The Turks of Old City and their 500-yr-old crumbling ‘aroma’ empire

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

Followers of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, the Kozgars came to Kashmir from Turkey some 500 years ago and settled in Old Srinagar where they rose to become the celebrated medicinal syrup-makers. But today, the last trading Turk is caught slumbering at his antique shop where he’s mainly selling rosewater in the name of ancestral alchemy. 

Srinagar’s Old City is quite fabled for its mythical storybook features. Lining up on its medieval structures are rare shops, selling exceptional merchandise, now stuff of some faded folklore. Most of these shops make the Central Asian influence on the ‘Sun City’ quite clear.

One such shop at the historic Khanqah Mohalla shrine is the signpost of Shahr-e-Khas’ glorious past caught in contemporary clampdowns.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

The centuries old glass beakers and jars placed over wooden shelves of the shop ‘Ark-e-Gulab’ gives it an old alchemist’s enchanted shop look where the motionless dust over the empty jars, the frozen wall-clock and the unwaged rose sprays seem to be dipped in despondency of fading whiff and aroma of the craft.

Steps inside the murky ambient shop makes one feel as if some eccentric alchemist is experimenting around. But this notion lasts till the antique shop throws up the appearance of Aziz Ahmad Kozgar.

Sitting on his ancestral chair, the 60-year-old man wears glinting eyes over a wrinkled face. Legend has it, the very seat that Aziz now occupies once seated mystics and saints delving deep on mysticism with his ancestors at this shop. Most of them would visit Kashmir’s rare window to the rosewater, where the Kozgars have been selling distilled flower extracts since ages now.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

Almost 500 years ago, Aziz’s ancestor from Turkey, Syed Mohammad Nooristani arrived in Kashmir through the Silk Route along with Mir Mohammad Hamadani, son of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, the Islamic preacher and saint, whose Kashmir’s forays saw masses getting converted to Islam.

The saint’s ardent follower, Nooristani was an adept at alchemy. He settled outside Khankahi Mohalla, where the saint’s shrine is sited. It was on the directions of Mir Mohammad Hamadani, Aziz says, that his ancestors started producing rosewater on a large scale. With that, they became the shrine regulars, sprinkling rosewater on devotees assembled there.

That mystic influence is still glaring.

On the frozen walls of the shop, a Persian couplet on an old photograph of a Sufi saint illustrates the Kozgar family’s affinity with the revered saint, quite clearly: “Yaani Aan Baani Musalmani, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani” (Mir Syed Ali Hamadani is the founder of Islam here).

Besides playing a significant role in spreading Islam in Kashmir, the saint brought various crafts and industries from Iran and Turkey into Kashmir, including some weavers of carpets, shawls (Pashmina) and herbal medication.

The Kozgars or “user of jars”—the literal meaning of their Persian surname—owes the legacy of introduction and making of herbal medicines in the Valley.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

While growing up, Aziz would see heaps of rose petals in his courtyard where everyone in the family, men and women, would participate in preparation of syrups. He was trained in the craft by his father Habibullah Kozgar, who was a master of making rosewater and 50 odd other syrups with medicinal benefits.

As the demand of various syrups declined with the emergence of modern medicines and treatment with time, the Kozgars only confined their craft to produce Gulab-Ark, Tshandan Arq, Kaah Zabaan and Arqi Neelofar. All these syrups are quick remedies for body heat, stomach and kidney ailments.

Among these syrups, rosewater remains the most in-demand for its utilization on Urs (anniversaries of saints) and medicinal purposes. But till the late eighties, as Aziz recalls, rosewater would also be in demand for political reasons.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

“It would be used for sprinkling on political gatherings,” he says. But as equations changed with the upheaval of armed rebellion against the Indian State in Kashmir some 27 years ago, the demand fell to the chagrin of the Kozgars.

Amid recollections, Aziz welcomes a visitor at his shop. The cheerful Sheikh Ghulam Nabi happens to be one of his oldest customers.

“I still remember how his father used to sit on this chair with a white turban on his head,” says Sheikh, who has been visiting the Kozgars from last 50 odd years. “Rosewater from this shop would be prescribed by Hakeems for it spiritual healing powers. I’m myself a witness how before selling, his father would recite Quranic verses and blow it on open bottles.”

Staying vintage however has come at a cost for the Kozgars. They continue to sell their syrups cheaply and in loose bottles, without going for pre-packing, branding and labeling.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid

“I’m only following my ancestors who ran it for spiritual yearning rather than commercial purposes,” Aziz says. “That’s the reason why many saints and healers still visit me for availing syrups.”

The antique glass jars and sprays inside carry imperial labels of England and Paris. These costly jars were plenty in number till 50 years back. But now, Aziz is left with a few of them, as most of them developed cracks during extreme winters. Many more defunct jars are bound to meet the same sad end as they’ve long outlived their utility.

But while regularly attending the antique jars amid the next-generation’s snub to the familial craft, Aziz says, “I’m only running this shop with the aim of preserving an important part of us.”

Perhaps this is Aziz’s way of asserting that his ancestral ‘Ark-e-Gulab’, the last recognized address of Old City’s Turks, is about to become history now.

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid


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