For five weeks every fall, Sweet Chestnuts sell roasted on the Srinagar city streets at a cost not matched by any other fruit. Humaira Nabi reports about a specialty that is a government monopoly for around a century now
As the afternoon sun cast long shadows along the Zabarwan foothills, a ruddy-faced sexagenarian runs after a group of boys who trespassed the premises of Gaer-Bagh (sweet-chestnut orchard) in an attempt to annoy the guard rather than steal a few nuts. Showket, a well-built grey-bearded man with black shades, pheran, and a keffiyeh (shemagh) covering his head, has been guarding the heritage Theed’s Gaer-Bagh for many years.
“The orchard has a variety of fruits including apples, walnuts, almonds, cherries, pears and chestnuts,” Showkat said. “As soon as the fruit ripens, young boys swarm around. Their activity increases as the sweet chestnuts start to fall from the trees. It is a huge plantation so, I keep patrolling the fence throughout the day.”
Stretched over an area of around 100 kanals, Harwan’s famous Gaer-Bagh, is believed to have been planted in the 1930s by Mohammad Rehman Afandi, a friend of Maharaja Hari Singh. The orchard bosoms decades-old chestnut trees that bear the exuberant autumn delicacy of sweet chestnut. As autumn starts to descend, it resonates with a reminder of the pinnacle of livelihood and serves as a source of sustenance for many.
Flailing the giant branches of a chestnut tree with a stick, Mohammad Zubair, a labourer, enables hundreds of spiky brown capsules hit the ground. Avoiding the spikes, Zubair carefully handles the capsule to uncover the chestnuts inside and collects them in his Kurta. Each capsule encloses 3-7 brownish nuts.
“The sharp spikes of the fruit make it difficult to unsheathe the chestnuts. There are no equipment for it. I’ve to uncover them with bare hands, which often leaves me bruised. If I am unable to open it with my hand, I either use a stick and thrash the capsule or crush it under my feet,” Zubair said.
Zubair is a third-generation labourer at the Gaer-Bagh. Zubair, who lives in Kalakote, has been visiting the garden with his grandfather and father successively. Accompanied by his wife and children, he moves to Kashmir in March and returns home in late October.
“I’ve been working in this orchard since I was a child. As soon as the sun rises, I enter the garden and start collecting the nuts until late evening. I gather around 10 kg of chestnut every day. I get paid Rs 600 per day, which is good enough to feed my family,” Zubair said.
Locally dubbed Panjaeb-Gaer, the cultivation of sweet chestnuts in Kashmir is restricted along the Zabarwan foothills. Sweet chestnut is a deciduous tree, which can reach 35m when mature and live for up to 700 years. The tree requires a mild climate and adequate moisture for growth and good harvest. Being the staple food in Southern Europe, Turkey, and South-Western Europe for decades, the sweet chestnut bears fruit in late July and sheds it in September-October. The marble-sized fruit is then shelled of its dark brown casings and sun-dried until crisp. Once the nut hits the market, it sells like hotcakes. Streets across Kashmir have tables piled high with this gorgeously dark brown and shiny fruit.
“it is the most cherished snack in autumn,” Raziya Bano, a sweet chestnut hawker at central market Ganderbal, said. “It sells at Rs 600 per kg (raw) and still has buyers. It is rather the most hot-seller item we put out on our stalls.”
Gulshan Ahmad Mir, in charge Horticulture Development officer, Fruit Plant Nursery Harwan said they have a production of around 50-55 quintals (5.5 tons). “Every year after the trees bloom in May-June, the authorities make an estimate of production by roughly calculating the amount of fluorescence of each tree. This is followed by The Horticulture Department inviting tenders from the contractors,” he said.
Though the nut grows at a few more places in Kashmir in Pattan and Khanmoh, it has remained a monopoly fruit of the government. “The Chestnut tree when mature takes so much space that one kanal of land can’t accommodate more than two trees,” Mir said. “Two chestnut trees can bear 15 kg of the fruits; it, therefore, is not as lucrative compared to other fruits grown in Kashmir. So, farmers don’t prefer to cultivate it.” That is perhaps why it is so costly.
In Kashmir, the chestnuts are mostly enjoyed by roasting them for 15–20 minutes. The skin of the nut is cut to prevent the nut from exploding. In European countries, the Sweet chestnut is used in salads, soups or pies, and is considered essential in various Christmas dishes.
Sweet chestnuts are low in protein and fat, unlike other nuts, and are high in dietary fibre, which helps to control cholesterol levels. Due to their high vitamin C content, they also act as an antioxidant and support a strong immune system.
What is interesting is that the entire retail cycle of the fruit is managed by non-native skilled vendors. They have acquired the required skill set to manage its roasting and sale, unlike locals.
Tassaduq Mueen, an agriculture officer, said that the chestnut name is inked to the tree’s wood rather than its fruit. The British army, he said, used to make weather-resistant chests from its wood to store artillery. Mohammad Rehman Afandi, an Afghan, who was a classmate of Maharaja Hari Singh at Oxford University, introduced sweet chestnut in Kashmir. Afandi was invited by Maharaja to settle in Kashmir. His family had a horticulture background. He settled and introduced a number of fruits in Kashmir including Sweet chestnuts. The Harwan orchard was the only organised chestnut plantation established during Kashmir’s despotic rule.
A single chestnut costs Rs 10. Why is it so expensive? “One, that it is a very rare fruit and there is a huge gap between supply and demand,” Tasaduq said. “Another reason is it has a very short post-harvest shelf life – not more than one month.”
A Negative Intervention
In July 2020, Environmental activists and people were left astonished when the Government razed down a vast area of the Gaer-Bagh for the construction of 220/33 KV GIS sub-station. According to the official records, nearly 50 trees were cut down during the exercise, including 24 chestnut trees, 27 walnut trees, and seven peach trees.
Advocate Nadeem Qadri, an environmental lawyer, said the grid station could have been located elsewhere instead of vandalising a heritage garden. “It is located just 400 meters away from Dachigam National Park so the grid station not only led to the destruction of Gaer-Bagh, but has also imposed a threat to wildlife,” Qadri said.
Advocate Shafqat Nazir, who served as the counsel for the locals of Theed, Harwan said that the residents could not succeed in the battle. “The power department took advantage of the notice period and completed the construction of the grid in the meantime. Ultimately, the writ petition was rendered infructuous,” he said.