‘Gulabs’ are fading: Why Kashmir Valley is no longer a ‘bed of roses’

After feeding the local industry and mesmerising emperors, Kashmiri rose or Koshur Gulab is now facing the obscure fate, which has already made many indigenous Kashmiri varieties a thing of the past now. Since locals hardly grow it in their gardens, the dwindled native rose is now affecting the market associated with it.

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, is one of the famous lines in English literature. Similarly, across the gatherings in Kashmir, a song rings out in unison: “Kar falima hama lo, Gulabo lo, Shar Tchalima lo, Gulabo lo” (When will you bloom, my Rose/The evil be driven out, my Rose). The quote and the folk song is an adequate reminder of the importance of the rose in our everyday life. In a valley, scarred by violence and ugly modernity, Koshur Gulab, the Kashmiri rose, is a thing of beauty that is a rare joy forever, a ‘balm that soothes’.

Case in point, Ghulam Mohammad, a former gardener at one of the famed Mughal gardens, who resembles the single-minded Gul Bhagwan in the recent short story collection of Shahnaz Bashir, a Kashmir based author. While the city reeled under frequent curfews and crackdowns in the chaotic 90’s, the gardener Ghulam would stand enrapt in his own green world.

Every morning, he would pick up a mud-stained tin water can and carefully water the saplings he had cultivated tenderly. He would hurriedly check on the rows of bright purple pansies, light pink geraniums, golden yellow chrysanthemums but linger at the thick bushes of thorny pink Bulgarian roses, or Koshur gulab.

“I always thought to myself why I worked so hard on these roses when they bloom for just fifteen days and leave me with a cluster of bushes,” he recounts in a hoarse voice that barely rises above a whisper, the residue of years quite palpable in his faraway voice, as the creases on his face melt into a smile. The answer came one day, quite suddenly out of the blue.

One spring day when the April clouds threatened to shower any time, the growl of thunder reminded him that he had left his knitted sweater near the bushes. He rushed to the spot only to realise something was amiss. “As I reached the spot, I heard hushed whispers,” Ghulam recalls. “I realized two young boys had scaled the garden side-wall and soon some army men followed suit. I sensed trouble and quickly hid among the rose bushes as the boys ran for their lives.”

Later, he heard that one of the boys had been chased down by the army and whisked away in a Wunton, the local term for a bolstered army truck. “The rose bushes that I wondered about everyday had come to my rescue,” he reminisces.

His friend “Babbe Saeb” chips in with his anecdote about the Koshur gulab.

On a wintery night in early 1990’s, when curfew would be imposed in the city from dusk to dawn, a deathly stillness prevailed over everything. The heavy snow and night curfew meant nobody strayed outside their homes. While slicing apples after dinner, his son suffered a nasty cut on his hand.

“We were shell shocked as the deep gash started bleeding profusely,” he recollects. “Despite trying everything, we couldn’t stop the bleeding. My wife tore and tied a long piece of cloth but it proved to be of no avail.” At their wits end, and reconciling themselves to risking breaking the curfew, Babbe Saeb had a sudden inspiration.

He took out his glass bottle of rose oil from the cupboard and poured the contents liberally over the wound. They heaved a sigh of relief, when after a few moments the bleeding stopped. Perhaps, in the trying times, the Koshur Gulab, with its medicinal properties, became the saviour. But now, its growing absence from Kashmiri households is taking those benefits away.

The healing properties of rose essence are attested to Abdul Aziz Kozgar – the last descendant of the Kozgars and the family who dabbled in the art of Hikmat, practitioners of Unani system of medicine.

At 60, Aziz describes his love for roses in a somber voice at his quaint shop in the old city. The shop displays an array of antique glass jars of various shapes.

There was a time, he says, when people across the valley visited his shop for hand drawn rose essence. With the growing urbanisation and commercialisation, the craft is dying a slow death.

“In early days, the Arks and Sherbats were in great demand as the preparations were devoid of impurities,” Kozgar says. “With the coming of allopathic treatment, the buyers declined, as most of them preferred quick and prescribed remedies.”

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For centuries, the valley has been a rose-growing area of great importance. Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627) wrote in his autobiographical work, Tuzuki Jahangiri, about the Kashmiri rose that there is “no other scent of equal excellence… It lifts the spirit and refreshes the soul.”

The rose oil produced from the special variety Rosa Damascena was used for medicinal purposes and perfumes.

Today, however, this variety of rose is disappearing from the gardens as people prefer the long stalked roses to the bushy Bulgarian roses.

“People are more interested in trendy varieties,” says Fida Iqbal, a noted floriculturist. “There are various reasons. First, they take a lot of space as they grow oddly. Second, they wither away too quickly.”

The preferred rose.

But the rose has its own distinct features.

The Bulgarian rose is also known as “flower of all seasons”. “It is immune to the vagaries of the weather,” continues Iqbal, lamenting over the “scarce” nature of the rose, now confined to flower nurseries only.

The oil extracted from Koshur gulab, says Dr Muzamil, a research scholar, is considered of premium quality with a very rich, multilayered fragrance.

“Kashmiri rose oil is a 100% pure and natural product that is used in creams, lotions, soaps, and high end perfumes for its mild anti-viral and bactericidal properties, as well as for its fragrance,” the scholar says.

With the disappearance of Kashmir’s indigenous roses from local households, many believe that the valley is no longer a bed of roses.


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