Monday, October 12, 2015

Searching for Saffron

I am still completely enamored of my saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus). Now in their second year, they are really starting to come into their own. For saffron production the flowers are plucked early in the morning on the day they first open, but if left alone each individual flower actually lasts for two or three days.

In the little saffron plot

Beautiful as it is, and having been cultivated and prized for millenia in various parts of the world, the saffron crocus has also left a trail across a number of literary traditions. In previous posts I have mentioned some things that have been written about it in Persian and English. Here, now, is a Sanskrit verse by the 11th-century Kashmiri poet Bilhaṇa, with my attempt at a translation:


सहोदराः कुङ्कुमकेसराणां भवन्ति नूनं कविताविलासाः।
न शारदादेशमपास्य दृष्टस्तेषां यदन्यत्र मया प्ररोहः।।

sahodarāḥ kuṅkumakesarāṇāṃ bhavanti nūnaṃ kavitāvilāsāḥ |
na śāradādeśam apāsya dṛṣṭas teṣāṃ yad anyatra mayā prarohaḥ||

Those who delight in poetry are truly siblings of the saffron flowers
After leaving the country of Śāradā I have not seen even a trace of them anywhere else.

The "country of Śāradā" refers to Bilhaṇa's homeland of Kashmir; Śāradā, literally "the autumnal one", is an epithet of the goddess Sarasvatī under which she has historically been worshipped in the mountainous region at the northern tip of South Asia. Ruins of a temple complex dedicated to her can still be found in the village of Sharda in the part of Kashmir that now belongs to Pakistan. Sarasvatī is the goddess of learning, music, and the arts, and her association with Kashmir is particularly fitting since in the late Middle Ages Kashmir was famous throughout much of Asia as an unparalleled center of Sanskrit literary scholarship. Yet Kashmir also is - and has been almost since time immemorial - the only place of commercial saffron cultivation in South Asia, and is thus strongly associated with the spice and the plant that produces it. The verse, therefore, builds up dense layers of references to both Kashmir as the land of literary connoisseurship and Kashmir as the home of the saffron crocus. Even the word I translate as "trace", prarohaḥ, literally means "sprout", and the particular name of the goddess that presides over the region's literary achievements that Bilhaṇa chooses to use is simultaneously a reference to the flower's season of bloom - a season which, within the largely tropical world of Sanskrit literature, is in itself somewhat of a specialty of temperate Kashmir.

Another close-up of a gorgeous bloom

Source:

Cox, Whitney. "Saffron in the Rasam." South Asian Texts in History: Critical Engagements with Sheldon Pollock. Eds. Yigal Bronner, Whitney Cox, and Lawrence McCrea. Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2011.

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