I knew that the saffron flower is mauve. I also knew that the top-grade ‘mogra’ saffron threads are the red stigma, exactly three to a flower. I knew other crunchy facts, like it takes 150 flowers for a single gram of saffron. But the important things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that after coming back from the fields with your airy load of mauve, when you sit around chatting with the women picking out the stigma from the flowers, the tip of each forefinger and thumb takes on the same hue that you saw earlier on the towering chinars that surround the saffron fields: a flaming orange-gold. Autumn, or harud, is the season of saffron harvest in the Kashmir valley, a brief window after the summer rains have greened the valley and before the snow paints it white. I didn’t know that during this harvest season all alms given are saffron, and all alms-seekers show up directly at the fields. And how much you give is a greater indicator of wealth than the number of acres you stand on.

Noor Mohammad Bhat and his wife Zoonie live in the village of Lethpora, about 20 km south-east of Srinagar. Their spacious two-storey home is filled with the light and laughter of their five luminous daughters: Zamrooda, Khaleefa, Hajra, Asmat and Afreen. Noor is a fourth-generation saffron farmer with 50 acres of saffron and a bright storefront on NH1A. He found nothing unnatural in letting an outsider spend 24 hours with his family: work his fields, share his meals and sleep in the same room as his daughters.

Rimli Sengupta
Separating the scarlet from the mauve
Separating the scarlet from the mauve

During the harvest, prayers are offered at the shrines of two Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Wali and Hazrat Sharifuddin. The saints, it is believed, blessed the crop in the region. By the time I hit the fields with Hajra and Asmat, the sun had taken the bite out of the early chill. The saffron flower is delicate and is best plucked before it wilts in the late morning. The fields around me were not the mauve carpet I had imagined. The saffron corms (bulbs) are planted far apart, so in bloom the dun-coloured dirt has a scattering of mauve. I saw children out in force, pint-size being a distinct advantage for the relentless bending this work demands. Plucking is largely a family affair; faraway relatives come to stay for the short season to lend a hand. The fields around me were festive with chatter and songs and wicker baskets filling up with mauve. Amidst this, a column of soldiers trooped along an aisle, the sweet November light glinting off their automatic weapons. The valley folks deal with the ubiquitous military presence much as we in Kolkata do with fumes from auto-rickshaws running on spiked gasoline. Some of us inhale and get sick; others cover up with wet towels and get on with it.

“This year’s crop is 30% of average,” says Noor. He attributes this mainly to God but mentions a few human factors at play. After the November harvest, the fields lie untouched until the following August. At the onset of dry weather following the summer rains, the caked earth has to be tilled into a fine powder so as to offer no resistance to the delicate shoots the corms send up. This work is done over August and September. August this year saw some trouble. Daily curfews upset every rhythm, tilling included. Then Ramzan lasted all of September. Fasting doesn’t pair well with tilling. An early cold spell in October didn’t help. But the saffron crocus is cyclic; Noor is expecting a bumper crop next year.

Picking saffron from the family field
Picking saffron from the family field

Plucking red gold

On the way back from the fields I noticed that Hajra had quietly adopted me. We walked through the village, arms entwined, past the tea shop where the village elders gather for a good chinwag. She introduced me as her friend from the university at Srinagar where she is a B Ed student, quashing any speculation on my origin or purpose. By the time we ambled home, the whole family had gathered on the sunny porch for a mid-morning tea break. There was kahwa, a tea made by steeping saffron threads in hot water along with cinnamon, and poured over almond slivers. Zoonie bustled around arranging cookies and fritters to go with the tea. Quick-witted Khaleefa kept up a steady patter of jokes as Zamrooda’s new-born daughter Jugnu made the rounds on various arms. In keeping with tradition in the valley for new mothers, Zamrooda will stay with her parents for six months while Zoonie feeds her a special diet. Zoonie and Khaleefa soon disappeared to make lunch, and Asmat hit the books for her impending Part II exam. The tea was cleared away, the day’s harvest poured out on the porch and we settled into picking pistils from the flowers.

The red threads of saffron are a trident of stigmas converging onto a white stalk within the pistil. We were separating the pistils from the rest of the flower, each growing our own mound of pistils as the tired petals piled up in a communal heap of mauve. A few hours of pistil-picking led to lunch. I felt the full weight of Kashmir’s legendary hospitality as I sat on the porch surrounded by a wall of women, eating endless quantities of delicious meat: stewed chunks of lamb, rista, gushtaba, Kashmiri kebabs. And pickled stems of lotus from the Dal lake. A neighbour expressed wonder at the fact that I had travelled alone so far from home for nebulous reasons. As if on cue, my husband rang to ask where in our kitchen was salt stocked. This threw the women into paroxysms of laughter.

