Exploring the cultural legacy, decline, and revival efforts of the valley’s prized saffron industry
Saffron, the vivid crimson spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, holds a special place in the hearts and history of Kashmir, known as the “saffron crocus,” its stigma and styles, aptly called threads, are meticulously collected and dried, serving as both a seasoning and a colouring agent in culinary delights. Beyond the kitchen, saffron boasts a treasure trove of plant compounds that act as antioxidants, protecting against oxidative stress. It has even been utilised in traditional medicine to address a spectrum of health issues. However, amidst its rich heritage, saffron in Kashmir faces a decline in production, a complex problem linked to climate change, irrigation, and market dynamics.
Tale of Decline: Saffron cultivation holds a significant place in the economy of Kashmir, with Pampore standing out as a major hub for saffron farming. Pampore is a historical town on the eastern side of the Jhelum River on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. More than 20,000 households in the Pampore area are involved in saffron farming. However, this valuable agricultural sector faces a multitude of challenges, notably inadequate irrigation and drought. The historical data paints a picture of the diminishing saffron industry in the region. In 1997, the saffron cultivation area encompassed 5707 hectares, yielding approximately 16 metric tonnes. Nevertheless, as time has passed, both the acreage under cultivation and the production of saffron have seen a substantial decline. According to data from the Department of Agriculture J&K, by 2015, the saffron cultivation area had dwindled to 3785 hectares, with a production of 9.6 metric tonnes, equivalent to a yield rate of 2.61 kg/ha. A medley of factors such as erratic rainfall, drought-like conditions, and the absence of irrigation has contributed to this decline.
The historical roots of saffron cultivation in Kashmir are deeply intertwined with the cultural heritage of the region. While the precise origins remain a subject of debate, it is believed that saffron found its way to Kashmir through Central Asian immigrants around the 1st Century BCE. The ancient Sanskrit literature refers to saffron as ‘bahukam,’ and it is considered an integral part of traditional Kashmiri cuisine. Its cultivation in the region dates back to before the 8th Century CE, as evidenced by references in the writings of historians like Kalhana and Abul Fazl.
Intriguingly, there are legends suggesting saffron’s arrival in the 12th century when Sufi saints Khwaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din graced the region with their presence. These saints are said to have offered a saffron bulb to a local chieftain in gratitude for healing them from an ailment.
Nonetheless, historical accounts present an alternative narrative. It is plausible that saffron was introduced to Kashmir around 500 B.C. by Persians, known for their saffron trade and commercial ventures. This introduction of saffron to the region could have been a part of their broader efforts to establish trade routes and expand their influence.
Saffron thrives in the areas, and highlands created by the accumulation of lacustrine sediments, which provide the ideal loamy soil for saffron growth. The districts of Pulwama, Budgam, Srinagar, and Ganderbal serve as the primary saffron-growing areas, with Pampore gaining renown as the ‘saffron town’ of Kashmir.
Harvesting saffron is an arduous and labour-intensive process that requires skilled hands. The saffron crocus flowers bloom in the fall for three weeks, marking the commencement of the harvest. Growers often work gruelling to meticulously gather the blooms and painstakingly extract the few precious stigmas. These delicate threads are subsequently dried and carefully packaged for sale.
Challenges and Revival Efforts:- Saffron production in Kashmir, has witnessed a substantial decline due to a variety of reasons, including climate change, outdated farming practices, poor irrigation, and stiff competition from cheaper saffron imports from Iran. The statistics speak for themselves:
● In 1996, saffron cultivation in Pampore spanned 5,707 hectares.
● By 2017, this area had shrunk to approximately 3785 hectares, signifying a decline of about 38% in just 21 years.
● In 1998, Kashmir produced 16 metric tonnes of saffron.
● In 2009-10, the saffron production in Kashmir was 9.46 metric tonnes.
● The production increased, and by 2015-16, it reached 15 metric tonnes.
● In 2019, the Department of Agriculture recorded a total saffron production of 12.495 metric tonnes with a production rate of 4.07 kilograms per hectare.
● In 2020, Kashmir achieved a significant milestone by producing 13.2 metric tonnes of saffron, marking the highest yield in a decade, with a 30% increase in production.
● In 2021, Kashmir continued to set records by producing 15.04 metric tonnes of saffron, marking the highest yield in 25 years. The previous highest production was in 1996 when the yield was 15 metric tonnes.
● In 2022, Kashmir reached a remarkable production rate of 16.3 metric tonnes, the highest in 27 years, with a 30% increase attributed to adequate pre-flowering season rainfall. The average yield in 2022 was 4.4 kg per hectare.
