Saturday, 7 July 2012

Aroma Trail in Downtown Srinagar

My search for the purest aromatic extract of the exotic flowers more so of the Roses that grow in abundance in Srinagar led me to the byleanes of the old downtown Srinagar. Meandering narrow streets that one passes as I enter the Bohrikadal, the aroma of fresh ginger, famed Kashmiri red chili, cockscomb flower, saunf (fennel) hits my blocked nostril. This announces that I am transversing through the Bohrikadal bazar overshadowed by three-four storied exposed old brick and wood houses. Their simple construction immediately attracts attention so does the numerous wooden balconies with fine wooden carvings and intricate woodwork designs in the traditional Khatambund style.
            The bye lane of Fatehkadal
The market place is abuzz with the chaos of any typical Indian market, people, rickshaws, bikes and cars jostle for space, shops selling spices, grocery, utensils, fabrics and dresses spilling over onto the limited road space. Chaotic yet colourful. Time seem to have stood still for the mansions and to some extent the local inhabitants too! Though the signage, mobile phones do tell us that the Srinagar residents have adopted modern inventions with fury, yet I somehow got a feeling that this place lives in time-wrap. The laid back banters of shopkeepers, elders enjoying a round of hookah by the roadside surrounded by chaos and continuing and flourishing traditions of embroidery, copper ware, bakery and rose water distillation reminds me that the place is still moored to its past.

                                           Aziz Kozgar's Workshop at Fatehkadal
Distillation of flower for extracting essence and rose water is an age old occupation that thrived in the ancient Kashmir. There is mention of this in ancient Kashmiri texts. Though Lavender, Rose, Clary sage, Peppermint are some of the aromatic plants that grow in abundance in Kashmir. It is Rose water that has place of pride not only in Kashmir but also in India. There is also an evidence from historical texts that in Kashmir rose extract was produced through the process of twice distilled rose water.
My quest leads me through the main Fathekadal bazaar and I cross the magnificent Shah Hamadan mausoleum - Khanqah-e-Maula and stand in front of a large old four storied mansion which appears to have seen a very glorious past. The ground floor is occupied by the Kozgar family and their shop-cum-workshop that has been in the trade of distilling rose water for more than four centuries. The large wooden window is lined with large antique coloured bottles that were used to store flower extracts for years. The signage in Urdu announces in bold letters "Rose Water" though the other signage also announces availability of extracts of musk, sandalwood, kewra, cinnamon, and other extract compounds touted as cure for several common ailments. 
             Abdul Aziz Kozgar: surrounded by hundreds of antique glass containers
Abdul Aziz Kozgar, the current family head double hats and is trying real hard to keep the traditional family occupation going till he lives. All of 48 years, salt-pepper bearded with infectious smile, he runs this family occupation passionately after returning from his livelihood earning government job. Though running the traditional distillery for him is not much of help as fare as the family financials are concerned, yet his passion for preserving the dying trade and the large collection of glass containers and bottles is extraordinary. 
He inherited this age old craft of distilling rosewater manually from his father. His forefathers originally from Turkey came to Kashmir some 400 years ago with the son of Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, the great Muslim saint who is credited with bringing Islam to India. They made the bustling Fatehkadal bazaar as their abode and workplace. 
Though rosewater is used extensively in Indian cuisine and also as important component in the cosmetics industry. Mechanical and mass production method has almost wiped out the manual distilling process and people prefer to buy the mass-produced branded rosewater rather than walking up to Aziz's shop for a bottle of manually distilled aromatic rosewater. Yet there are loyal patrons of his famous 'rose water' and 'Mixture for four extracts for stomach'. While I was with Aziz, came calling the mother and daughter duo for their requirement of rose water and the syrup for stomach. The young lady spoke highly of the the syrup which she said was very good for stomach and kidney and works as coolant. I could not resist the temptation and asked for fill of a large bottle. Aziz today makes only few syrups - Arq-e-Nilofar, Arq-e-Chandan and Arq-e-Kaah Zabaan and some more on demand apart from rose water.   
Aziz though fiercely promoting the tradition knows fully well that the trade would die after he is gone and a sense of defeat rings in his words when he talks passionately about manual distilling. He reminisces the days when his father Habibullah Kozgar and the entire family would be involved in making a wider variety of flower extracts and syrups.  His rose water is only available at his shop and sold in plastic bottles. It is not pre-packed, branded or labelled. He has also kept the prices very low. A bottle of 200 ml of rose water cost me only 20 rupees, while the same would  cost no less than 100 rupees for a branded rose water.
Aziz's shop is filled with antique jars of all sizes, most of which he inherited from his father and forefathers. In his childhood his family would make around 50 types of syrups besides rose water. These containers came in extensive use then. Now empty and unused, these containers have certainly had their fill of exotic syrups. One container which really stood out is a twin glass container with two separate glass goblets. The upper goblet, smaller than the base goblet is fitted with a small metal hand pump and an outlet. The goblets are held together with wire mesh. There are a couple of these containers in the shop and now disused. I could imagine exotic syrup being served from these containers to the discerning customers in the past. Now these could enrich collection of any antique collector! 
The high ceiling, dark shop, filled with glass bottles, jars and containers in ceiling high wooden shelves have seen a better past when commercialization had not invaded all spheres of our daily life, when the hakims and kozgars would extract syrups from plants and herbs through manual process. Among the containers are displayed faded old photographs of sufi saints and a couplet in Persian which reads " Yaani Aan Baani Musalmani, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani" which in translation reads- "though, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani is the founder of Islam here". This couplet best describes affinity of the kozgar family with the revered Muslim saint who is credited with introducing Islam in India and whose mausoleum is located across the road in the Khanqah-e-Maula shrine. The family also provides supply of rose and kewra water to the shrine and its devotees during the annual urs.   
Another faded handwritten paper pasted on the shelf displays the list of syrups and flower extracts that was once available from the kozgars. The rate list also has a hand drawing portraying the manual process of distillation. It is a simple method - washed and fresh flower petals are placed in large container filled with water and heated from below. The flower aroma mixes with the water and evaporates and passes through a funnel into another container filled with cold water. The warm vapour turns into water droplets and fills the cold container. This is a slow and time consuming process and takes hours to fill a large container of about 40 litres.  
Aziz is keen that someone should come forward to learn and continue the craft after him, but he is not sure if his young son would take this up or just let it die a natural death. His desperate bid to preserve the family and traditional legacy may not survive in this mechanized world.  

1 comment:

Mou Khan said...

Incredible India