Saffron: the Pride of Kashmir

Saffron: the Pride of Kashmir

By Zeeshan Rasool Khan

The purple colored Saffron flowers have long been a pride of the Kashmir Valley. The valley would get itself busy from ongoing month (August) to December every year, in the process of planting to processing “Saffron”. Kashmir is globally famous for Saffron, which is best known for its quality all around the world. However, from last few years its cultivation has more or less ceased, due to multiple factors, which is a challenge to be dealt with. The fact that the cultivation of saffron in India is confined to Kashmir valley only, adds gravity to the problem. Here is my attempt to share little information about this spice.
What’s in a name!
Saffron is botanically known as “Crocus Sativus”. It is called Keshara in Sanskrit, Kong in Kashmiri, Kesar in Hindi, Kunkumappu in Tamil and Kesaram in Malayalam. The name “Saffron” is derived from the Arabic words Za’faran, meaning yellow and Sahafarn, meaning thread. In fact , it was the Arabs, who introduced the cultivation of the Saffron into Spain, Greece and Rome, as an item of commerce.
The plant is a native of south Europe and is now cultivated in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, India and China. Various conflicting accounts exist that describe saffron’s first arrival in south Asia especially in Kashmir. It is believed after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian crocus corns were transplanted to Kashmir soil .However, there is also a legend that Indian Buddhist missionary namely Madhyantika was sent to Kashmir who reportedly sowed Kashmir’s first saffron crop. Presently, it is cultivated in number of places in Kashmir. On the banks of River Jhelum, the karevas of Pampore (Saffron Town) have for years taken pride in producing the costliest spice in the world. It is important to note that its cultivation is dependent on type of soil and climate. It thrives well in cold regions with warm or sub-tropical climate and requires a rich, well-drained, sandy or loamy soil
Processing of Saffron
Crocus Sativus belongs to the family Iridaceae, which comprise of about 80 species of perennial stem-less herbs, distributed the world over. The flowers of Crocus Sativus are long, narrow, tubular-shaped and purple in color. The flowers have trifid orange colored stigmas. The spice that we use as Saffron is nothing but the dried stigmas and pale yellow colored style. These stigmas and styles are processed in an interesting way. The flowers are collected daily early in the morning after the dew disappears. The best quality Saffron comes from the styles and stigmas plucked from freshly collected flowers and then dried under the sun. In Kashmir , saffron is obtained by drying the whole flowers in the sun for 3-5 days and then beating them lightly with sticks and finally sieving the material .The sieved material is put into water. The parts that float on the surface are discarded and the parts that sink are collected and dried. The product thus obtained constitutes the first quality or Mogra saffron .The final product as sold in the market is a loosely matted mass of dark, reddish brown flattened stigmas with a characteristic aroma and bitter taste.
Saffron has retained the reputation of being the world’s most expensive spice. It became all the more expensive when its medicinal properties came into light .Today, it commands a price up to $ 100 per
ounce in the western market where as in India, particularly in market of Jammu and Kashmir, it is sold at Rs 330 per gram .It is quite understandable why Saffron is so expensive. The cultivation requires
strict climatic conditions and harvesting in particular is extremely labor intensive.
Saffron; is just not another spice; it is medicinal herb too. Saffron is an oft-cited folk remedy for various types of cancers, tumors of bladder, ear, eye, kidney, spleen, gastric tumors and tonsils. It is used as a diaphoretic (Generating sweat or perspiration) for children and as stimulant, tonic, stomachic (beneficial to digestion), aphrodisiac (arousing), and anodyne (mentally soothing) sedative, diuretic and laxative. It is also used for improving skin complexion. Saffron is used in some of the preparations that are used to cure
fevers, melancholia and enlargement of liver and so on. Saffron also finds a mention in Ayurveda. Classical Ayurveda texts prescribe saffron for colds, headaches, and retention of urine. In Kashmir, saffron is valuable. It is considered as the “pride of the valley”. The rich aroma of saffron marks all celebrations in Kashmir, as the “Saffron Kehwah”, a traditional beverage is must on such occasions. No festivity is considered without it.
Nowadays, saffron consumption is rising while the production is not keeping pace. Major factors responsible for decline of saffron production in Kashmir include: the lack of availability of good-quality corms as seed material, poor soil fertility, infestation by rodents and diseases, lack of assured irrigation, , poor post harvest management, and improper marketing facilities, increased urbanization on saffron land, helplessness of the Government in checking adulteration and clandestine smuggling of cheap saffron (allegedly from Iran), which is then sold in the name of Kashmiri saffron. Because of limited scope of laws like Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 and Saffron Act 2007 along with poor implementation of Saffron Quality Standards like ISO 3632 and BIS 5453, the initiative of launching ‘Brand Kashmir’ saffron has remained an unachievable goal. The bigger challenge is to curb the adulteration of saffron by way of adding some nature-based adulterants like maize silk, saffron stamens, ray florets of marigold, fibrous roots of various grasses, fibers of shredded meat colored with saffron water or synthetic adulterants like liquid glycerin, codeine phosphate (cough syrup), dyed newspaper clips, nylon fibers, and so on.
Researchers and experts have identified and proposed some steps to bring saffron back to its former levels of grandeur in Kashmir: (I) Clandestine smuggling of cheaper (allegedly Iranian) saffron and its use as adulterant must be stopped (ii) Modern, mechanized production and post-harvest management technologies must be adopted while the use of chemicals must be minimized and efficient bio-control agents like antibiotic-producing Pseudomonas strains to reduce input of chemicals must be employed. (iii) Implementation of biotechnological approaches for the enhancement of its odour, taste, color and aroma and set up tissue culture facilities for mass propagation of disease-free, good quality corms of uniform size and genetic consistency for field planting. (vi) Promulgation and implementation of laws specific to Kashmir saffron like declaring Kashmir saffron as geographic indication, preventing use of traditional saffron land for purposes other than saffron cultivation (i.e. construction or conversion to horticulture/agriculture), strict punishment for those indulging in saffron adulteration, and devising a mechanism of certification for saffron purity analogous to seed certification mechanism followed for vegetables and cereals and so on
Fortunately, of late, some research programs are going on in Regional Laboratories in Jammu and Kashmir on the high yielding of good quality of saffron. However, saffron Growers must take benefit of these laboratories, government schemes and must follow the advice of experts, so that we can see vast expanses of purple Crocus flowers in the Kashmir valley yet again.

—The author can be reached at: mohdzeeshan605@gmail.com