There are many local legends about how saffron came to Kashmir. One goes back to the 12th century, and says that Sufi saints Khawaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali presented a local chieftain with a saffron bulb after he cured them of an illness while they were traveling. Another claims that the Persians brought it in 500 B.C., as a means to further trade and market. A third dates the spice back to the Hindu Tantric kings, when it was mixed into hot water to create potions that incited feelings of romantic love.
While the myths arouse discord, there’s one item of consensus: Kashmiri saffron is the sweetest, most precious spice in the world. Its strands are thicker and more fragrant than its counterpart from Iran, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron production. For Kashmiri farmers, crop sells for as much as 250,000 INR or $3,400 USD a kilogram, or $1,550 a pound, in what was once a booming industry. Most of Kashmir’s saffron is grown in Pampore, south of the state’s summer capital, Srinagar. Thirty years ago, it would take Fehmida Mir’s family six to seven months to pick and then package their crop; she recounts memories of winters filled with the spice’s fragrance and palms golden from working with it. As recently as a decade ago, Mir would be able to harvest 200 kilograms of saffron, half of the 400 kilos her parents would get in the 1990s. Three years ago, her crop dropped to 20 kilograms; in 2016, it dropped to 15. Last year, the crop weighed less than 7 kilograms; this year’s produce has been the same. In all of Pampore, farmers have suffered similar fates, unable to account for their production for the last two years, as it was so little.
In other words, saffron production in Kashmir is at one of the lowest recorded in history. “When I was a young girl, there would be no place to sit after harvest,” says Mir, whose family has owned land for three generations. “On the day we picked the flowers, we would all come around and sing to the fields. It was the most special day of the year. We would take months to finish processing the crop: my parents, my whole family, my brothers and sisters,” she says. “Now within a month, we are done.”
As the farmers have begun to say, “the red-gold is turning to gray.” Due to ongoing regional violence, droughts, and the still-unfolding effects of climate change on the land, Kashmiri saffron has slowly begun to disappear. “I tried to grow apples here on this land a decade ago,” Mir says. “But they didn’t fruit! This land is meant only for saffron. Without it, it means nothing.”
Kashmir is a Muslim-majority belt in the north of the Indian subcontinent, and the most militarized region in the world. Kashmir today consists of a region that lies on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan. Indian-administered Kashmir is the territory within the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir consists of a region also called Azad Kashmir along with the more remote Gilgit-Baltistan. Kashmir became the subject of war between the two nations when the Indian subcontinent gained independence in August 1947, and at the same time was split into two. Since 1990, Indian-administered Kashmir has been fully occupied by the Indian armed forces to quell pro-independence insurgencies and movements towards armed militancy. In the ’90s, Kashmir saw a spell of intense communal violence following the occupation, leading to the departure of Hindu Kashmiris from the region and giving rise to a period of civil conflict and oppression that continues today.
More than 47,000 people have died in the conflict since 1989, excluding those termed as disappeared. In mid-June 2018, the state government dissolved. According to local news organizations, by October 2018, more than 300 people — including army personnel, militants, and civilians — died in the valley just that year, of which 139 have been in South Kashmir, where Pampore is located. An estimated 500,000 Indian troops remain deployed in Kashmir. In the region, the war has inevitably become a war on the land, directly impacting the region’s agriculture, which constitutes more than 80 percent of its livelihood and economy.
Pampore, only 30 minutes away from Srinagar, the summer capital of the state, advertises itself as “Saffron Town.” “Children’s shoes and saffron available here,” says a young shop owner named Tariq Shah as I ask him where to get tea. “Or go there, vegetarian restaurant, but with saffron,” he adds, pointing to a small shack in which rice cookers steam by the dozen.
The process for farming the crop begins in April, when the soil is plowed twice to allow moisture to seep in. The corms for the saffron — which cost 50,000 rupees per kanal, or 1/8 of an acre — are sown in August or September, and the soil is pulverized and allowed to breathe. Following this, apart from minor tending, nothing much can be done, except to wait. In mid-October, the plants begin to sprout by themselves from the soil, and for a month they are picked, dried, and sorted.
“The saffron flower has three parts,” says Raqib Mushtaq Mir, a saffron merchant. “There’s the flower petals — that goes in for medicine, then there’s the yellow strands, which aren’t much use. The red strands, right in the middle, are pure saffron, which is what we’re looking for.” A single flower produces just three red strands; one gram of saffron is made from around 350 strands. For a kilogram of the spice, more than 150,000 flowers are sifted and scanned, and the rarity of the red strand can lead to shortcuts from less scrupulous merchants. “Often, in the market,” Mushtaq Mir says, “the yellow are colored with red and mixed into the bunch.”
