Crimson town

Saffron brought fame and prosperity to Pampore but a decline in production and rogue traders selling adulterated and fake saffron has hit the growers badly. Saima Riyaz visits the town which ensnared poets and kings, and gave Kashmir its best woman poet

Known for producing exquisite saffron, Pampore has mesmerized poets and kings. The glittering saffron flowers on a full moon night, people say, affected everyone from humans to horses.

“Mughals were mesmerized by the glitter saffron flowers produces in moonlight. It is said their horses were also affected by its magnificence,” said septuagenarian Peerzada Ghulam Geelani, a saffron grower of Pampore.

The saffron farming brought along its own culture, its own poetry and its own festivities. “Farmers with their families used to come to the field to harvest the crop. Vendors bartered things with saffron as harvesting fetched people money and hawkers had good business but a decline in saffron production made this system obsolete,” Geelani said.

Saffron is autumn-flowering perennial plant. “Seeds once sown suffice generations and a unique phenomenon is the seed is active when there is no crop and when the crop grows, seed becomes dormant. However the use of fertilizers has affected the crop as well the seed,” said Ghulam Nabi of Nambalbal, Pampore who has been growing saffron for decades.

Saffron is sold as Mongra, Lacha and Gucchi. Super fine crimson part of the flower is an expensive variety called Mongra, golden coloured portion of the flower is Lacha which if packed in bundles forms Gucchi.

Nowadays, the best quality saffron fetches Rs 8oo per 10 grams but the rate is highly fluctuating.

Growing saffron brought the area reasonable prosperity but it also induced an abominable complacency where people did not put much premium on their children’s education.

“Pampore was educationally backward despite being financially sound and nearer to city (Srinagar). People, growers as well as traders, used to think they don’t need to get educated as they and their children have to get involved in the trade which will fetch them a handsome living anyway,” says Geelani

However a decline in production and diminishing returns in saffron changed that as more people though of alternative employment for their children. “People undermined education but when the business lost its prestige and had a setback then education was given some thought,” he added.

Experts attribute the decline in production and quality of saffron to erratic precipitation in the peak season. The government is giving subsidies, incentives and introducing irrigation scheduling in which 125 bore wells (600 metres deep well) will be dug to tap water from the ground which will cover all the 3715 hectares hectares under saffron cultivation in Srinagar, Budgam, Pulwama and Kishtiwar districts.’

Saffron is grown in Soni Krandi, Bud Vider, Lathpora, Ladu and in many other places in Pampore besides Budgam, Kishtwar in the state and Spain and Iran.

Saffron grown in Pampore is considered to be of best quality. “Saffron of Pampore is superior to of any other place because of its colour and better aroma.

It is used for aroma and taste in foods, in Ayurvedic medicines and Kashmiri Hindus used it in their religious practices as well,” Ghulam Nabi said.

Harvesting of saffron is done from mid October to end November. ‘There are some winter plants which flower but no cash crop blooms in these months,’ said Ajaz Ahmad Lone, Assistant Professor, Plant breeding and Genetics, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKAUST). Saffron is a flowery and highly photosensitive plant. Its bloom depends on sunshine hours and diurnal fluctuation.

‘Saffron is a flowery and highly photosensitive plant. Its bloom depends on sunshine hours and diurnal fluctuation,’ said Ajaz Ahmad.

The government is currently running three programmes, through SKUAST-K, to help saffron production and trade. One of the programmes, National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP), is sponsored by World Bank under which growers are taught the scientif practices of cultivating saffron. The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) scheme, also known as Saffron Mission, is a Rs-388-crore project, approved by the Government of India on August 18, 2010.

Since Saffron fields are on the national highway so whenever tourists come and leave Kashmir, they see it. From the past two years Department of Tourism has started a Saffron Mela to attract more tourists. An exhibition is held which is attended by farmers and saffron traders. “Last year it was for one day but the government is thinking to extend it for one week and invite experts,” said one of saffron traders.

