The Art of Making Rose Water
Kozgars settled in Kashmir from Turkey some 400 years ago
SRINAGAR: The Arq-i-Gulab shop – the last surviving rosewater distillery in Kashmir and one of the oldest surviving businesses – is located just a few steps from the Khanqah-e-Moula shrine in Downtown. The dimly lit historic shop is marked with the mild scent of rose petals hanging in the air. A shop that would once be seen hustling and bustling with customers now lies silent, perhaps witnessing the death of an ages old craft.
Abdul Aziz Kozgar, the current business owner, sits on his chair with a kangri in his hand, staring in awe at the Khanqah-e-Maula shrine.
Inside the shop, a Persian couplet depicts the Kozgar family’s fondness for Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, the Sufi pir. “Yaani aan baani Musalmani, Mir Syed Ali Hamdani” – The founder of Islam here is Mir Syed Ali Hamdani.
The Kozgars came from Turkey and settled in Kashmir about 400 years ago.
Their name is a Persian word that translates to “the users of jars”.
Hundreds of decanters, most of which now stand empty, were brought from France and England during the shop’s heyday.
Syed Mohammad Nooristani, founder of the business and Aziz’s great-great grandfather, knew the art of making rose water and various syrups. He set up shop in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal. For a long time now his rosewater has been adorning Srinagar’s holy sites. It is strewn on devotees as blessings. It is also used in sherbets, as well as in cooking.
Aziz says his father, Habibullah Kozgar would prepare more than 50 syrups besides rosewater. “As of now, I prepare several syrups like Arq-e-Chandan, Kaah-Zabaan, Arq-e-Badiyaan, and Arq-e-Neelofar. They are quick remedies for body heat and are soothing for a burning stomach and kidneys,” says Aziz, while filling a plastic container with rosewater for a customer from Hawal.
The customer terms Aziz’s rosewater the best, and leaves with a consoling smile.
But Aziz no longer runs the business for profit. He longs to leave a legacy at any cost. “I’m keeping the business running just to preserve the legacy for a few more years. The business makes a small profit,” says Aziz, who retired from government service and now runs the shop full time.
He is the last member of the family to be involved in this venture.
People travel from every nook and corner of the vale to buy rosewater from Aziz.
“I use it because it has soothing properties that help me with reducing skin redness, discarding skin irritation, dermatitis, and skin inflammation,” says Sana, a local youngster who lives near the shop.
The Kozgars were actually Unanis and Aroma Makers. As of now, they only make rosewater and a few syrups.
“Hakims and Unani clinics vanished with the arrival of modern medicine, and it had a drastic impact on the business. People used to flock to our shop but that has since faded. We gradually stopped making syrups and other medicines, but we clung to rose water,” says Aziz.
Long used for medicinal purposes in the valley, the demand for rosewater fell dramatically after the era of Hakims, who would use it and other local blends to cure various diseases.
Aziz says that Unani treatments are better than modern medicine, and that Unani heals people much faster and with no side effects.
He has a strong feeling that he will be the last person in charge of the company. “The business has no credible takers because the benefits are significantly reduced. Two or three people came to me to learn the craft, but they began making rose water using machines and scientific methods.”
He explains that using modern methods to make rosewater would destroy its centuries-old significance.
The rosewater can only be purchased in his shop and is sold in plastic containers. The containers aren’t pre-filled, stamped, or labelled. He sells rosewater for as little as Rs 40 for a 200ml ($0.5 for 7 oz) bottle.
Aziz admits that he occasionally feels the squeezing variable of the shop’s old history, despite the fact that the business doesn’t provide a lot of living. But he is joyfully untroubled by such concerns. “I intend to keep running the business until I breathe my last,” he explains.
His child is uninterested in the business, making him the last man to know the craft. But with a gleam in his eyes, he says he hopes that someone will approach and handle the business after him, so it does not vanish.
“The last couple of years have been really difficult owing to lockdowns and COVID,” he shares, adding that the biggest challenges are Kashmir’s changing society and changing tastes. Even with his efforts to continue the tradition, the business may not be able to survive in this mechanized world..