Monday, 27 June 2016

Pampore: A journey to Saffron

I was travelling to this heavenly abode (Jammu& Kashmir) for the first time and the impression it had on me was only poppies. Yes, poppies which I had seen in most of Bollywood movies. When travelling with group train is the best option as it makes lifetime memories. But till then I didn’t knew that in this trip I will be encountering with something which is not in my check list or even in the distant dream.  

After 12 hours of journey we all were badly tried. But the valley beauty will compensate them. Train was till Jammu and from there we drove to Srinagar by car. Describing Kashmir’s beauty famous poet Amir Khusaro has said.

Mystics and sages have always found refuge from the mundane in the Himalayas, the modern traveller meets on those high valleys a fascinating humanity and gains a different perspective.

Srinagar, as an elegant aging lady, recovering from a long illness, claims back her best morning and evening light. Watching the sunrise over the old city remains an experience of incomparable beauty. The glow of the Himalayan heights softens the outlines and bathes the brick and wood houses in a golden hue.

Floating Garden

While imagining the city as it was in the 15th century during the times of Badshah, the great king, it is wise to stop by the stall of the saffron merchants in Zaina Kadal. He proudly praises his wares as the best ever to be found in the world.

And over here I had my accidental encounter with Saffron (Kesar). When one of the merchant asked “Have you seen the cultivation of Kesar flowers? I nodded my head in no and he replied you should as it will change you.

Wasting no time I asked him where I can see this jewels being grown. He said in Pampore. A historical town situated on the eastern side of river Jehlum on Srinagar-Jammu National Highway. Known as "Saffron Town of Kashmir", the area is about 11 km from Srinagar city centre Lal Chowk.

Well the exchange is courteous and elegant; Kashmiri merchants are also famed to be the best in the world, their baskets and trunks forever full of embroidered shawls, pretty carpets, jewelry, spices, and hand-carved wooden boxes. Back on the houseboat, lunch is ready, served by an old-fashioned butler who is only there to please you. This original accommodation on the lake can only be reached by shikara, the Kashmiri gondola, paddled by a handsome man who often hums a melancholic song.

The siesta on the shikara is a good option, but it is necessary to be on the canals connecting the lake to the city at sunset to be inescapably seduced by the unkept beauty of the setting. It is time for the inhabitants of the lake to go back home on their small canoes, while farmers who tend their floating gardens collect grass for the animals. In summer, the grace of the lotus flower sticks out amidst the lush vegetation. Hawks and kingfishers, cranes and pin-tales, claim their space in this original coexistence of man and nature.

The taxi is waiting on the boulevard that runs alongside the Dal lake. We drive past street vendors, large families and tourists, most of them coming from other regions of India. They stroll about with the same nonchalance that has caused the Kashmiris to be named indolent lotus-eaters. Just like in a vintage Bollywood movie, all of Srinagar’s photogenic beauty unfurls before your eyes when the driver stops in front of the Shalimar garden, the abode of love.

Entering it is stepping into the grand kingdom of nature, gently accommodated by the hand of man for his comfort. You sit in the pavilion built by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in the 17th century and you gaze up at the painted papier-mâché ceiling with its faded Kashmiri patters. Suddenly, your soul is so raptured by such timeless beauty that you will have to admit: Srinagar, the enchantress, has laid her spell on me. 

But somewhere in my heart I know that this was not for which I came to Kashmir. Next route on which I was travelling to was kesar gali.

Ask me what Kashmir smells like and I will not hesitate. It smells like saffron. Not that it is the only fragrance to float in the air, far from it.

The moment you arrive in the valley, your nose is tickled by a wide variety of impressions.

The scent of saffron is the most impressive and persistent in the visitor’s nose and mind. It entails the refinement of the culinary culture in Kashmir, the extent of this mountain people’s hospitality, the wealth of the exchange between man and nature. If you enter a Kashmiri home as a welcome guest, without fail, you will be offered a traditional green tea, called kawa, aromatized with saffron.

It will be served to you in a small cup, the pialla, from a hand-chiseled copper samowar, a reminder of Kashmir’s strong ties with Central Asia. Only for special occasions will Kashmiri women spice their curries with saffron, as even here it is more expensive than gold.

Saffron is a royal spice not just because of its high price but also because local folklore associates it’s blooming with romance.

The last king of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah, is believed to have visited the saffron fields on a moonlit night to see the magic of the purple flowers in 16th century when he was mesmerized by a lone female voice singing in the wilderness of the vast saffron fields.

The king`s heart was smitten by the voice and he sent his courtiers to find out who the singer was. It turned out to be a village woman named Zoon. Yusuf Shah then married Zoon after she divorced her previous husband.

She was christened Habba Khatoun - the queen. Like Noor Jahan was to Mughal emperor Jahangir, Habba Khatoun is believed to have been the most powerful influence in her husband`s life. This is what history says.

Watching the saffron bloom during moonlit nights in early November is something nature lovers never miss. Despite the problems faced by the saffron growers, the magic and mystery of the royal spice is something that has become synonymous with the beauty and grandeur of Kashmir.

The fragrance and colour of the vast saffron fields have over the years fired the imagination of kings, poets and lovers alike. It is a heritage crop Kashmiris have always prided themselves about.

The light of the moon brightens the barren earth, only the most insistent gaze reveals the presence of so many small iridescent flowers protecting like a womb the precious pistils. You will stand there in awe and you will wonder: “who created such an unspeakable beauty?”

Imagine a vast plain of grey-brown earth, shaded here and there with willow and almond trees, surrounded by snow-capped mountains gently warmed by the late autumn sun. Then cover that plain with swaying purple flowers, each exuding the lush and beguiling scent. People wearing homespun clothes pluck flowers in the fields and heaping them into wicker baskets. Their chatter and laughter rings through the clear air, old men smoke hubble-bubbles under the trees, and all you can do is marvel at a sight like no other anywhere in the world.

Till today I have not found a sight more breathtaking than Pampore’s saffron fields. The flowers had grown like a carpet, close to the small ridged fields and bare branched almond trees had interspersed between them. Low back mountains had bordered the horizon and in the distance golden chinar trees had created rich rows. The almond and walnut trees had been leafless with only their delicate branches spreading in bare silhouette and the only touch of green had come from the willows, which had drooped close to the fields. 

To me, it had seemed like a sea of violet and the flowers had undulated all the way from the road to the silent stony mountains in the background with occasional bright spots of colour being provided by the saffron collectors’ clothes.

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