● The area under saffron cultivation remained consistent at 3,785 hectares, with a total rejuvenated area of 3,200 hectares producing 16,000 kg of saffron annually. Non-rejuvenated areas contributed 1,500 kg annually.
● The price of Kashmiri saffron reached an all-time high at Rs 3.25 lakh per kg. The flowers were procured at Rs4,000 per kg. The rate of the finished product (saffron stigma) increased from Rs2 lakh a kg the previous year to 2.4 lakh per kg in 2022.
● Jammu and Kashmir retained its status as the largest saffron producer in India and India stood as the 3rd highest producer of saffron in the world in 2022.
The NSM, launched in 2010, aimed to rejuvenate saffron cultivation by providing much-needed support to farmers, including irrigation facilities, mechanisation, quality planting material, and market connections. Nevertheless, some farmers have expressed dissatisfaction with the implementation of the scheme and its impact on their livelihoods.
Saffron: A Cultural Emblem of Kashmir-Saffron is not merely a spice; it symbolises the culture and identity of Kashmir. This cherished spice has found applications in medicine, perfume, dye, cosmetics, and religious rituals. It has also inspired countless artists, writers, poets, and musicians who celebrate its beauty and fragrance. Saffron is known for its distinctive aroma, flavour, and colour, and is used in various dishes, such as Herisa ( Harisaa-i-Zaffrani), kahwa (a traditional tea), biryani (a rice dish), and phirni (a dessert) etc. Saffron is also believed to have health benefits, such as improving mood, memory, menstrual cramps digestion etc. Saffron stands as a testament to Kashmir’s heritage and a source of regional pride.
Kashmiri and Iranian saffron, both derived from Crocus sativus, possess distinct characteristics that set them apart:
● Appearance: Kashmiri saffron boasts longer, thicker stigmas with a more reddish hue and broader heads compared to Iranian saffron.
● Quality: Kashmiri saffron is renowned for its stronger aroma and higher nutrient content, with greater percentages of crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, the compounds responsible for colour, flavour, and fragrance.
● Price: The limited production and high demand make Kashmiri saffron more expensive than its Iranian counterpart. The average price of Kashmiri saffron is approximately 2 to 2.5 Lakh per kilogram, while Iranian saffron sells for about 1 to 1.5 Lakh per kilogram.
The IIKSTC: A Lifeline for Saffron Growers:- The India International Kashmir Saffron Trade Centre (IIKSTC) is a high-tech spice park in the Dusoo area of Pampore.The IIKSTC, which supports farmers during the post-harvest period, is a vital institution under the National Saffron Mission (NSM) and has been operational since 2020. Established to elevate saffron production and quality in Kashmir, the IIKSTC offers a range of services, including stigma separation, drying, grading, packaging, testing, and marketing. With a drying capacity of 40 kg per 30 minutes, this facility plays a pivotal role in maintaining the quality of saffron. Furthermore, the IIKSTC aids saffron growers in obtaining the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for their produce, granting legal protection and recognition as a unique product from Kashmir. The GI tag ensures higher prices and greater demand for Kashmiri saffron in national and international markets.
The decline in saffron production has left many with a sense of nostalgia for the days when the saffron fields were bustling with vendors, families, and flowers during the harvest season. In stark contrast, the present situation witnesses diminished interest, with only one or two family members often engaged in flower collection.
The legacy of Nund Reshi, Alamdar-e-Kashmir, also known as Sheikh ul Alam (RA), a Kashmiri Sufi Saint, mystic, poet and Islamic preacher, is deeply ingrained in the lore of Ladhoo, Pampore. It is said that He has spent a significant portion of His life, specifically 12 years, in seclusion within a cave in Ladhoo, a place that still exists today. This cave holds historical and spiritual significance, associated with the saint’s life and journey.
To commemorate His legacy, Annually, the Urs of Sheikh ul Alam takes place in Ladhoo Pampore on the 26th of Rabīʿ al-Thānī. Interestingly, this celebration aligns with the conclusion of the saffron season, adding a unique cultural and seasonal connection to the occasion. In conclusion, saffron, the “Red Gold” of Kashmir, encapsulates the essence of the region’s culture and history. Its cultivation has faced numerous challenges, leading to a decline in production. Nonetheless, the NSM and IIKSTC offer hope for the revival of this extraordinary spice, ensuring it remains a vibrant part of Kashmir’s heritage and a source of economic nourishment for its people.
The writer is an engineer, educator and volunteer. He can be reached at [email protected]