Austrian scholar and diplomat, Baron Charles von Hugel who, among other things, was a renowned botanist, visited Kashmir in the 18th century. According to him, nothing matched the flowers of Kashmir, especially the roses. He wrote, “The colour of Kashmir roses is much more beautiful and their fragrance is much more pleasant than the roses produced anywhere else in the whole world. Out of these roses, the best rose water in the world is produced.” He goes on to give a detailed description of how the concentrated rose water was produced through a three stage natural distillation process.
Godfrey Thomas Vigne, an English barrister and amateur cricketer, who travelled across north western India, Central Asia and Afghanistan, wrote in one of his books (‘Travels in Kashmir, Ladak, Iskardo…’, published in 1842) also wrote about the rose water of Kashmir. Other scholarly works too mentioned that rose water and fragrant essential oil (attar), manufactured here, were highly appreciated by the wealthy.
Kashmir (now the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir) has been known for its floral bounty. But like many of the handcrafted finer things in life, the traditional production of rose water is on the wane. According to many reports, the last traditional rose water manufacturing centre in Srinagar, which has been preserving the centuries-old legacy, is on the verge of folding up.
Journalist Haziq Qadri has published evocative images of the last surviving traditional rose water manufacturer of Srinagar on his Instagram page.
The shop which also doubles up as a manufacturing centre, ‘Arq-i-Gulab’ and owned by Abdul Aziz Kozgar is located near the Khanqah-e-Maula shrine in Srinagar. Although the rose water distilled by him is much prized by people in the know, sales are plummeting. It is said that even today many people use the rose water manufactured by him for religious purposes.
Abdul Aziz Kozgar’s family arrived in Kashmir more than 400 years ago from Turkey. Knowledge of the manual manufacturing process has been handed over from one generation to the next. The shop was known not only for rose water but also for syrups which acted as remedies for many kinds of ailments, including stomach ailments.
According to travellers to the area, the shop is well known but there are not many buyers. Jars and glass bottles of myriad shapes and sizes, many of which have served over generations, still stand on the shelves but now bereft of their fragrant contents. Unless things turn for the better, India is set to lose yet another of its legacy crafts.