I was wondering about this. That is, how did saffron come to represent Indians, especially Hindus, in general? This is because I don’t remember seeing anybody proudly wearing saffron in India before the Modi wave. Indeed, even staunch Tamil Saivites/Vaishnavites used other colors like white, gold, red etc, but not this as much, even today. Of course, in today’s context, it does represent a Hindu Sanyasi who has renounced all material desires. But how did it come to be?
History of Saffron
Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of crocus sativus (saffron crocus). This plant grows up to 20-30 cm and bears at most 4 flowers. Each of these flowers has 3 crimson stigmas at the distant end of the carpel. The styles and stigmas, known as threads, are collected and dried to use in food. The first known cultivation was near Persia or Greece since over 3,500 years ago. It later spread throughout Europe and Southwest Asia and also extended to North Africa, North America and Oceania. In addition, its first recorded history was in the 7th century BCE in an Assyrian botanical treatise under King Ashurbanipal (see his library here). Today, Iran accounts for 90% of the saffron produced in the world.
Where did the name come from? Actually its origins are unclear, but it’s believed to have come from the Persian word Zarparân (زرپران). The Arabic term for it is kurkum (كركم). However, the Latin term for it is safranum by way of the 12th century French word safran.
When Did Saffron Come to India?
From Persian records: Saffron is believed to have originally come to India by way of Persia when the latter wanted to stock their new gardens and parks. They transplanted their desired cultivars across the Persian empire to achieve this. The Kashmiri saffron that was cultivated was marketed by Phoenicians (modern Lebanese people) starting 6th century BCE.
Kashmiri legends have it that saffron came to the valley by way of 2 Sufi saints Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin. When they fell sick, a local Kashmiri tribal chieftain obliged to cure them. These Sufi saints gave them saffron as a note of thanks, and till date, Kashmiris offer grateful prayers during saffron harvesting season in autumn. However Kashmiri poet Mohamed Yusuf Teng disagreed and said Kashmiris cultivated it for over 2 millennia.
Chinese Buddhist records (Sarvastivada) state that a Buddhist arhat (enlightened being) known as Madhyantika came to Kashmir in 5th century BCE. There, he sowed and cultivated the first crop of saffron. From there, it spread throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The accounts involving saffron’s arrival in China are also interesting, however my focus is on India, so we’ll discuss about China some other day.
Which Prominent Empires/Cultures Used Saffron?
Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran, indicating it was cultivated and used over 3,000 years ago. Sumerians later adopted and started using it for medical purposes. Persians also used it to weave textiles, manufacture dyes, drugs, body washes, medicines, etc, around the 10th century BCE. Of course, the Persians were experts at using saffron for drugs and intimidated everyone. Even Alexander the Great used Persian saffron during his Asian raids for food, medicine and sanitation.
Minoans used saffron in their medicines, dated to 1500-1600 BCE. Greek legends portrayed their sea way adventures to get saffron from Celicia. Ancient Chinese texts also mention its use as a medicinal herb. Shennong Bencaojing (神農本草經—”Shennong’s Great Herbal”) which has 40 volumes of medicinal data, also mentions this.
The Significance of Other Colors
As a Tamil Saivite, to me, red and white are very significant as Saivite colors. Red – because God Shiva has a name – Semmeni Udaiyan (he with a red body). But not red in the sense, blood red, it means his skin color more or less pinkish white. He also has another name – Sem Chadaiyon or Senjadaiyon (he with red hair). In short, he would look more or less like this. Here, he looks tanned.
Even green is significant – Goddess Parvati is known for being green – green for fertility, richness and prosperity.
Green, white and red hold more significance to me as a Tamil Saivite. To Tamil Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is always adorned in gold and red. For instance, Lord Oppiliappan in Kumbakonam. Gold represents richness – Lord Vishnu is the god of wealth.
Moreover, the Chola empire used red in its flag, while the Pandyas used green/blue/gold and Cheras gold/green. See this. Which Tamil empire used saffron?
Even the greatest Tamil Saivite saints were wearing white, red or gold ornaments. See here, here and here. Actually none of them gave importance to color, but they never used saffron. The latter was more recent and not traditionally used.
Does Same Religion Entail Same Characteristics?
Hell no! Look at Europe. Do they all use the same colors in their flags? Or do they follow the same sect of Christianity? On the contrary, each one of them has their own culture and symbolism which they represent in their colors. Any attempt at homogenization will fail, since humans are social and territorial animals. Each ethnicity/race in India has its own culture. Homogenization will not only fail, but backfire badly. It is at this point of time that everyone needs to wake up.
Didn’t Shivaji Maharaj Save Hinduism? So why not use Saffron in his remembrance?
Shivaji Maharaja actually served the Muslim Adil Shahi dynasty as an apprentice. He also had plenty of Muslim generals against Aurangzeb’s Rajput Hindu generals. In other words, it was more a war of ego/personality clashing than religions/ideologies. Same story with Lachit Borphukan and his generals in Assam, although this man fought for his ethnicity/race against Aurangzeb. How many of us outside of Bengal are aware of Shivaji’s actions there?
As a color, saffron isn’t bad. Indeed, saffron stands for spirituality and sacrifice. But why impose what is an ethnic color to Marathi people and Sikhs upon the entire nation? Why a Persian origin color for Indians? Every ethnic group in India and the world has its own ethnic colors and backgrounds. For instance, gold and red are ethnic Kannada colors. Red, gold and green are ethnic Tamil colors. Red is also an ethnic Kashmiri color (see their flag). Saffron is an ethnic Maratha/Sikh color. Gold and blue are also ethnic Punjabi Sikh colors. Why should Indians, especially Hindus, adopt a particular color, just to represent unity? Didn’t we stick along for more than 65 years prior to 2014? Yes, we will be around together as long as all homogenization attempts stop. This is a promise. Thank you.