Origin of the Most Expensive Spice – Saffron
Saffron often referred to as the golden spice, can be traced to Pre-Vedic times. The oldest book on earth (if it can be called a book) is the Rig Veda, though it was not written, but handed down orally from generation to generation. The Rig Veda and Yajur Veda too have references of saffron being used extensively. The Yajnavalkya Samhitha and Taitreya Samhitha mention the use of saffron during marriage ceremonies. The newly married couples were expected to use saffron along with other exotic perfumes including sandalwood, musk, cardamom and nutmeg. It was believed that when saffron and musk were mixed in the right proportions and added to sweets, they turned into potent aphrodisiacs.
The fact of the matter however is that no one actually knows when exactly saffron cultivation was first undertaken, nor is it known when humans started using saffron spice for various purposes. Most of the historians agree that saffron spice may have been first cultivated by the ancient Greeks. References in Greek mythology indicate that the handsome young crocus was smitten by a lady named Smilax, who was an extremely attractive nymph. However, his advances were spurned by the beautiful young lady and in sorrow the handsome young crocus turned into the purple crocus flower from which the strands of saffron threads are extracted. The cultivation of saffron flowers dates back several centuries and has been described in several cultures and civilizations spanning various continents of the world.
The saffron spice is got from the delicate strands or stigmas of the rare crocus flower (crocus sativus) and is probably the most expensive spice grown on earth. The common belief is that saffron flowers were cultivated in countries like Greece, Iran and Turkey and some other parts of central Asia. It was the Persian kings who brought saffron to India where it became the most sought after spice. Another school of thought believes that it was the ancient Egyptians who first understood the uses and importance of saffron spice and it was used as an aphrodisiac by the Pharaohs of Egypt, and was a favorite of Cleopatra. It was also used in the temples of Egypt and most of the Royalty added the aromatic saffron spice in their bath water.
The Romans too used pure saffron extensively as a deodorizer and a preferred perfume. The Romans indulged in sprinkling the expensive saffron spice in their court halls and bedroom chambers because of its aroma. King Nero went to the extent of having saffron spice sprinkled on the streets of a city before entering it. It was during the Middle Ages that the use of saffron spice became popular in Great Britain. During the reign of King Edward III, a travelling pilgrim from the Middle East smuggled a saffron plant hidden in his tunic. The plant was planted in the fertile fields of one of the noblemen of a town called Walden. The plant was grown successfully and multiplied, and was then transported to the country side of Essex where it was grown extensively. Essex then became an important saffron spice trading center.
Coming to India, there are references in the Ramayana, where saffron was used in the preparation of certain royal dishes in the palace of King Dasaratha. The royalty often used saffron in the place of vermillion as tilak on the forehead. Even during Krishna Avathara, during the days of Mahabharata, legend has it that saffron was applied on the forehead as it was supposed to be very auspicious.
Historical references cite Spain as an important saffron spice growing country, though much later, sometime during the 14th century. Spain became a busy saffron trading country, and the Spaniards started exporting saffron spice in a big way. Spanish saffron got a reputation for quality, and quite a large area of land came under saffron cultivation pushing Spain to the number one position in saffron production. It is still a well-preserved cottage industry in the country sides of Spain, where traditional farming methods are used by passionate farmers who have descended from several generations of saffron cultivators.
Although many countries have been involved in saffron cultivation for several centuries, historians still believe that Iran must have been the country where saffron spice was first cultivated. Before being cultivated commercially, the saffron plant appeared as a self-growing plant that grew in the wild. This has been documented by Barteld Louffer, the American scientist who conducted extensive research on saffron and published his findings as research findings in 1917. The Khorasan region located in the north-east of Iran was the place where the saffron plant was grown extensively due to the favorable climate and soil conditions. From Iran, saffron spice was carried into Saudi Arabia and became very popular among the members of the Arab royal family.
The use of this golden spice and the saffron benefits have been extolled during the Buddhist period. The ancient Buddhists from China belonging to the Mula-Saraswativadin monastery claim that it was the Buddhist missionary belonging to India who went under the name Madhyantika, was the person to whom was entrusted the task of bringing the sacred saffron plant into India. He first sowed the seed for the saffron plant in Kashmir. However, China may have got the saffron plant through the Mongols from Persia, who invaded the country. Chinese medical texts carry references of saffron benefits and how saffron spice was used for medical purposes. The Jains of the Swetamber sect used to apply saffron tilaks on their foreheads. They also used pure saffron in liquid form for anointing the idols of the main deities in their temples. The idols were anointed in 14 pre-designated spots that were known only to the high priests. Even the Dharmasutras have references of saffron spice being used extensively during marriage ceremonies and other religious functions. The marriage ceremonies of those days were elaborate affairs that lasted close to 5 days at a stretch. In one part of the ceremonies known as the sacred and important “gatrahridra” the ritual of applying pure saffron on the marriage couples’ bodies was believed to act as an aphrodisiac.
