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Colour purple: Autumn in the Valley is tinged mauve from saffron blossoms

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Autumn in the Valley is tinged mauve from saffron blossoms

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Every autumn, Pampore town, 13 km south of Srinagar, turns into a carpet of purple from the thousands of fallen saffron blooms. Men, women and children, baskets in hand, brave the chilly mornings to pick the flowers.

Only the stigmas of each bloom are taken out painstakingly and dried to get the fragrant strands that are among the most expensive spices in the world. About 50,000 flowers yield roughly 500 g of the spice. Kashmir grows the world’s best saffron, which is a luxury ingredient not just in kitchens but in the beauty industry as well.

In Kashmir, saffron goes into Kong Kehwa, a delicious local tea. Across India, it’s an integral condiment in many dishes ranging from biryani to kheer, and prized in Mediterranean, Spanish, Moroccan and Arab kitchens too. It also goes into face creams, soaps and perfumes.

The crop was introduced in Kashmir by the Mughals, who brought bulbs of Crocus sativus from Iran. The highly drained clay-loam soil of the Valley suited it so well that the valley-grown blooms soon became prized around the world. Today, however, Kashmiri growers face a grave threat from Iranian and Spanish imports, which sell at less than half the price of the local variety. “Why should anyone buy our kong (saffron) when they can get the Iranian one for far less,” asks Mir Ajaz, a saffron farmer.

Moreover, production in Kashmir has been steadily declining for almost a decade now. The past two years were particularly bad. Although this year’s harvest has been a little better, it is still not what it used to be.

The ₹372 crore National Saffron Mission, launched in 2010, has so far covered 1,400 hectares, and has helped production with new technology and equipment, and by teaching farmers modern sowing techniques. This, farmers say, improved the quality of the blooms.

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