Lesson 5: The Warm Radiance of Saffron
Woven through the celebrations for Vasanta Pañcamī are tendrils of saffron, like tiny threads of fire. When they are offered in ritual worship as part of communing with the divine, their warm, subtle fragrance drifts in the air. When they release their color during cooking, it spreads like the golden rays of dawn, turning sweets and rice dishes a beautiful shade of yellow, the characteristic color of Vasanta Pañcamī.
Threads of saffron are one of the classical offerings made to Devi Sarasvatī, and to all forms of the divine Goddess – as well as to Śiva, Sūrya and Kṛṣṇa. On Vasanta Pañcamī, along with wearing yellow clothes, all the offerings of food and all the festive fare served are either yellow or topped with tendrils of saffron. There are many regional favorite dishes for Vasanta Pañcamī, from milky khīra (commonly spelled kheer) to sweet golden semolina and sweet yellow rice, each looking like a burst of sunshine. Saffron is the common ingredient.
In Ayurveda, the seasons are calculated according to the movement of the sun, and the effect of its relative proximity on the environment and our bodies. The sacred festivals, however, are calculated according to the lunar calendar. So according to Ayurveda, Vasanta Pañcamī usually falls in the later part of winter. It’s a time when we are still seeking warmth, nourishment, moisture and softness. Saffron brings all these qualities to the delicious and nourishing foods that are eaten on Vasanta Pañcamī. It’s golden color is a cheerful reminder that spring is not too far off. (It begins in full in mid-March.)
So Vasanta Pañcamī is both an auspicious and appropriate occasion to deepen our knowledge and personal relationship with saffron.
Saffron is widely known as a rich, royal seasoning in the culinary traditions of India and the Middle East. Saffron appears more often in feasts and prasāda foods than in daily fare. It grows in vast, sunlit fields whose beauty stretches across the foothills of Kashmir. Each flower of these small plants yields just three of the threads we know as saffron. Kashmiris add it’s warm nourishment to their regional tea called kāhwa, famous for warding off the cold during their long, deep winters.
Saffron figures so extensively in the spiritual, medicinal, culinary and cultural traditions of South Asia that there are at least 74 names associated with it in Sanskrit. It is most commonly known as kuṃkuma, and as kesara, “filaments of gold.” Amongst it’s other names are agnishikha, a flame or a flame tipped arrow, rudhira, one who is blood red, sūryasaṃjjhā, a kind of ruby, and raṃjana, imparting color.
As a color, “saffron” has penetrated deep into the religious culture of South Asia as the color of auspiciousness, of knowledge, and of the robes worn by renunciants. Of course, robes and cloth used in worship are not actually died in saffron, and the colors referred to nowadays as “saffron” may be more orange than golden yellow. Visually saffron threads and the colors that emerge from them evoke images of the sacred fire, the flame of a ghee lamp, and the rising sun. These are fitting associations for those who are stepping into the fire of renunciation or who seek to immerse themselves in the fire of knowledge, or be filled with the radiance of the sun.
Ayurveda then takes the floor and invites us to see that there is more to saffron than its beauty and evocative symbolism. In the medicinal world, saffron is used extensively in both Ayurvedic formulas and home remedies. It is widely used for its varnya quality, its ability to improve skin tone and complexion, even for people recovering from small pox. It is used in home remedies to relieve headaches and insomnia, and is a key ingredient in nerve tonics and memory boosting formulas. It is used to help disinfect and heal wounds, get rid of intestinal worms, and bring diabetes under control. It has a very positive effect on the blood. And on top of this, saffron boosts he process of rejuvenation.
The science of Ayurveda explains saffron’s healing and restorative qualities as built on its most basic qualities: it is pungent and bitter in taste, warming in its effect, light though it contains oil, and has the ability to soften and penetrate quickly. It calms all three doshas: kapha, the stabilizing, nourishing force, pitta, the hot, transformative force, and vāta, the cool, drying force that loves constant motion. From this we can understand that saffron is generally a harmonious and helpful spice for anyone to consume, though we must all eat it sparingly.
And while saffron may be seen as fit for the rich cuisine of kings, it actually promotes the calm, balanced sattvik state of mind that yogis cultivate and treasure.
Really the best way to understand saffron is to smell it, to watch how it’s golden color emerges and spreads from those tendrils that are red like the sun. Then taste how it is not only color but a warm inner glow that has spread.
You can do this by trying the simple recipe for saffron milk that follows. Observe everything very carefully. Experience for yourself why it is often said that saffron has the fragrance of a lotus, the color of the rising sun and the soul warming qualities of a bright, sunny day.
Recipe: Saffron Milk
(Modern Hindi: Kesar Dūd, commonly spelled Kesar Dood)
Make it as an offering to deepen your knowledge of saffron on Vasanta Pañcamī.
And drink at bedtime to help get a good night’s sleep.
You will need:
1 cup organic whole milk
1 generous pinch of saffron
1/4 teaspoon of organic raw sugar or jaggery
1) Heat the milk in a small pot.
2) The moment is comes to a boil, turn it very low.
3) Add the raw sugar and stir to dissolve it.
4) Add the saffron and let it sit on top.
5) Turn off the stove (so the milk doesn’t become too thick).
6) Watch the golden color emerge from saffron.
7) After 5 minutes, the color will have spread.
8) Stir, pour into a cup and sip.
You can also offer this as prasāda for your Sarasvatī-pūjā.
Teacher: Hema Patankar