The Quest for Blue by Written by Tom Verde from ARAMCO WORLD

It’s easy to think of blue as a naturally pervasive color. It’s all around us in clear skies and bodies of water. Yet elsewhere blue appears infrequently, coloring only a handful of minerals and less than 10 percent of flowering plants. Even the feathers of birds, from blue jays to bluebirds, are not truly blue but the result of a biologically sophisticated trick of the eye. The scarcity of blue in the natural world has, for much of history, made it hard to reproduce.

“Other colors were made from natural materials that you perhaps processed, but blue as a pigment didn’t already exist and had to be created," says Mark Pollard, professor of archeological science at University of Oxford .

The earliest humans could pick up chunks of red or yellow ochre or white chalk and use them almost like crayons, and black could be found at the end of every burnt stick. But the transformation of natural materials into the color blue, Pollard explains, required considerable effort and ingenuity.

The quest to unlock the secret of that transformation dates back millennia and spans cultures and civilizations, from Bronze Age Central Asia to early imperial China, from medieval Venice to the modern Maghrib (Islamic North Africa).

The breakthrough came more than 5,000 years ago along the banks of the Nile when early Egyptian chemists first brought the color of the sky down to earth.


A Colossal Interview 

Heidi Gustafson Recounts How She Established an Archive of Hundreds of Samples of Humanity’s Oldest Art Material

JUNE 7, 2022

The word ochre tends to be associated with the warm brownish-yellow color seen in ancient Egyptian paintings or lining the walls of Mediterranean cities. It also, though, refers to a physical substance found deposited in mesas, caves, and other landscapes around the globe that once removed, ground, and combined with liquid, becomes paint. With a lifespan as long as the geography of its origin, the organic matter is widely regarded as humanity’s first art material.

Housed in a North Cascades cabin, the Early Futures Ochre Sanctuary collects and preserves hundreds of samples of these pigments. Rough chunks of material and powder stored in vials fill the space and vary widely in hue, ranging from deep rust and gold to cool robin’s egg blue. The ever-growing archive is the project of forager, artist, and researcher Heidi Gustafson, who established the sanctuary back in 2017. She’s since amassed an incredible collection through a community-based practice involving scientists, archaeologists, creatives, and generally curious folks who donate the pigments they discover for safe-keeping.

Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert spoke with Gustafson via email in May 2022 about Early Futures, its evolution, and what it’s meant to work with a substance with such a rich and lengthy history. Gustafson discusses the multi-sensory and sometimes uncanny nature of her process, the threat the climate crisis poses to the earth’s stores, and how ochre’s legacy reaches far beyond its alluring color.

Grace: For those who aren’t familiar with Early Futures and the Ochre Sanctuary, can you explain what the project is?

Heidi: Sure! I bring ochres and earth pigments (iron-rich rocks, soil, dust)—humankind’s oldest art material—together in one place for a little while. Citizens, friends, and myself gather these colorful pigments from lands, including labs and industrial processing plants, worldwide and send them to me in my rural studio in the North Cascades. Unlike museums or collections, this is a living place that I consider more as a great teacher, full of kin.

Perhaps the metaphor of a seed bank or a lymph node helps to get a sense of why I do the project and how I think about it currently. In lymph nodes, diverse cells share information and “report” back to these central nodal locations in the body. They get instructions from other cells, to help heal better, respond to infection, and maintain harmony in the whole organism.

In the Ochre Sanctuary project, you could think of each ochre rock like a cell or seed that carries a lot of deep time knowledge about a particular place and the creatures and ancestors that live there. They “report back” to this little studio lymph node, to learn and grow threads between other geologies, places, people, imagination, and spirits and to also be able to go out wherever is needed from there.

So, a lot of rocks come into this room. Sometimes colorful dust gets made, and eventually, rocks leave…it’s an evolving collective or counsel more than a static collection. There’s so so so much to learn about interspecies health by listening to nonhumans, especially ones that seem the most silent.


Yellow, a Colour of Spring by Zahra Hassan

All Types of Yellow Colour Pigments used by artists for centuries

A Story of a Musician, illustration by Zahra (Fatima Zahra Hassan) from Kingdom of Joy – Stories of Rumi
A student’s work, School of Miniature Painting, Image by @FZH
Yellow Ochre Powder – Earth Pigment (image:Wikipedia)

Yellow Ochre – (In Urdu and Farsi it is known as Zard, the Hindi name is Ramraj) – an iron oxide, it is usually found in the form of a coloured earth and is washed and finely ground and mixed with a binding medium.

Indian yellow, historical dye collection of the Technical University of Dresden, Germany

Indian Yellow – (Indian name is Peuri or Gagoli) – it is said that this colour is made from the urine of cows fed on mangoes or mango leaves to produced a very bright and vivid yellow colour. Recent test have proved that this is only a tale of folklore. However due to this take it was not used in Islamic manuscripts dealing with sacred themes. Other references indicate that is a yellow earth found in India. This pigment is not commonly used due to its obscure source.

Bright golden-yellow streak colour of orpiment

Orpiment – A brilliant yellow made from sulphide of arsennic which is dangerous to use. This stone is ground, washed and mixed with grum arabic.

Saffron Flower

Saffron Yellow – The most common yellow colour used in the Indian subcontinent. The saffron is boiled or soaked in water to give the liquid colour. The period of soaking the saffron depends on the intensity of the colour required. This solution does not need to be mixed with Gum Arabic or other binding medium .This solution is translucent; however, if mixed with a white colour becomes opaque but loses its original intensity.

Turmeric Roots and Powder

Turmeric Yellow – This yellow is obtained by boiling the turmeric in water until it gives it the required colour, it is then filtered and some saffron is added and boiled again. This is filtered again and gall nut and Gum Arabic is added to the mixture before it cools down.

Text by Fatima Zahra Hassan

Extract from her PhD thesis, 1997, copyright @fzhassan & @fzhatelier

Natural Colours & Pigments by Fatima Zahra Hassan

In the traditional Indo-Persian style of miniature painting, the role and use of colour is of extreme significance, both in terms of visual representation and symbolic meaning. However, our concern here is to concentrate on the quality and nature of these pigments and how they were prepared and applied in this art form. The research work of porter and Minorsky[1] in this field, clearly indicates that there was very little development in the techniques of the preparation of the pigments between the 12th and the 18th centuries, and that furthermore there was very little variety from one region to another. The conclusion of these finding is that any process of identification in terms of region or date cannot be totally based on the process of the preparation and application of the colours. It is often clearer to base this identification on the styles of the different schools of painting in the region.

However, by general observation, there is a clear difference between Persian and Indian paintings in the range and use of certain colours. Persian miniature painting has always been characterised by and rightly admired for the brilliance of its colours, especially the use  of lapis lazuli. While Indian painting used more subtle tones such as peori, orange and green earth. If anything, this indicates that Persian paintings mainly used colours which derived fro minerals and other sources like copper carbntes and iron oxides. This range of minerals and organic sources were introduced to India by the Persians. Prior to this influence, Indian paintings used colours which derived from plants, vegetables and different types of earth colours from the range of clays that were available.

Natural pigments were always found in abundance in the South Asian, Persian and Central Asian regions and therefore the Pallet of Indo-Persian artists was extremely rich in terms of colour. The natural pigments which were used for this range of colours derived from four main categories:

Earth and Mineral colours

Organic Colour Pigment i.e. from Plant or Animal Sources

Inorganic or Artificial Colour Pigment

Metals and Oxides

[1] Porter, Y. Painters, Paintings and books, Manohar, New Delhi, 1994. Minorsky, V. Calligrpahers and Painters, a treatise by Qadi Ahmad, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, 1959.

Amongst the minerals used were gold, silver, copper, mercury, iron, tin and lead. Lapis lazuli, which is mainly found in the area of the Indus river, was the basis of ultra marine blue. Likewise, artists could achieve a bright red from ground cinnabar, yellow from compliment and green from malachite. Black is mainly derived from two sources; carbon (animal, mineral or plant) or gall nuts.

Expense and availability of materials and the cost of labour dictated the choice of pigment types that were used. Often cheaper and more convenient substitutes for lapis lazuli, malachite and cinnabar were not uncommon. Instead of lapis lazuli, indigo, a plant derivative as well as ultramarine were used fro dark blue and azurite.

Furthermore, copper carbonate, which is destructive to paper, produced a lighter blue. A substitute for malachite was Verdigris, a highly corrosive green pigment, obtained by dipping copper plates in vinegar and burying them in a pit for a month. Furthermore, many alternatives to cinnabar existed. Mercury and sculpture ground and heated together resulted in vermilion, and the bright orange red of many Persian paintings came from red lead. Despite the dangers of lead poisoning, red lead and its cousin, white lead, made by treating lead with vinegar, enjoyed continuous use from classical times until at least the 17th Century. Other reds include red brown, iron oxide, carmine from the kermes (lakh) insect, and some unidentified plant dyes.

Unfortunately, some of the pigments used in Persian miniature painting were destructive to the paper as well as being harmful to the health of the artist, while other tended to change colours or invade their neighboring colours. Silver, usually used to depict water. amour and highlights, often tarnishes and turns black. Verdigris eats away not only the paper on which it is painted but also the surrounding pages. White lead and red lead blacked when on their own and turn yellow orpiment to black when they touch it. Azurite also has a corrosive effect.

Colour pigments in shells

Taking into consideration the fugitive nature of some of the pigments and minerals used, it is remarkable that so many Persian miniatures remain intact. It is possible that the binding medium used for these pigments, contributed to their durability. 16th century sources referred to in the work of Porter and Minorsky[1] seem to indicate that until the 1590s, Persian artists used albumen and glue to bind the particles of pigments. Certainly these binding media added to the hard sheen that characterises the surface of early Persian miniatures.

Most of the colours used in Persian miniature painting derived from minerals; organic colours being more commonly used in textile dyeing than for painting. This use of organic colour dyeing of textiles was most evident in India. The palette of colours that was obtained from the available minerals was quite limited. However, from a fairly small number of sources, Persian painter mixed a dazzling range of the hues, opaque reds and yellows (Vermilion, Ochre and Oppiment), translucent bright blues (Lapis or Azurite), a couple of greens (malachite, verdigris, chrysocolla), reds and browns and black and white. Oganic colours, Indigo, Peori (Indian Yellow), Red Lake and Purple Lake, widened the scope for the artist. The brilliance and subtlety these colours added to their paintings seemed sufficient compensation to them for their lack of permanence under certain circumstances.

       The preparation of these minerals involved constant washing to extract impurities as well as breaking them down into small pieces and grinding them into a powder form. This process of preparation will be discussed in further detail in the section dealing with the preparation of pigments for my own work.

A further point which has to be highlighted is the fact that the painters of the Indian and Persian schools of miniature painting chose water colours as their painting media. The reason for this is quite a practical one and is easily understandable if one is a painter practicing in the Indian subcontinent. This is mainly due to the physical environment in which the work is executed. The climate is hot and dusty and therefore the water-colours dry instantly without letting the dust get absorbed into the medium. Even if the dust settles on the painting, it could be wiped off with a soft cloth. An oil based painting would absorb the dust and it would not be possible to clean it once it is dry. A further point is that oil colours dry up and crack in very hot climates, while water based paintings endure.

The following is a list of colours that were commonly used in Indo Persian miniature painting which were all extracted from mineral or organic sources. All these pigments are still available and form the basis of the colours which are used in the miniature painting I execute.

The preparation of these pigments are based on the instructions I have received from my master Ustad Bashir Ahmed in Pakistan and on experiments that I have carried out. However, I have also based my experience on the instructions of several ancient manuscripts on miniature painting. These are :

  • Calligraphers and painters by Qadi Ahmed, son of Mir-Munshi (circa A.D. 1015/1015/A.D. 1606), translated by V. Minorsky, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1959.
  • Qanum us-suvar (The canons of painting), by Sadeq Bek (17th century A.D.), from the Houghton Shahnameh, M.B. Dickson and S.C. Welch, Cambridge Mass, 1981. Painters, paintings and Books, Yves Porter, Manohar, Centre for Human Sciences, New Delhi, 1994.


Lead white – This lead carbonate is obtained by suspending lead above vinegar until a white deposit appears on it, it is then left to dry in the sun. In today’s polluted atmosphere it tuns black fairly quickly when mixed with a gum arabic solution. This is not commonly used today because of its poisonous nature.

Chalk white – This derived from calcium carbonate or to common chalk.

Oyster shell white – This is derived from oyster shaells which are ground into a fine powder and prepared by mixing with a binding medium.


This is a very important colour for painting. The traditional way of getting this is from ‘soot’. A container is placed over a lit lamp (using oil or coal) till black soot or lamp black which is known as ‘kajal’ is collected on the sides of the container. This soot is then mixed with acacia resin or gum arabic and water. The mixture is ground with the index finger till it become extremely fine. This mixture provides a thick strong black colour. This black ‘kajal’ is also used by women as ‘kohl’.

Nowadays, artists mostly use Chinese indelible ink which is found in a stick form.

Multani Mitti:

It is very light grey in colour. Multani clay an be used as a base or a ground or to size the paper. It is diluted with gum Arabic and then applied onto the paper and is then burnished before applying the colours. This is used to give a background tone to the painting surface as well as an alternative to staining the paper with tea. Multani clay came from the region of Multan.


Yellow ochre – (In Urdu and Farsi it is known as zard, the Hindi name is ramraj) – an iron oxide, it is usually found in the form of a coloured earth and is washed and finely ground and mixed with a binding medium.

Indian yellow – (Indian name is pouri orgagoli) – it is said that this colour is made from the urine of cows fed on mangoes or mango leaves to produced a very bright and vivid yellow colour. Recent test have proved that this is only a tale of folklore. However due to this take it was not used in Islamic manuscripts dealing with sacred themes. Other references indicate that is a yellow earth found in India. This pigment is not commonly used due to its obscure source.

Orpiment – A brilliant yellow made from sulphide of arsennic which is dangerous to use. This stone is ground, washed and mixed with grum arabic.

Saffron yellow – The most common yellow colour used in the Indian subcontinent. The saffron is boiled or soaked in water to give the liquid colour. The period of soaking the saffron depends on the intensity of the colour required. This solution does not need to be mixed with gum arabic or other binding medium .This solution is translucent; however, if mixed with a white colour becomes opaque but loses its original intensity.

Turmeric yellow – This yellow is obtained by boiling the turmeric in water until it gives it the required colour, it is then filtered and some saffron is added and boiled again. This is filtered again and gall nut and gum arabic is added to the mixture before it cools down.


Lapis Lazuli – A mineral known as azure or ultramarine in the West. It is the most popular, rich and durable blue pigment. This pigment is prepared by grinding it and then mixing it with vinegar and gum arabic. This mixture is then washed several times to remove any impurities.

Azurite – This copper carbonate is a cheaper alternative to lapis lazuli which provides a good colour if not ground too fine when it becomes pale and greenish. Several coats are necessary to obtain a solid blue. It turns black when heated, unlike lapis which remains blue.

Indigo – Dark blue vegetable dye from the indigo plant.


Indian red – A natural iron oxide found in the earth and is deeper in colour than other earth reds. Generally found in the area of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.

Minium – This is a orange red which is obtained from roasted white lead.

Vermilion – Made from mixing mercury with sulphur at a high temperature; the result  i a sulphide of mercury.

Red Lakes: Kerms and Cochineal – Both of insect origin which give various shades ranging from crimson to purple.

Geru – A crimson colour which is derived from a clay that is mainly found in the region of Sind and Rajestan. This clay is mixed with the binding medium and applied as a colour.


Rajastan – A sulphide of arsenic like orpiment which is poisonous and incompatible with lead or copper and not much used. The more Orpiment is ground while dry, the redder it becomes. When this is finely ground it is diluted with gum arabic and left to dry. Before using it a small amount of diluted gum is added.


Malachite – Copper carbonate, like azurite should not be ground too fine it will then lose its quality of colour.

Verdigris – A copper acetate which is cheap and easy to obtain but lacks durability. This is obtained by mixing copper filings with vinegar (or other forms of acid) and then leaving it for a few weeks. It then mixed with gum arabic. This material has a very destructive effect on paper. It is said that the remedy for this is to mix a little saffron to the verdigris. This give a pistachio colour, but its preservative qualities have not really been tested since it requires a long period of time.

Orpiment mixed with indigo – This mixture gives a clear green and is widely used in Islamic miniature painting.

Terraverte – Green iron oxide found in the earth, widely used in late 17th century Mughal paintings.


A yellowish colour. This is usually available in the form of a stone and is heavy like mercury. It is ground thoroughly and filtered several times with water and mixed with sheep’s milk afterwards and lemon juice is added. It has to be filtered properly because it has a heavy amount of mercury in it which could not be applied on to the painting directly.

Dana Farang:         

This is a particular stone which comes from Central Asia or Afghanistan. At present this natural pigment is no longer available and a cheap artificial substitute is available.


The silver is beaten by hand until it becomes a thin leaf. The silver can be used in the form of a leaf or can be made into a paint by mixing it with gum arabic.


The gold is cursed and mixed by hand with animal size or any other binding medium or applied in the form of gold-leaf. Gold is used extensively for illumination.

Apart from the major colour that are used and widely know, there are certain tones which are derived from these colours and are particular to the Indo-Pak subcontinent. These tones were traditionally known and are still referred to by their local names. These terms are very common words used in everday life which derive from the local environment and everyday objects that are seen by the painters. The actual words are originally Persian but have become integrated in the Urdu and Hindi languages. I was taught these names not only by my painting master but also from having grown up in the region. These tones do not only refer to miniature painting, but extend to textiles, ceramics, tile making and carpet weaving.

  • Badaami : This is a light brown tone like that of the almond. The word badaam actually means almond.
  • Chehrai : The word chehra means face and the tone referred to is that of the tone of the skin
  • Khaki : This is the tone of the earth; the work khak means clay earth.
  • Sabzi : The word sabzah means the green of nature and any form of vegetable is known as sabzi. This terms is used for a very wide tome of genn.
  • Pistai : The word pista means pitachio and the tone referred to is pistachio green.
  • Totia : The word tota means parrot, and the term refers to a very bright green tone.
  • Dhani : The word dhan means rice and the term refers to the green tone of the rice fields.
  • Moongia : The word moong refers to a particular lentil which is dark green in colour.
  • Zamourrad : The word zamourrad means emerald, and the tone referred to is that of the emerald.
  • Henai or Mehndi : Henai is a plant which is ground and used for dyeing hair and decorating hands and feet etc. It usually has two tones; a dark blackish green and a dark reddish tone. The term mehndi is also used to mean heni. The tone that is referred to is a dark green.
  • Lajward : This is the name for lapis lazuli.
  • Firouzi : Firouz  is the name for the turquoise stone, and the tone that is referred to is that of this tone. It is interesting to note that this tone cannot be derived straight from grinding the turquoise stone, since this gives no colour. This tone is usually derived from cobalt.
  • Neelam : This is the word for blue sapphire, and tone reffed to is a sky blue.
  • Aasmani : The word aasman is peacock and pankha means fan. The tern morpankh indicates the tones of the peacock’s tail.
  • Yaqout : The word Yaqout means ruby and the tone referred to is of a deep red.
  • Qirmizi : The word qirmiz means cherry and the term refers to a deep red tone.
  • Arghavani : This is extracted from the Judas tree, and the colour is a purplish red.
  • Gulabi : The word gulabi is usually used for a rose in Urdu and Hindi. However, in Persian it literally means rose water. The tone it refers to is that of rose pink.
  • Atishi Gulabi : The word atishi  actually means fire and the term referred to is a shocking pink.
  • Tarbouzi : The word tarbouz means watermelns and the term referred to is a pleasant dark pink which is similar to that of the inside of a water melons.
  • Piazi :The word piaz means onion, and the term refers to a very subtle pink tone.
  • Banafsha : This a tone which is extracted from the banafsha flower and is violet in colour. This is not used as a colour in miniature painting since it is not permanent.
  • Falsai : Falsa is a berry like fruit which has a deep purple colour.
  • Jamuni : Jamun is a fruit resembling a date and its colour is mauve.
  • Malta : The word malta means the orange fruit.
  • Narangi : The word narangi is an orange like fruit which is used to make marmalade. The tone referred to is a deeper orange tone.
  • Sindhori : The word sindhor refers to the orangeish – red strip of paste that is applied to the parting of a married woman’s hair in India.
  • Shangrafi : This is a tone similar to that of the Shangraf flower which is yellow in colour.
  • Zafarani : The word zafaran mean saffron.
  • Ambari : The term ambar refers to amber which is black in colour.
  • Fakhtai : The word fakhta means to dove and the tone referred to is grey with a tinge of red.
  • Sunehra : The word sona means gold. This term is used to refer to the tone of gold and is generally also used to mean the rays of the sun.
  • Rupehla : This  is used to describe the moonlight and refers to the tone of silver.

Gum arabic:

Gum arabic was the most commonly used medium for both the ground and the pigments. The decision of how much medium to use was always delicate and based on personal experience. Too much subjected the pigment layer to stress and cracking, too little and it would flake away in a fine powder. Artists avoided too much arabic with pigments of brilliant colour like lapis lazuli, as it spoiled the colour by making it duller.

[1] ibid

Spotlight on: Turner’s Yellow | Winsor & Newton

During the industrial revolution, as steamships took over from sailing ships and machines replaced manpower, many areas of innovation and technology were taking place including discoveries in new art materials. Depending on one’s perspective this was the end, or the dawn, of a new era, with natural light about to be replaced by Edison’s electric light at the end of the 19th century, and it is in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings that we see the embers of this era merging with the new industrial age.

Until Turner and Constable, ‘history painting’ was regarded by the Academy as the superior genre in painting, with landscape painting taking a lesser value. Part of Turner’s legacy is in the way he utilised landscape and seascape, elevating them to a higher genre, and using painting as a platform to document the changes taking place in society at that time. Take for example The Fighting Temeraire, tugged to her last Berth to be broken up (1838) in which an older decommissioned ship is towed by a new steamship. Through this genre he was able to narrate aspects of technological, political and social reforms taking place in society, capturing, in particular, the magnificence of natural sunlight. So obsessed was Turner with his palette of bright whites and burning yellows that one critic even suggested he had “yellow fever”.

Paintings such as his famous The Fighting Temeraire, read ambiguously as a sunset or sunrise, reflecting the pivotal changes taking place. Frequently using Gamboge and King’s Yellow to capture sunlight in its many forms: as an ethereal quality, in its abundance, in its lack, as a vapour, and, as a physical quality soon to be replaced by the artificial rays of Edison. In Gombrich’s words, Turner “had visions of a fantastic world bathed in light and resplendent with beauty, but it was a world not of calm, but of movement, not of simple harmonies but of dazzling pageantries…”

Source: Spotlight on: Turner’s Yellow | Winsor & Newton

Abergavenny Bridge, Monmountshire by J.M.W. Turner, watercolor painting

‘This Land Is Meant Only for Saffron. Without It, It Means Nothing.’


There are many local legends about how saffron came to Kashmir. One goes back to the 12th century and says that Sufi saints Khawaja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali presented a local chieftain with a saffron bulb after he cured them of illness while they were travelling. Another claims that the Persians brought it in 500 B.C., as a means to further trade and market. A third dates the spice back to the Hindu Tantric kings when it was mixed into hot water to create potions that incited feelings of romantic love.

saffron 3

While the myths arouse discord, there’s one item of consensus: Kashmiri saffron is the sweetest, most precious spice in the world. Its strands are thicker and more fragrant than its counterpart from Iran, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s saffron production. For Kashmiri farmers, crop sells for as much as 250,000 INR or $3,400 USD a kilogram, or $1,550 a pound, in what was once booming industry. Most of Kashmir’s saffron is grown in Pampore, south of the state’s summer capital, Srinagar. Thirty years ago, it would take Fehmida Mir’s family six to seven months to pick and then package their crop; she recounts memories of winters filled with the spice’s fragrance and palms golden from working with it. As recently as a decade ago, Mir would be able to harvest 200 kilograms of saffron, half of the 400 kilos her parents would get in the 1990s. Three years ago, her crop dropped to 20 kilograms; in 2016, it dropped to 15. Last year, the crop weighed less than 7 kilograms; this year’s production has been the same. In all of Pampore, farmers have suffered similar fates, unable to account for their production for the last two years, as it was so little.

Saffron 2

In other words, saffron production in Kashmir is at one of the lowest recorded in history. “When I was a young girl, there would be no place to sit after harvest,” says Mir, whose family has owned land for three generations. “On the day we picked the flowers, we would all come around and sing to the fields. It was the most special day of the year. We would take months to finish processing the crop: my parents, my whole family, my brothers and sisters,” she says. “Now within a month, we are done.”

saffron 6

As the farmers have begun to say, “the red-gold is turning to grey.” Due to ongoing regional violence, droughts, and the still-unfolding effects of climate change on the land, Kashmiri saffron has slowly begun to disappear. “I tried to grow apples here on this land a decade ago,” Mir says. “But they didn’t fruit! This land is meant only for saffron. Without it, it means nothing.”

saffron 5

Kashmir is a Muslim-majority belt in the north of the Indian subcontinent, and the most militarized region in the world. Kashmir today consists of a region that lies on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan. Indian-administered Kashmir is the territory within the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir consists of a region also called Azad Kashmir along with the more remote Gilgit-Baltistan. Kashmir became the subject of war between the two nations when the Indian subcontinent gained independence in August 1947, and at the same time was split into two. Since 1990, Indian-administered Kashmir has been fully occupied by the Indian armed forces to quell pro-independence insurgencies. In the ’90s, Kashmir saw a spell of intense communal violence following the occupation, leading to the departure of Hindu Kashmiris from the region and giving rise to a period of civil conflict and oppression that continues today.

saffron 8

More than 47,000 people have died in the conflict since 1989, excluding those termed as disappeared. In mid-June 2018, the state government dissolved. According to local news organizations, by October 2018, more than 300 people — including army personnel, militants, and civilians — died in the valley just that year, of which 139 have been in South Kashmir, where Pampore is located. An estimated 500,000 Indian troops remain deployed in Kashmir. In the region, the war has inevitably become a war on the land, directly impacting the region’s agriculture, which constitutes more than 80 percent of its livelihood and economy.

saffron 9

Pampore, only 30 minutes away from Srinagar, the summer capital of the state, advertises itself as “Saffron Town.” “Children’s shoes and saffron available here,” says a young shop owner named Tariq Shah as I ask him where to get tea. “Or go there vegetarian restaurant, but with saffron,” he adds, pointing to a small shack in which rice cookers steam by the dozen.

saffron 10

The process for farming the crop begins in April when the soil is ploughed twice to allow moisture to seep in. The corms for the saffron — which cost 50,000 rupees per kanal, or 1/8 of an acre — are sown in August or September, and the soil is pulverized and allowed to breathe. Following this, apart from minor tending, nothing much can be done, except to wait. In mid-October, the plants begin to sprout by themselves from the soil, and for a month they are picked, dried, and sorted.

saffron 11

“The saffron flower has three parts,” says Raqib Mushtaq Mir, a saffron merchant. “There are the flower petals — that goes in for medicine, then there are the yellow strands, which aren’t much use. The red strands, right in the middle, are pure saffron, which is what we’re looking for.” A single flower produces just three red strands; one gram of saffron is made from around 350 strands. For a kilogram of the spice, more than 150,000 flowers are sifted and scanned, and the rarity of the red strand can lead to shortcuts from less scrupulous merchants. “Often, in the market,” Mushtaq Mir says, “the yellow is coloured with red and mixed into the bunch.”

saffron 12

In the Indian subcontinent, saffron has many names: zafran in Urdu (from Persian), kesar in Hindi, Kong Posh in Kashmiri, and kungumapoo in Tamil. It was popularized by the Mughals — the Turkic kings from Central Asia that made the subcontinent their home in the 16th century, who took saffron wherever they established the court and introduced it into their cuisine. Under the Mughals, saffron, as colour and scent, became commonplace in the royal kitchens. It became prominent in biryani, in which golden-colored rice stacked with meat became a favourite meal. It was used in stews made with lamb; in bread like sheermal, a sweet, thick flatbread dipped in saffron water that is today eaten in Lucknow, an ex-Mughal capital in India’s North; in fruit sherbets as a cure from tiredness; and in phirni, a rice pudding made with spices and eaten all over Delhi, Lucknow, and other parts of India and Pakistan where the Mughals had established rule.

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“Delhi’s cooking is residual from the whims of kings,” says Sadaf Hussain, a consultant chef to Delhi’s Café Lota, who infuses mango with the spice to make one of the restaurant’s most popular summer desserts. “In Kashmir, they have always approached it as a cash crop, and used it in careful measure.”

According to Feroz Ahmad, a Waza Kashmiri chef based in Srinagar, saffron’s presence dates back to Kashmir in as early as the fifth century. Kashmiris infuse the milk with saffron to breakfast during Ramadan; use it in modur pulao, a sweet rice dish made with dry fruits in times of celebration, and sprinkle it on top of yoghurt. The spice is used as a novelty, never in excess or in everyday cooking. Its high value lends it exclusivity even in the region where it is grown.

During weddings and funerals, Kashmiris eat Wazwan — a traditional meal cooked by trained chefs that comprises more than 30 dishes. Here, as a token of speciality, saffron is infused into the broths. “Saffron is the face of Wazwan,” Ahmad says. “The colour that it induces in different dishes is very important to the meal.” It also appears in rogan josh, a fiery lamb dish made with Kashmiri chiles, and lahabi kebab, pounded, spiced koftes cooked in a bright red gravy. “It is crucial for Wazwan,” Ahmad says.

While a glimpse of Kashmiri saffron can be seen in its cuisine, its most important presence is, for Kashmiris, in kehwa — a slow-brewed green tea, infused with saffron and spices like cinnamon and cardamom, garnished with almonds, and sweetened with sugar or honey. Kehwa is consumed through the valley; deep golden, it is an ode to local saffron, its colour and the fragrance it brings.

“People want things to look like saffron; it is not just an ingredient, it is also a concept in Indian cuisine,” Hussain says. “Often, to replicate the golden-orange hue, people will use turmeric and water. But real saffron is a red-gold. There’s nothing else like it.”

“I’d like to use it, of course,” says Ghulam Ahmad Sofi, a renowned baker in Pampore who bakes some of Kashmir’s best bread. “But who would account for its cost? I can’t use a fake, either: These are the saffron people, and they know what it looks like, what it smells like.

“It’s not food, it’s a feeling,” he adds. “It’s no surprise to me that it’s more expensive in weight than gold.”

While saffron has an overarching emotional presence in Kashmir and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, its struggles are mostly ecological: drought and lack of irrigation. In previous years, farmers could count on the winter snow seeping into the soil through spring and summer, keeping it moist despite the region’s strong sun. But climate change in the valley has led to scarce rainfall and snowfall, leading the soil to become dry and unsuited for the crop.

In 1997, more than 5,700 hectares of land were cultivated for saffron, according to the Jammu and Kashmir Agriculture Department, producing just under 16 metric tonnes. Due to a severe drought, the early 2000s saw a dip in saffron production, falling to as low as 0.3 metric tonnes in 2001. The next 13 years would see an average of 8.71 metric tonnes yield, even despite flooding in 2012 that brought with it great damage, washing nutrients away from the land.

“One saffron bulb can keep producing flowers for 15 days if it is healthy,” says Hilal Ahmad Magray, a farmer based in Lethipora, seven kilometres away from Pampore. But “the floods damaged the quality of the crop, and the drought damaged the quality of the soil. Saffron requires a very precise constituency (called karewa), a moist soil rich in humus content. Now a lot of bulbs that erupt are unfit for producing flowers, or diseased.”

In 2015, the crop totalled 9.6 metric tons of saffron, from 3,674 hectares of land. In 2016 and 2017, while the exact numbers haven’t been calculated, farmers and scholars both tell me that the output fell to less than 10 percent of 2015’s numbers.

Magray, who’s in his 30s, is one of the region’s few farmers to take complete control of his father’s lands. “Saffron is always organic,” he says. “Saffron cannot be extracted from the soil on whim. When saffron is pure, it is saffron. When it is impure — it is something else.” Under his brand, Zamindar Saffron, he sells the harvest from his land, in addition to lentils, walnuts, chiles, and jams. Like some others, Magray has realized that exclusively trading in saffron is not a lucrative business and that the spice can be used as an anchor to deal in other products.

In 2010, the central government set up the National Saffron Mission to revive saffron production in Kashmir. The objective behind the mission, with a budget of 4.1 billion rupees (or $57 million USD), was to reconcile Kashmiri farmers with the changing nature of their job. The goals were manifold: to provide irrigation facilities in the form of sprinklers and taps, to increase the quality of the seed sown for the crop, to conduct research to further productivity, and to educate farmers about new methods.

To combat the changing environment, 108 borewells — made by drilling inside the ground to store rainwater — were built. But only eight out of the envisioned 128 sprinklers were set up, and most are not in use: Advocates say local farmers, who have long relied on age-old techniques, have not been adequately educated about the changing conditions, or the methods for the betterment of their crop. “God built these lands, so water must come from [them], too,” says Noor Mohammad, a farmer based in Lethipora. Mohammad’s skepticism toward the borewell project is a common one: Many farmers believe in the religious sanctity of their lands, seeing the newer technologies as an unwelcome force. “This land is sacred,” he says. “These pipes are an intrusion to the divine.”

“An important thing to know is that the saffron farming industry is not one that is accustomed to poverty,” Magray says. “The farmers believe that the land has always given, and so it will.”

Because of its low yield, land once used to grow saffron has become less valuable. Villagers and farmers both have begun to abandon their lands, an act that cannot be detached from the Indian military’s control of one of the subcontinent’s most fertile spaces: surveillance, encounter killings, and oppressive force by the armed forces on Kashmiris have become usual occurrences. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, granted to the military in 1990, allows it to search, arrest, use force, and even fire upon those they suspect of armed rebellion, which has led to distrust of the government.

“Agriculture needs young people, needs motivation, [and] no one wants to go out to be confronted by a group of men holding guns,” says Umer Sami, an aspiring Pampore entrepreneur who wants to boost the presence of Kashmiri saffron in the online marketplace. “Young men have either begun to take up arms and stones against the struggle or just stay home. Think about it — in your 20s, you live in one of the most violent places in the world. Would you do something that ties you to its land or something that gets you out?”

Despite the violence and struggles, more than 20,000 families are associated with the saffron economy in Kashmir today. But Iranian saffron has also begun to enter India through what the farmers call “secondhand channels,” and because of its lower price, it is packaged and sold as Kashmiri saffron. Though high in novelty, the spice is in no position to compete with its Iranian counterpart.

“The flavour of the saffron is distinct,” says Mahbir Thukral, the U.K.-based head of Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron, a startup that sells the spice abroad. “While everyone is aware of its beauty, little is being done to further the ingenuity of the spice.”

Mahbir also creates artisanal products infused with the spice — like dark and milk chocolate and an award-winning orange marmalade. Recently, he launched his first savoury products: honey mustard and whole-grain mustard infused with the spice. Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron works in collaboration with a local cooperative to keep their market steady and eliminate the middlemen in the process.

“Many people only know Kashmir because of its border conflict, and domestically, they consider it a troubled state,” Mahbir says. “By working with the farmers directly, I wanted to do my bit to help them transform from an Indian business to an international one. … This is our way to show the great things Kashmir can produce, and why it’s worth making a trip there when visiting India.”

In Pampore, too, some locals like Raqib and Umer are looking to start to push saffron through the internet. “What Kashmir are we fighting for if not for the land?” says Umer, as he walks proudly through the farms. “We have to think ahead.”

Saffron requires enterprise and extensive support from the state, but also a loosening of military control and reinstallation of pride in the lands. While the first two are tangible goals that can be achieved with effort, a free, peaceful atmosphere for prosperity seems out of reach.

On my last day in Pampore, when I return to Fehmida Mir’s home for tea, her mother calls me to the kitchen as she brews kehwa in a samovar or a large copper teapot. “Look at this,” she says as she introduces three red strands of saffron into a cup of water. “Now it will turn to gold.”

As we wait for the saffron to colour the water a deep reddish golden, neighbours start streaming in to surround themselves with the fragrance of the tea. The smell of the spice is invigorating, the colour of it irreplaceable, the fuss is not misplaced.

“Before we were poor and the lands prosperous,” says Fehmida’s mother, as we wait for tea. “Now we prosper, and the lands are poor. It’s time to give up on them, I tell my daughter it is time to let them go.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” yells Fehmida from her room. “You’ve lived with them your whole life.”

“If they go, we’ve got nothing else,” says Fehmida’s mother. “If they go, I go too.”

Sharanya Deepak is a writer from New Delhi; she writes about food, gender, language and race and has written for Roads and Kingdoms, Taste, and Popular, among others. 
Vikar Syed is a multimedia journalist based in Kashmir who regularly contributes to TRT World, BBC Urdu, Hindustan Times, and several other publications. 
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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ہم سب

ہم سب مل کر چلیں گے

A Fine Balance ©

A blog about work, life and the pursuit of balance.

Shapes of Space

The shape of space to come

Sufi Events

"We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us." - Rumi

RoamingArtist's Blog weblog

Pakistan Travel & Culture

Pakistan Travel & Tourism, culture, history and news articles.

History and Chronicles


All About Asia

The Asian Diaries


Hello, this is the creative blog of Mark & Heather, we're freelance designers.


Geneva Anderson digs into art

ASHA: Blast From The Past

The Blog of Aligarh Society of History and Archaeology [ASHA]


Some remarks—often with photos!—about manuscripts and the languages, literature, scholarship, and history of Christian culture in the Middle East.

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