On day two of our Kashmir trip, I got into an argument with our driver, Javaid. He said that we would start from Srinagar for Pahalgam the next day at 10 am. Now, both Subodh and I are early risers. And anyone who dabbles in photography knows that the best pics are obtained in the morning light when teeming tourists don’t descend into your frames. The expression on Javaid’s face read— Which idiot gets up early on vacation? Isn’t a vacation time to relax?
Well, to cut a long story short, we started for Pahalgam at 10, despite all my grumbling. I still got up early, visited the narrow lanes of old Srinagar, and talked to locals in the vegetable market, before Javaid arrived.
We speed southwards on the four-laned highway on NH44. The view is awesome, with snow-capped mountains lining one side of the road, and tall chinar trees swaying on the other. But there are frequent stoppages. Armed men in army uniforms stand on the median holding red flags and regulating traffic. We have just crossed Badami Bagh cantonment which is popular as BBC among the locals and entered Pulwama district. Each time a convoy of two or three trucks crosses us on the other side of the highway, we are stopped. “That’s the reason why I insisted that we start late,” says Javaid. “The convoys are more frequent in the mornings, and traffic comes to a standstill.”
As we drive further Javaid points out a sign which says, “World’s best saffron grows here”. On both sides of the road there are green fields of saffron. I wish I had come here when the purple flowers were in bloom. Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is cultivated only in Kashmir in India. And this is the only patch where it grows— in Pampore and adjacent parts. The word ‘saffron’ comes the French safran which in turn comes from the Persian word zafraan. The flowers are harvested in only one month of the year, between October and November.
Each purple flower contains three radiant orange stigmas. These need to be picked to make Kashmiri zafraan or kesar. It is painstaking work. Around 1,50,000 flowers need to be picked to obtain one kilogram of saffron. It is one of the world’s most expensive spices. Kashmiri zafraan is known for its strong colour and flavour.
Representative picture of crocus from Wikipedia
Pampore is called a saffron village. Now, on both sides of the road are shops selling kesar. Everyone seems to be a saffron merchant here.
We stop for some saffron-flavoured kahwa, and buy the mandatory little boxes of saffron selling one gram of this ‘red gold’, which will go into our biryanis when we get home. We learn that good saffron must taste a little bitter when you bite it, and must stain your tongue yellow.
As we climb back into the car and get on our way, Javaid points out the site of the Pulwama attack. Here, on Valentine’s day in 2019, 40 CRPF personnel were martyred when a suicide bomber from this side of the road, crossed the median with 300 kilos of explosives in his car and rammed into an oncoming 78-vehicle convoy. We see the gnarled remnants of the metal bars which mark the boundaries of the road.
Suddenly the mood turns sombre. It is tragic how one incident is enough to convert the amazing beauty of these hills into a scarred memory. Peace is so difficult to attain. And yet there will be people who will ruin it all with their deranged minds. As we move on, I salute not just the martyrs, but also the common man on the street. You can see how hard they work.
I imagine how hard it must be to pick up life’s strings and keep moving when all tourism was disrupted with this one ghastly tragedy. So when they tell you, “Pata nahi hamare khoobsurat Kashmir ko kis ki nazar lag gayi (We don’t know who cast an evil eye on our beautiful Kashmir),” you feel their pain. “Go back and tell your people that Kashmir is peaceful. It is safe to travel,” they urge you. “We don’t care for politics. We want peace. Unless we have tourism how can we earn our daily bread?”