Notes on the Death Throes of Kashmir’s Saffron Heritage

Notes on the Death Throes of Kashmir’s Saffron Heritage
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By Jahangir Magray

Once upon a time, the inhabitants of the saffron town, Pampore and adjoining areas, used to exult in joy on the approaching winter. The portents for this unalloyed joy were the beginning of this season marked, as it was, by the growth and harvesting of saffron flowers. Most of the people who dwell in this part of the globe depend on this type of agriculture and it is a proud privilege for them to produce the finest quality saffron which is famous for its colour and flavour all over the world.
The saffron flower blooms in late October every year but before it needs proper toiling. As the month of April approaches, digging tools such as hooves, and carving chisels, axes and honing rods are kept handy. The hooves are sent for forging to make them sharp enough to cut rock like soil. Same things get repeated in the month of June and September. Thus, the land is dug thrice a year. In the month of September, the saffron corms are transferred from old to new land which is kept ready to receive the same. But, unfortunately, we have witnessed a serious downfall in its production from about a decade now.( Its production is dwindling year after year).
The factors which are responsible for this decline are many but I want to highlight two of these:
The first and biggest reason is the major change in climatic conditions. Saffron grows in Karewa soils which should be blanketed by snow during winters besides it needs rains regularly. Since both these were seriously affected by the climatic conditions; it derailed its normal phase and cycle. The saffron fields should get completely drenched with rains immediately after the harvesting season and , if it happens, the corms next year would be bigger in size due to moisture present in them and, in turn, the production would be very high.
Second is the policy adopted by the government of India , especially “The National Saffron Mission”. It was launched by the then P.M. of India Dr. Manmohan Singh way back in 2010 and the scheme’s main motive was to provide some financial assistance to farmers so that they could maintain their crop with modern techniques. It provided 25000 rupees( later reduced to 20000) for 1 kanal of land to sow saffron corms. But, the scheme fell in wrong hands. To my knowledge, every farmer huffed at the scheme few years later the scheme was launched. It suffered many flaws as people dug corms out of the land and sowed them to unploughed lands which otherwise should have been ploughed for about a year.
The other small factors that I also want to bring these into limelight include: irregular use of fertilizers, improper ploughing , use of substandard and diseased corms, unscientific methods of sowing seeds, and above all the heedless government which does not pay any attention toward this important cash crop as well as our heritage which finds its origin in Iran.
As these days people in our area are busy in plucking saffron flowers , in connection with this , few days ago I also went out to assist my father in plucking flowers but the bare fields rendered me very pathetically sad because of its low production.( I then began to reminisce about the days when production was at its peak)
We used to pluck saffron flowers the whole day starting from early morning till dusk and taking lunch in the fields. It took several days to complete one round of plucking entire flowers. Children used to wake up early in the morning, preparing themselves and wearing new clothes.
A large number of vendors were seen roaming in the fields selling a variety of food items including chocolates, biscuit, bananas, sweets and so on. As a child, I used to show a voracious appetite upon seeing the approaching vendor.
The daily passengers used to peep down through the window of vehicles to see the ravishing view of saffron flowers. Tourists used to stop vehicles and they were spellbound by the remarkable magnetism and gorgeous vistas of saffron fields cluttered with dense saffron flowers. The children, on the other hand, used to cajole their elders to buy toys for them worth saffron flowers. I have myself seen the children sulking when not satisfied with their toys. And, finally, at the end of the day, we used to return our homes but never to forget to bring Kashmiri Monje gooil worth saffron flowers to savor the tasty Noon-chai (Kashmiri salt tea) at home.
In our homes we used to remain awake till late nights to separate the red carpels. To crush our sleep we used to listen to Kashmiri Sufi songs and had Kashmiri saffron Kehwa.
In a nutshell, the whole saga was celebrated as a festival like Eid in our area by everyone (whether family heads or subordinates rich or pauper, vendors or beggars). Everyone knew their share but today it has lost its charm only because of the abatement in its production. But its indelible memories will be cherished forever.

The author is a research scholar in Botany at the Jiwaji university, Gwalior and can be reached at: