Bhagwa. Kumkuma. Zaffaran, Agnishikha, Bhavarakta, Kusrunam, Mangal, Mangalya, Saurab, Zafrah, Zipharana.
Or then, more familiarly - Kesar, kesari, even kesariya.
The associations with these names are divine, redolent with the scent of prayer and sumptuous feasts. But say “saffron” and many amongst us will grimace, even flinch. So, to start with, let us wipe our slates completely clean of the ugly associations of religious bigotry that of late saffron has been made to represent. And then, my dear readers, give me your hand and let me take you deep into the beautiful, lush bosom of the Kashmir valley, embraced by snow-covered mountains, 13 km from Srinagar, where a signpost reads, “The world’s best saffron grows here”. (One of saffron’s many names is Kashmirajanman or “born in Kashmir”.) Where millions of flowers bloom every winter and where, inside each pale lavender blossom as enchanting a girl’s first blush, are 3 delicate red-golden thread-like strands which the world knows as….. saffron.
Saffron - the Color of healing
As we know so well by now, many of the gorgeous colours with which Nature paints her vast, gloriously hued cornucopia of flowers and fruits are signals, flagging a myriad of nutrients and medicinal chemicals. And so, the deep red-gold colour of saffron - the dried stigmas (the female, seed bearing part) of the autumn crocus (Crocus Sativus Linneaus) - cues the presence of…..
I’ll come to that later but first let me trace for you saffron’s place of eminence in the ancient systems of healing. Saffron is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text, dating to about1550 B.C. In Ayurveda, it is called tridosha – i.e. suitable to treat all 3 doshas. Treat what? Well, let’s see now… to control excessive menstrual bleeding, miscarriage, pitta-related digestive problems like biliousness and dyspepsia, respiratory disorders like cough, asthma, skin disorders like sores and acne, eye disorders like conjunctivitus, cataract, nervous disorders….. it’s a long and impressive list. Oh, and did I mention that saffron is also one of the 60 ingredients in Chyawanprash? It’s even more prominent in Unani medicine which uses it to treat kidney and urinary disorders, menstrual disorders, diabetes and as a heart tonic.
The skeptics will say – pshaw, that’s all old mumbo-jumbo and we want to know what modern science has to say. And so, let me pick up where I left off. And tell you that the saffron’s gorgeous colour signals the presence of plant chemicals called carotenoids - a very important set of antioxidants which also give oranges and carrots their colour. Now the disease fighting abilities of antioxidants are well known, but let’s see what the carotenoids in saffron do - crocin (not to be mistaken with the drug by the same brand name) and crocetin. A growing body of research indicates that they may prove useful in treating a host of ailments. Crocin is found to significantly increase blood flow in the retina, therefore useful for treating retinal disorders, especially age-related degeneration. Crocetin is found help reduce cholesterol and lower blood pressure. (There is speculation that the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in parts of Spain may be because of their liberal, almost daily, consumption of saffron.) And both crocetin and crocin could be useful as a treatment for neurodegenerative disorders accompanying memory impairment. But most importantly, research also indicates that these carotenoids have properties that could help prevent cancer, inhibit the growth of tumours and activate the body’s own immune system.
Oh, and I almost forgot - saffron is one of the richest source of riboflavin or vitamin B2.
Saffron the sybarite
Having got the serious-jelly stuff out of the way, let me present another side of saffron. Spice extraordinaire, flavouring and colouring sumptuous dishes, sweet and savoury all over the world with its delicate, unmistakable presence. Dazzling dye, first favoured by the ancient Greeks, who – including Alexander the Great - used it to dye their hair, their clothes, and even their fingernails. Muse of classical poetry and drama – often literally because apparently saffron was sprinkled on the stage of ancient Greek theatre. Consummate beautician with such a reputation for enhancing the complexion that Cleopatra used it. And last but not the least, famed aphrodisiac, so much so that Aristophanes, ancient Greece’s most famous playwright in one of his most famous plays, Clouds, had one of his characters describe a woman "redolent with saffron, voluptuous kisses, the love of spending, good cheer and of wanton delights."
The sumptuous saffron was so irresistible that its fame spread all over Europe and 4 centuries after Alexander the Great dyed his hair with it, Nero, never known to do anything in moderation, ordered the streets of Rome to be strewn with it for his triumphal entry. By the Middle Ages, Italian ladies were forbidden by the Church to burnish their tresses with this fabulous golden dye and King Henry VIII passed a law that bed linen should not be dyed with saffron because no one washing them after dyed then with this expensive dye!
Saffron the precious?
One of the first things associated with saffron is that it is the costliest spice in the world, one single gram costing upwards of about 35-40 rupees. Naturally. Because each crocus flower yields just 3 wisps of saffron weighing an average of just 0.007 gms. Each flower has to be carefully handpicked and it takes an experienced picker about 12 days to pick 80,000 flowers to make 1 pound of saffron. So, just 170 metric tonnes of saffron which is the world’s annual production of saffron yields a revenue of 170 million $! But consider this. The amount of saffron needed to make kesar ice cream to serve 4 people is only about 10 strands costing just about 2-3 rupees!
Saffron the sacred
Which leaves us to explore saffron’s ancient associations with spirituality. The fact is that it is a colour sacred to the Hindus, but also to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. I found this beautiful explanation of why saffron is associated with Hinduism. Fire worship was a central theme during the Vedic age. But as it must have been inconvenient to carry the fire with them always as the sadhus moved from place to place, a symbolic saffron-coloured flag may have evolved - triangular and often forked to resemble the flaming tongues of the holy agni.
But the true significance of the colour saffron is universal, far up above the recent narrow, opportunistic interpretations – on both sides the secular dive. And it is in India’s first president, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan explanation as to why saffron is one of the tricolours on the Indian flag. "Bhagwa or the saffron colour denotes renunciation, of disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.”
So, the next time someone says “saffron”, think of a glass of sweet, warm milk turning a warm orange gold by a few strands of this glorious spice and remember saffron as the colour that signifies a place above and without the ego and the delicious flavour of health and goodness.