We step into Sangam, a quiet little town that’s proud of the globally popular Kashmiri willow it produces

Little pockets of sunshine filter through the tall trees that slope gently downwards along the green hills. I take in the refreshing change of scenery as I drive through the dusty pathways of old Srinagar town towards the touristy Pehalgam. I warm myself with a hot cup of Kashmiri kehwa and watch the landscape change colours along the way. Snow-capped peaks and misty rivers? There’s a long way to go! All I see in front of me are some dowdy storehouses and old factories that soon give way to barren fields of saffron.

Scattered groves of poplars and deodars lend a green touch before the shops take over. This is Pompore, the heart of saffron retail industry where every shop proclaims it sells ‘100 per cent pure saffron’. My driver Bashir tells me saffron was brought in here by the Persians over 2,500 years ago and is considered one of the best in the world. The sales pitch works, and I buy a small box before heading towards Sangam.

All about cricket

The shops here sport different brand ambassadors. There is Sachin posing elegantly, Sehwag smiling away, Kohli looking a wee bit aggressive and Dhoni oozing charm in his old look — his long mane flies in the wind, as he swings his bat. Just when you wonder if this is a promotion for IPL, you see cricket bats of various sizes and shapes hanging from every shop window, while stacks of willows are kept atop shops, factories, buildings and on the roads. This is the famous Kashmiri willow, next only to the British willow, brought to India by them. It is today a small-scale industry that gives thousands of Kashmiris their livelihood, besides an edge to the game. Seven villages in the districts around South Kashmir manufacture these bats; some of these families have been doing this for generations using traditional methods and machinery.

I speak to the boys in the shops about cricket and their faces swell with pride at the mention of Parvez Razool, the only Kashmiri playing in the present IPL season (Pune Warriors India). One boy takes me to a godown where bats in various sizes lie scattered and machines cut planks of willow into bats, before pressing them down and shaping them. The cane for the handles, I’m told, is imported from Singapore or procured from Punjab. “The finishing is done here, but the bats are sold in Jalandhar and many times, referred to as Jallandar bats,” one of the boys explains, adding that almost five lakh bats are sold in Indian and international markets from here.

We discuss the IPL and the future of the Kashmiri willow in the international market. A boy brings in some more bats used for tennis ball cricket from the godown and arranges them in the store. “Sehwag and Yuvaraj have used our bats,” says one of them proudly. The Valley, they say, comes alive whenever there is a match between India and Pakistan. As I leave, I ask them who their favourite player is. And pat comes the answer from all of them — “Shahid Afridi!”

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