and Muslim faiths is almost indistinguishable.

How saffron came to Kashmir

Prayers during the saffron season are offered at a golden-domed shrine in Pampore, the joint tomb of Khwaja Masood Wali, and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin.


[ image: The finest saffron comes from the stigmas]
The finest saffron comes from the stigmas
These two wandering Sufi holy men apparently arrived in Kashmir about 800 years ago, carrying flower bulbs from Asia Minor. After a local chieftain cured one of them who was ill, he was given a bulb in payment.

And thus, according to legend, did the saffron crocus come to Kashmir.

But Kashmir's more secular historians beg to differ. Mohammed Yusuf Teng, a poet and expert on the ancient culture of this land, told me the indigenous people of Kashmir grew saffron more than 2,000 years ago, a fact that's mentioned in the epics written during the era of Tantric Hindu kings.

Tea with a poet

Kashmiri traders also took saffron to ancient Athens, Rome and classical Persia, long before the Islamic age dawned, according to Professor Teng. This delightful and hospitable man also makes the best kava - Kashmiri saffron tea - in the entire valley.

There can be few experiences more sublime than sitting with a steaming cup of the professor's aromatic brew, listening to him recite poetry in Urdu, the language of the Moghuls.

He also claims that saffron is an aphrodisiac, something I haven't had a chance to verify yet.

I can vouch for his poetry though. His favourite couplet goes: "My love went down the Pampore Road and there he was absorbed by the flowers of saffron".

I'm getting to know the feeling.



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