In 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 home in the 16th century, who took saffron wherever they established court and introduced it into their cuisine. Under the Mughals, saffron, as a color and scent, became commonplace in the royal kitchens. It became prominent in biryani, in which golden-colored rice stacked with meat became a favorite meal. It was used in stews made with lamb; in breads like sheermal, a sweet, thick flatbread dipped in saffron water that is today eaten in Lucknow, an ex-Mughal capital in India’s North; in fruit sherbets as a cure from tiredness; and in phirni, a rice pudding made with spices and eaten all over Delhi, Lucknow, and other parts of India and Pakistan where the Mughals had established rule.
“Delhi’s cooking is residual from the whims of kings,” says Sadaf Hussain, a consultant chef to Delhi’s Café Lota, who infuses mango with the spice to make one of the restaurant’s most popular summer desserts. “In Kashmir, they have always approached it as a cash crop, and used it in careful measure.”
According to Feroz Ahmad, a Waza Kashmiri chef based in Srinagar, saffron’s presence dates back to Kashmir in as early as the fifth century. Kashmiris infuse milk with saffron to break fast during Ramadan; use it in modur pulao, a sweet rice dish made with dry fruits in times of celebration; and sprinkle it on top of yogurt. The spice is used as novelty, never in excess or in everyday cooking. Its high value lends it exclusivity even in the region where it is grown.
During weddings and funerals, Kashmiris eat Wazwan — a traditional meal cooked by trained chefs that comprises more than 30 dishes. Here, as a token of specialty, saffron is infused into the broths. “Saffron is the face of Wazwan,” Ahmad says. “The color that it induces in different dishes is very important to the meal.” It also appears in rogan josh, a fiery lamb dish made with Kashmiri chiles, and lahabi kebab, pounded, spiced koftes cooked in a bright red gravy. “It is crucial for Wazwan,” Ahmad says.
While a glimpse of Kashmiri saffron can be seen in its cuisine, its most important presence is, for Kashmiris, in kehwa — a slow-brewed green tea, infused with saffron and spices like cinnamon and cardamom, garnished with almonds, and sweetened with sugar or honey. Kehwa is consumed through the valley; deep golden, it is an ode to local saffron, its color and the fragrance it brings.
“People want things to look like saffron; it is not just an ingredient, it is also a concept in Indian cuisine,” Hussain says. “Often, to replicate the golden-orange hue, people will use turmeric and water. But real saffron is a red-gold. There’s nothing else like it.”
“I’d like to use it, of course,” says Ghulam Ahmad Sofi, a renowned baker in Pampore who bakes some of Kashmir’s best breads. “But who would account for its cost? I can’t use a fake, either: These are the saffron people, and they know what it looks like, what it smells like.
“It’s not food, it’s a feeling,” he adds. “It’s no surprise to me that it’s more expensive in weight than gold.”
While saffron has an overarching emotional presence in Kashmir and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, its struggles are mostly ecological: drought and lack of irrigation. In previous years, farmers could count on the winter snow seeping into the soil through spring and summer, keeping it moist despite the region’s strong sun. But climate change in the valley has led to scarce rainfall and snowfall, leading the soil to become dry and unsuited for the crop.
In 1997, more than 5,700 hectares of land were cultivated for saffron, according to the Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Department, producing just under 16 metric tonnes. Due to a severe drought, the early 2000s saw a dip in saffron production, falling to as low as 0.3 metric tonnes in 2001. The next 13 years would see an average of 8.71 metric tonnes yield, even despite flooding in 2012 that brought with it great damage, washing nutrients away from the land.
“One saffron bulb can keep producing flowers for 15 days if it is healthy,” says Hilal Ahmad Magray, a farmer based in Lethipora, seven kilometers away from Pampore. But “the floods damaged the quality of crop, and the drought damaged the quality of the soil. Saffron requires a very precise constituency (called karewa), a moist soil rich in humus content. Now a lot of 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, while the exact numbers haven’t been calculated, farmers and scholars both tell me that the output fell to less than 10 percent of 2015’s numbers.
Magray, who’s in his 30s, is one of the region’s few farmers to take complete control of his father’s lands. “Saffron is always organic,” he says. “Saffron cannot be extracted from the soil on whim. When saffron is pure, it is saffron. When it is impure — it is something else.” Under his brand, Zamindar Saffron, he sells the harvest from his land, in addition to lentils, walnuts, chiles, and jams. Like some others, Magray has realized that exclusively trading in saffron is not a lucrative business, and that the spice can be used as an anchor to deal in other products.
