Emperor Jahangir once said about Kashmir: “Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast (If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this)”. Arriving in Srinagar, we dump our luggage and rush to the saffron fields hoping to catch a few hours with the saffron farmers before sunset. It has rained for the past week and the skies are welcomingly clear today. The same warmth of hospitality from our host, Adil Ashraf, wins us over. He is a banking associate with the Jammu and Kashmir Bank Limited in district Budgam and is in charge of Kisan Credit Cards.
The valley is surprisingly wide between the mountain ranges. The ground is flat and well drained. The saffron harvest has just ended; we manage to catch the last saffron flower standing on the field. The loneliness of the flower tells a tale of a valley and its people that has resolved not to surrender to adverse circumstances.
Adil takes us to meet Ch. Mohi-ud-din Banday in the saffron fields of Pampore, where grows the best saffron of the world. His family has been growing saffron for many generations. Pampore is just outside of Srinagar and, before we realize it, we are in the saffron fields, where the land slopes slightly towards the Jhelum. The air is crisp and fresh and it is exhilarating to take deep breaths of air. As it fills up the lungs, there is a heady feeling of elation and one wants to inhale a year’s supply while it lasts.
Seeing the river now, it is difficult to imagine the fury and destruction it wrought on the capital some time back. The message was clear: development must be tempered by strictly-enforced regulations.
Saffron cultivation requires dry climate, well drained land and raised beds. The crop being triploid, the saffron plant grows out of a corm (see picture). It yields saffron after one year or in the same year depending on the size and weight of the corm. The corm is priced at `25,000 per quintal and up to 2.5 quintals (250 kg) of seeds are required for one kanal (1/8th of an acre) of land. The minimum corm size required for planting is 15 mm and 8-10 gram weight is ideal for flowering in the same year. A single corm produces seven to eight corms over the years.
If kept well, a plant normally survives for 15 years. Earlier, cow dung was the fertilizer of choice but it is not easily available any more and farmers have started to use urea now. The fields are close to the road and other farmers gather around us. They complain that the government’s department of agriculture has not been helpful as they would want it to be. For a few years, the department has asked farmers to treat their seeds with chemicals before transplanting but that does not seem to be helping either. Production is going down. The government also drilled some tube wells but none seemed to be working.
Weeds need to be removed twice a year; in June and September and require three operations. Removal by hand costs Rs. 1,000 per kanal, ox deweeding of the furrows costs Rs. 200 per kanal while a scraper panjja costs a farmer Rs. 300. This equals to Rs. 1,500 for the whole process each time.
Saffron is picked four times between October 15 and November 10. The saffron flower is always picked in the morning. In the evening, saffron is separated from the flower. Next morning it is dried under shade. On sunny days, it takes two days for about a kilogram of saffron to dry and 30-40 kg of flowers yield 10-15 tolas of dried saffron. A kilogram of flower gets 10 tolas of non-dried saffron that yields 1.5 tolas of dried saffron. The last few years have seen a substantial drop in yields.
The last thing I expected to hear in the valley was about cement plants. The farmers, however, complain that production has declined on account of polluting cement plants in the area that spew smoke and dust.
There is no market infrastructure to sell saffron though many farmers like Mohi-ud-din Banday also trade in saffron. The size of the farm holdings is small and a farmer owning over 20 kanals of land is considered a large farmer. Interestingly, mostly bulk sales are for temples or for the zarda industry.
As the sun sets behind over the distant hills as we head back to Srinagar, stopping on the way at the house of brothers Tasaduq and Tajamul to sample saffron and for a cup of kahwah, a traditional green tea prepared in copper pots called samovar in the western reaches of the Himalayas. Boiled tea leaves with saffron stands, cinnamon bark, cardamom pods, Kashmiri roses and crushed nuts are just what we need to feel recharged.
The brothers show us different types of saffron and explain the differences: Laccha, the dry saffron priced at Rs. 1,40,000 per kg. Moongra, priced at Rs. 1,55,000 per kg. Zarda, priced at Rs. 60,000 per kg. Even Patti fetches Rs. 12,000 per kg.
Tasaduq educates me on the spurious saffron market and the need to get the right sellers to sell to you. Either the patti is coloured red so it can be sold as saffron or additives are used to enhance the weight of the original saffron. Back home, Adil takes us to meet his mother, where a hot cup of saffron milk awaits us. Srinagar and hospitality are quite synonymous.
Saffron farmers have seen better days, before saffron from Afghanistan and Spain flooded the market. The saffron from Spain is bigger and the yields are higher while the saffron from Iran has more colour. These do not compare to the saffron of Pampore that has far more aroma. Indian importers are driving down prices as they import large quantities of saffron and package it as Kashmir saffron—that obviously fetches a higher premium. I ask farmers about import duties to safeguard them but they do not have a clue. I promise them to raise the question at the right place.
Drinking water supply is not much of an issue in the area but power is. Even though Srinagar was electrified in the 1930s, the electricity supply in the winter months is available for only two to four hours a day. The supply between May to October is good.
The next day affords us time till late afternoon to wander and seep in the serenity of Srinagar. Thankfully, the tourist season has ended; the Chashme Shahi gardens are not crowded, the Chashme Shahi spring water is cool and pleasant. The trees are shedding their leaves, preparing for winter. It is beautiful. After a stroll around the small compound, we take a shikara ride across the Dal Lake. No trip to Srinagar is complete without gliding across the waters of the lake on a shikara.
The floor of the Dal Lake is probably about 12 feet below us. Water weeds are clearly visible like lingering ghosts in the water. These are collected and sold as fertilizer on the land. A few fishermen are still around on their slim boats out fishing. Fruit and vegetable sellers plying their trade on shikaras approach our boat for us to buy their fresh produce along with those selling Kashmiri handicrafts.
Later, we visit the botanical gardens where the herbs and medicinal plants are planted. There is a plant to help each part of the human body. The setting and views are stunning, the walk around the gardens is rejuvenating. It is therapy for stressed minds and for daydreamers alike.
One and a half days in Srinagar is like watching a trailer of an exciting movie; it whets your appetite for more. Time seems to come to a standstill on the lake or while walking in the gardens but then, breaking the reverie, comes the rush to drive to the airport. It all appears so unreal when compared to the madding crowds of Delhi. Just an hour from the capital of India is a paradise waiting to be rediscovered over and over again. Alas, the wait may well be long for I return to Delhi and from there catch a train back to the farm the same night.