The world’s most expensive spice
The world’s most expensive spice

The thing about harvesting saffron is that it happens while you chat. You chat while plucking the flowers, chat while pulling out the pistils, and chat while setting the pistils and petals out to dry in the November sun. In between, you stop for salt tea and baqarkhani. And chat some more. Some of this chatter is just plain chewing the fat. Some is about the rising dowry prices in the Valley, and the challenges of finding a groom who will let an educated bride work. Some is about the relentless curfews and the ensuing paralysis. And some is about azaadi.

As the late afternoon sun slid off the porch, Afreen breezed in from school and we gathered around the samovar in the family den. Once you’ve been in a Kashmiri home you might decide that furniture is overrated. You sit on a plush carpet with your back resting on a cushion against the wall. This sharply increases the number of guests you could accommodate. The girls brought out Zamrooda’s wedding album and I marvelled at her priceless wedding shawl — a red shahtoosh with a gold border.

Nightfall brought harsh cold and a power cut. Inside, the den was cosy with the samovar and the body heat of 15 people. Some of us sat around a low table working on the remains of the day’s harvest by the light of a gas lamp. Zoonie got busy with dinner, while Noor was talking about the importance of fair pricing, the absence of a saffron co-op in Kashmir, and how far away the Indian Spice Board in Kochi seemed to him.

Villagers at Lethpora, Pampore, seat of Kashmir’s saffron production
Villagers at Lethpora, Pampore, seat of Kashmir’s saffron production

Flavour of paradise

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. It is grown in several other countries, notably Iran and Spain, with Iran producing 94 per cent of the worldwide volume. Kashmir’s storied saffron, prized for its intensity of colour and flavour, is widely held to be the best. Kashmiri saffron threads are long to the Iranian short, and the hue is a rich maroon to the more orange Spanish variety. Every part of the flower is used in saffron production. After the pistils are dry, the red stigmas are separated to yield the top-grade ‘mogra’ saffron, and the white style yields saffron used in flavouring paan. The yellow stamens are separated from the petals after drying. At Noor’s shop, the mogra grade is priced at ₹150 a gram. The stamens are priced at ₹40/gm, the style for ₹20/gm, and the petals for ₹100 a kg. The stamens and style are blended to produce various grades of ‘laccha’ saffron (at ₹130/gm; all prices accurate in November 2013). Due to the lack of an effective regulatory body, Kashmiri saffron is routinely tainted with lower quality Iranian saffron and sold as pure in various urban markets, thereby seriously undercutting Kashmir’s saffron farmers.

I awoke the next morning to a glass of milk warm with saffron and almonds, and a fresh naan. The house hummed with the girls at their chores: Zamrooda was washing the baby’s clothes; Hajra was doing the dishes; Khaleefa was spreading yesterday’s petals out to dry in the yard; Asmat was sweeping the porch. And Afreen was getting ready for school, a singularly self-propelled seven-year-old. As she tossed the heavy pack on her tiny shoulders and walked away, I had a strong urge to turn the clock forward 20 years and find out where she is, in body and mind.

As I got ready to leave, the women crowded around me. A neighbour dropped her work and came running with a fistful of fresh pistils as a parting gift. Zoonie piled on me as many bags of walnuts as she could lay her hands on, and Noor gave me a 1- gm jewel box of the highest-grade mogra. I now know that Kashmir’s saffron indeed confers rich colour.

THE INFORMATION

Getting There Pampore, the seat of Kashmir’s saffron production, is 12 km down NH1D and NH1A from the GPO on Residency Road in the heart of Srinagar. The village of Lethpora is on the outskirts of Pampore, 7½ km southward on NH1A from the centre of Pampore. A taxi to Lethpora is ₹900 return, bus ₹10-15 from Srinagar’s Pantha Chowk Bus Stand

When to go The saffron harvest season is a blink-and-you-miss-it affair. The flowering lasts less than 10 days, usually around mid-October/early November

Contact Noor Mohammad Bhat, Lethpora, District Pulwama (Tel: 01933- 246529, 09419022639). During the harvest in mid-October, tourists can visit Noor’s saffron fields and pick up the world’s best saffron from his shop