Meet the man running the last rose water distillery in Kashmir

Previously a thriving business, manually distilled rose water is now a dying craft

The old city of Srinagar houses a 400-year-old shop dedicated to the queen of flowers. Arq-i-Gulab is the only surviving rose water distillery in Indian-administered Kashmir, situated only a few metres from the Khanqah-e-Moula shrine.

The wood and brick shop is run by Abdul Aziz Kozgar, 65, who can be reached via a weather-beaten window he opens to communicate – in fluent English – with customers and passers-by. Three sides of the shop are packed with dark-coloured glass bottles and antique-looking jars of varying sizes, placed on wooden shelves with handwritten slips pasted on them.

Kozgar learnt the art of making manually distilled rose water from his forefathers who came from Turkey and settled in Kashmir. “This shop was opened by my great-grandfather in 1820 after he imported glass jars, pitchers and carafes from France, the US and parts of UK to start his business, after he himself learnt the art from his ancestors,” Kozgar tells The National. The family name translates from Persian as “users of jars”.

Dressed in a traditional Kashmiri kurta pyjama, his head covered with a white skull cap, Kozgar starts to fill small, unlabelled plastic bottles from big white canes. Instantly, a soothing whiff of rose water engorges the air. “This shop, these jars remain in the same place as my ancestors positioned them. These are my treasures and gifts I have inherited,” says Kozgar, who retired early from his job to carry on this legacy.

“You can see the bottles have gathered dust, they look murky, the handwritten notes have faded, but I do not want to touch them or tamper with the names. I want to keep it the way my great-grandfather, grandfather and father have kept it.

“We used to have separate rooms full of rose petals. I have grown up fascinated by the making of rose water and other syrups, and it was that fascination that pushed me to learn the process,” he says.

Kozgar talks about the time when his family were the go-to for residents of the Srinagar valley for making herbal medicines that could cure “any disease”.

“I used to visit [the] Kozgars as a child,” says Kashmiri historian and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef. "Once I had a cough and my father got me Arq-i-gawzaban that cured me completely after just two doses. Habibullah Kozgar and his father used to mix different saps extracted from ingredients like cinnamon, rose, cardamom and carom seeds in an appropriate quantity written by a hakim."

I do not know what will happen to these precious jars after me, but until I am alive, this place will live with me
Abdul Aziz Kozgar, owner, Arq-i-Gulab

Kozgar says: “Kozgar was a common name in Kashmir, [but] we had a variety of medicinal syrups. Even a decade or so ago, when harsh winters struck Kashmir, many people caught a cold or had a sore throat, and they rushed to my grandfather who would give them syrups to cure their disease.

“But with time, hakims and unani clinics vanished due to the arrival of modern medicine and it impacted us equally. There was a time when people would throng our shop but that has faded. Slowly, we stopped making syrups and other medicines, but clung on to rose water.”

Rose water has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, and contains antioxidants that can help guard skin cells from damage. Rose water is also a common ingredient in South Asian cuisine, and is used in sweets such as laddoo, gulab jamun and peda, and to flavour milk, lassi, rice pudding and other dairy-based dishes. In Kashmir, it is also used in shrines and home temples to sprinkle on devotees during religious gatherings.

Originally a practitioner of traditional medicine, Kozgar joined the family business in part because of his father Habibullah’s enthusiasm for his children to carry forward the legacy. Although Kozgar wants his children to continue the tradition, too, he does not want to force them into a business that cannot guarantee a financially sound household.

Kozgar sells a litre of manually made rose water for 40 Indian rupees ($0.55), whereas store-sold brands retail 100 millilitres for no less than 70 rupees. “The rose water I make is extracted from Koshur gulab [Kashmiri roses] sourced from various parts of the valley and from the same vendors my father bought from," says Kozhar.

“I do not know what will happen to this place, these precious jars, after me, but until I am alive, this place will live with me. My children know how to make rose water. I have taught them, I have done my part, but to carry it forward is their decision,” says Kozgar, all the while looking away through the window, lest he be called upon to pass on some rose water bottles to potential customers.

Updated: November 18th 2021, 11:33 AM