With advent of spring every year, women vendors from Uri and other far-flung areas walk down to Baramulla town with a basket full of seasonal crop called Shajkaans. But the much-sought after delicacy is now facing the existential threat amid the free run of smugglers and sizeable presence of military in northern Kashmir jungles.
She sits on a sidewalk to hawk pedestrian footfall like a watchful vendor. Her lifting, spanning and zooming gaze constantly gauges the market mood. Her spring arrival in bustling Baramulla bazaar is known to townspeople who eagerly crowd around her basket full of the springtime crop.
Attired in colourful casual wear, Tasleema is one of the seasonal women vendors who show up in town every spring along with a cousin variety of Mushroom called Shajkaan, aka Kanpapar.
Shajkaan is a wild variety of edible fungus, botanically known as Geopora arenicola. These are found mostly in southern Europe and northwest Himalaya in Jammu and Kashmir.
Shajkaan form a round fruiting body underground on sandy loam soils. After remaining under soil for most of the year, the edible body breaks the surface with the onset of spring to form a cup. They’ve a very short season of only 40-50 days, beginning from ending February to starting April.
Tasleema comes from the deep pockets of northern Kashmir touching the Line of Control. Since ages, her tribe has been foraying into the jungles with the advent of spring to collect Shajkaan. Although the gathering process remains tedious, she calls it a labour of love.
“This variety takes form in early spring,” says Tasleema, whose vendor tribe comes all the way from Chahal Uri, Yenkuur Hajibal and other far flung areas of Baramulla district.
“We collect these from the nearby jungles. It’s very hard and tedious process to search. But it’s worth it, given its ancestral and living value for all of us.”
While sprinkling water over her crop, Tasleema says that sometimes it takes her tribe many days to collect even a few kilograms.
“We’ve to travel many miles, as they can never be found in guilds but distributed over large areas,” she says, carefully gauging the market mood. Many customers come by, and walk past to other vendors. She patiently waits.
Most of these vendors eagerly wait for spring to come, as the sprouting of Shajkaan brings in chances for short-term earnings.
After gathering soiled Shajkaan, Tasleema and others sit to clean the crop. The whole family, she says, is employed in this work. After washing, the womenfolk begin their trade trip to Baramulla.
“I’ve been selling them for over 20 years now,” says Naseema, a vendor from Katiyawali Baramulla. “It’s very hard to make them available. It’s like selling our toil and sweat.”
Near her stock on a crowded sidewalk, Naseema keeps selling the spring crop at around Rs 250 per kg. “But it’s still not comparable to what hardships we face in collecting them.”
Around many of these vendors, the customers—both men and women—compete with each other to take home a bagful of fresh Shajkaans. The crop rots in very short time.
Apart from being tasty and nutritious, they are equally sought for their medicinal value. One can fry them; cook them with onions or tomatoes. Some even prepare them with milk.
“My Delhi friends think that we are lucky to live in area where such a variety is found,” says Parveez Ahmad, one of the customers.
With time, however, Shajkaan production has seen a drastic decline. Last year was infact the worst, when most of these women vendors didn’t show up in the bazaar.
“We went penniless, as there was no production,” says Mehmooda, a vendor accompanied by her mother. “That happened because of the adverse weather conditions.”
But the crop’s drastic decrease has more to it than simply uncertain weather conditions.
Most of these vendors blame massive axing of trees in the belt. Over the years, their eco-friendly belts have become a safe-haven for smugglers. Some even blame the heightened military footfall in jungles across the North. Owing to these conditions, these vendors say, an edible jungle variety called Modaanmoger has already been lost.
“We now fear that Shajkaan might meet the same fate,” Mehmooda says. “In that case, we’ll lose our precious part of living practice.”