Construction is prohibited in Saffron land but many cement factories, flour mills, mobile telephone and electricity towers, overhead water tanks and residential houses besides Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil Corporation depot and workshops have come up in the vicinity.

“In global terms Saffron is taken as a food crop which implies high standards of quality and hygiene should be maintained,” say agriculture scientists. “Farmers complain that our fields have become hard. This is because cement has cohesive properties which bind soil. Cement affects the texture of the soil badly. It can hamper the yield and the soil can even loose the property of growing saffron.”

The other major factor that has jeopardized the saffron trade to a large extent is the adulterated and fake saffron sold in the name of Kashmir saffron here and outside the valley. Lack of quality control has given rogue traders a free run though at the cost of genuine traders and growers.

Main problem in the quality control of Saffron, Ajaz Ahmad says, is created by the middlemen. “Growers give their saffron harvest to the middlemen who have access to the potential buyer. The middle man adulterates it to get more profit,” he said.

As the prices of saffron have dropped consistently over the last few years many growers have retained their produce. “Saffron is perishable and a tricky crop. It expires after three years of storage. Fake Saffron has decreased the prices and for the past two years growers have stored saffron as they won’t sell the genuine it on a loss,” said Ghulam Nabi.

To fix the issue the Spice Board of India Cochi has identified a plot of land at Galander Pampore where a Spice Park will be constructed in which laboratory, processing unit, internet facilities will be available. “There is a plan to create an SMS service in which the grower will be updated with the latest market rates, latest demands from the national and international buyers,” said an official associated with the Saffron Mission.

The Spice Park will also provide growers a platform to sell their produce as buyers will approach and interact with the farmers directly.

The other produce
Pampore area also grew pepper and there was a pepper market in the town.

“People throughout the valley used to visit Pampore to get pepper. There used to be a pepper market in a ground called Tanchbaag,” recalls Ghulam Nabi.
Currently Tanchbaag houses a bus stand and a playground. “In the past pepper was dried, sold and then people used to grind it themselves. Crop harvesting used to be a festivity but now everything is done by machines in minutes and that celebration part is lost now.’

The town also grew tasty Hakh (collard green), which is not grown anymore due to shrinking of agricultural land. “Pampori Haakh is of superior quality as it tastes well. The land of Pampore is fertile as it is Malyaari which means it is suitable for vegetables as Aabi is for rice and Khoshik is for construction,” said Ghulam Nabi.

Pampore was home to two poets of Kashmir – Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon. In Pampore town a pond is named after Lal Ded known as Lal-Trag (Trag means stagnant water).

“According to folklore Lal Ded dropped her water pot and spring sprouted which was lost after a long passage of time,” said G M Shah, Vice Principal, Islamia High School, Pampore situated near the Lal Trag.

However some people term these as cooked up stories. “People have cooked stories about Lal-Trag. There was no spring but a stagnant pond. Pampore has high ground water level and some low lying areas in which stagnant ponds develop,” said Professor GM Mir, who lives in the vicinity of Lal Trag.

Today there is a park spread on about 8 kanal. “Today there is no pond as the land is filled and sweepers dump the garbage near it.”

There are some places whose name ends with a bal like Drangbal, Nambalbal, Kadalbal. ‘Places have suffix bal and bal means water. Pampore has high water level, that is why the word bal is used with places,” Prof Mir adds.

Pampore also produces the Valley’s best Shirmaal bread (locals call it Gird’e).

Though bakers all over Kashmir prepare Shirmaal, the one from Pampore is considered the best making the local bakers proud. They guard their recipe jealously.  “People from other places also tried it but failed to meet the matchless taste of shirmaal of Pampore,” said Ghulam Mohammad, an old baker.

Shirmaal is a must in the ceremonies and parties in south Kashmir and the bakers in the town receive orders almost throughout the year. “People from all over Kashmir come to us for Shirmaal. Famous bakery shops of Kashmir tried but never made it like that of bakers of Pampore. We use ghee, milk, egg and the product turns out to be a delicacy,” says Ghulam Mohammed with a hint of pride.

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