The ancient Indians also strongly believed that the saffron plant was brought into India and planted in the fertile lands of Kashmir by a couple of Sufi Saints. Kwaja Masud Wali and Sheikh Sheriffuddin Wali reached Kashmir during their wanderings. They happened to fall ill in the new land and sought medication from the local chieftain, who obliged. The two Sufi Saints got cured in a very short time and to express their gratitude they gave the chieftain a bulb of the saffron plant to express their gratitude. The two Sufi Saints are still remembered to this day, and prayers of gratitude are offered during harvesting of saffron spice every year. However, here again there is some confusion and contradiction. The Kashmiri scholar and poet Mohammad Yusuf Teng is of the view that the saffron plant was present in Kashmir much before the visit of the Sufi Saints. He believes that saffron cultivation was popular in Kashmir over 2,000 years ago and there are several references in Hindu Tantra that knew about saffron cultivation and the medicinal uses of saffron spice.
Although there are no documented references for the movement of spices during ancient times in India, there are several references in the Mahabharata that the Royalty from various corners of the world visited King Yudhishtira’s courts carrying precious gifts for the king. When Yudhishtira conducted the famous Rajasuya Yagna the royal entourages attending came from various parts of the world, and carried back the famed saffron spice that was gifted to them in return. Even while Alexander the great invaded India, a lot of man and materials were being moved to and forth between India and Macedonia, and pure saffronwas one of the important spices that found its way outside India during those times.
However, there is conflicting information regarding the arrival of the saffron plant for the first time into India. Most of the information was sourced from Persian records which emphatically state that the saffron plant was first brought into India by the Persian Kings. The Persians invaded Kashmir and found that the soil was perfect for saffron cultivation,and the very first harvest may have been reaped during the period prior to 500 BC.
In India Ayurveda was practised from very ancient times. During the period covering 1500 BC to 500 BC there lived the famous Ayurvedic Physicians Susrutha and Charaka who were considered the fathers of Ayurveda. Charaka wrote extensively and his work was called the Charaka Samhita, which has several references to the use of spices in Ayurveda. Although asafoetida and black pepper were used extensively, saffron spice too was recommended for certain cases.
During the reign of the one of the greatest emperors Ashoka, the present day Kashmir came under the valiant king’s rule. Kashmir was strategically located and served as a meeting point for various trade caravans that criss-crossed the area from all over India and other parts of Asia, including the mountainous regions of China and Tibet. Kashmir was the trade route that most travelling traders took to reach the rest of the Asian and west Asian countries.
Vaghabatta was a renowned physician and his creation Ashtangahridhayam was a famous medical treatise during those days. He had the opportunity to treat Nagi Takashaka whom he was able to cure of a chronic eye ailment. In order to show his gratitude Takashaka offered Vaghabatta a bulb of the saffron plant. The overjoyed Vaghabatta planted the bulb in Pampur a fertile plateau, and went on to multiply the saffron plant rapidly.
Saffron benefits include several cures for chronic diseases. Saffron spice contains a carotenoid known as crocin from which saffron derives its distinct golden reddish color. Crocin is responsible for triggering apoptosis or programmed cell destruction in various forms of cancer striking humans like leukaemia, carcinoma of the ovaries, and sarcoma. It has been clinically proved that the extract from saffron spice has the ability to successfully combat malignant cells and inhibit them. Saffron spice is also known to have properties similar to the magical Brahmi, which enhances memory retention and can be used in treating geriatric mental impairments.
Saffron spice has also been traditionally used to cure delayed puberty, especially in underdeveloped young girls, on whom saffron spice works as an excellent stimulant. Saffron mixed in cow’s milk is administered to such girls, and serves as a great stimulant for hormonal activity. Saffron also possesses great aphrodisiac properties and is a fantastic sexual stimulant that helps cure temporary impotency. A potent and stimulating tonic can be prepared from saffron, which is effective against common cold and pyrexia. A mixture of saffron and milk applied on the forehead offers quick relief from common cold.
In Ayurveda saffron spice is referred to as kumkuma, and is classified as varnya gana, and as the name implies (varnya denotes fairness and glowing skin) it is used to enhance the skin tone. Ayurveda pharmacology describes the taste of saffron spice as bitter, and mentions that it can stoke the ‘body fires’ efficiently. It is also used to treat disorders of the central nervous system and can cure Rheumatoid arthritis. Saffron extract is an excellent cardiac tonic and is used to treat several blood disorders that affect the heart.
Saffron spice is pretty expensive, and is probably the most expensive spice on earth. People may be surprised or even shocked to know that saffron price per gram is Rs.300. However, one needs to be cautious while purchasing as locating or identifying pure saffron may not be an easy task.
The best and easiest method is to pop a tiny strand in your mouth. If the saffron tastes sweet, you can bet that it is fake. Pure saffron tastes bitter, and the tasteis quite distinct. When mixed in a glass of hot milk, a strand of reddish saffron changes to golden colour, which means it is pure. Adulterated saffron strands will appear bleached. Pure saffron will always retain a bit of moisture, hence a dry strand of saffron is bound to be impure.