In 2010, the central government set up the National Saffron Mission to revive saffron production in Kashmir. The objective behind the mission, with a budget of 4.1 billion rupees (or $57 million USD), was to reconcile Kashmiri farmers with the changing nature of their job. The goals were manifold: to provide irrigation facilities in the form of sprinklers and taps, to increase the quality of the seed sown for crop, to conduct research to further productivity, and to educate farmers about new methods.
To combat the changing environment, 108 borewells — made by drilling inside the ground to store rainwater — were built. But only eight out of the envisioned 128 sprinklers were set up, and most are not in use: Advocates say local farmers, who have long relied on age-old techniques, have not been adequately educated about the changing conditions, or the methods for the betterment of their crop. “God built these lands, so water must come from [them], too,” says Noor Mohammad, a farmer based in Lethipora. Mohammad’s skepticism toward the borewell project is a common one: Many farmers believe in the religious sanctity of their lands, seeing the newer technologies as an unwelcome force. “This land is sacred,” he says. “These pipes are an intrusion to the divine.”
“An important thing to know is that the saffron farming industry is not one that is accustomed to poverty,” Magray says. “The farmers believe that the land has always given, and so it will.”
Because of its low yield, land once used to grow saffron has become less valuable. Villagers and farmers both have begun to abandon their lands, an act that cannot be detached from the Indian military’s control of one of the subcontinent’s most fertile spaces: surveillance, encounter killings, and oppressive force by the armed forces on Kashmiris have become usual occurrences. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, granted to the military in 1990, allows it to search, arrest, use force, and even fire upon those they suspect of armed rebellion, which has led to distrust of the government.
“Agriculture needs young people, needs motivation, [and] no one wants to go out to be confronted by a group of men holding guns,” says Umer Sami, an aspiring Pampore entrepreneur who wants to boost the presence of Kashmiri saffron in the online marketplace. “Young men have either begun to take up arms and stones against the struggle, or just stay home. Think about it — in your 20s, you live in one of the most violent places in the world. Would you do something that ties you to its land, or something that gets you out?”
Despite the violence and struggles, more than 20,000 families are associated with the saffron economy in Kashmir today. But Iranian saffron has also begun to enter India through what the farmers call “secondhand channels,” and because of its lower price, it is packaged and sold as Kashmiri saffron. Though high in novelty, the spice is in no position to compete with its Iranian counterpart.
“The flavor of the saffron is distinct,” says Mahbir Thukral, the U.K.-based head of Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron, a startup that sells the spice abroad. “While everyone is aware of its beauty, little is being done to further the ingenuity of the spice.”
Mahbir also creates artisanal products infused with the spice — like dark and milk chocolate and an award-winning orange marmalade. Recently, he launched his first savory products: a honey mustard and whole-grain mustard infused with the spice. Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron works in collaboration with a local cooperative to keep their market steady and eliminate the middlemen in the process.
“Many people only know Kashmir because of its border conflict, and domestically, they consider it a troubled state,” Mahbir says. “By working with the farmers directly, I wanted to do my bit to help them transform from an Indian business to an international one. ... This is our way to show the great things Kashmir can produce, and why it’s worth making a trip there when visiting India.”
In Pampore, too, some locals like Raqib and Umer are looking to start push saffron through the internet. “What Kashmir are we fighting for if not for the land?” says Umer, as he walks proudly through the farms. “We have to think ahead.”
Saffron requires enterprise and extensive support from the state, but also a loosening of military control and a reinstallation of pride in the lands. While the first two are tangible goals that can be achieved with effort, a free, peaceful atmosphere for prosperity seems out of reach.
On my last day in Pampore, when I return to Fehmida Mir’s home for tea, her mother calls me to the kitchen as she brews kehwa in a samovar, or a large copper teapot. “Look at this,” she says as she introduces three red strands of saffron into a cup of water. “Now it will turn to gold.”
As we wait for the saffron to color the water a deep reddish golden, neighbors start streaming in to surround themselves with the fragrance of the tea. The smell of the spice is invigorating, the color of it irreplaceable, the fuss is not misplaced.
“Before, we were poor and the lands prosperous,” says Fehmida’s mother, as we wait for tea. “Now we prosper, and the lands are poor. It’s time to give up on them, I tell my daughter it is time to let them go.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” yells Fehmida from her room. “You’ve lived with them your whole life.”
“If they go, we’ve got nothing else,” says Fehmida’s mother. “If they go, I go too.”
Sharanya Deepak is a writer from New Delhi; she writes about food, gender, language and race and has written for Roads and Kingdoms, Taste, and Popula, among others.
Vikar Syed is a multimedia journalist based in Kashmir who regularly contributes to TRT World, BBC Urdu, Hindustan Times, and several other publications.
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus