By: Professor Upendra Kaul
Walnut (Akhrot in Urdu and Doon/ Doun in Kashmiri) is the edible seed of the tree of the genus Juglans. The most popular one is the Persian walnut (also called English walnut), Juglans regia. These ripen between the periods of September and November. The brown, wrinkled walnut shell is enclosed in a husk. During the ripening process, the husk becomes brittle and the shell hard. Shell of walnut encloses the kernel or the meat, which is usually in two halves separated by a membranous partition. These two halves often have two segments each in the variety, we see in Kashmir. It gives four parts to the kernel, encloses in a brown seed coat which is rich in anti-oxidants. Of the several species of walnuts the most commonly grown for their seeds are the Persian (or English) walnut, originating from Iran, the black walnut native to North America and the Japanese walnut, also known as the heartnut. In addition, there are several more species not commonly grown now. Several varieties have been cultivated by modifications (cultivars) but most of them are hybrids of the Persian variety only. The other variety, the black walnuts a very strong flavour and a very hard shell and poor hulling characteristics and no longer commercially cultivated.
The walnut production of the entire world according to the data of 2021 was 3.5 million tonnes, with China being the highest producing one third of it followed by United States, Iran and Turkey. The production of Jammu and Kashmir is around 0.3 million tonnes. It is produced mainly in Anantnag, Pulwama, Shopian, Kupwara, Baramulla and Srinagar districts.
Walnuts can be consumed on their own, raw or toasted. It is also commonly made a part of dishes like walnut pie, fudge, cakes, baklava and as an ice cream topping. It is also used as a chutney with green chillies. Besides this Kashmiri Pandits use it during several rituals.
According to the legend narrated by Prof B L Puttoo, the four-part kernel represents Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. It is also believed to be symbolic of the four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Atharva and Sama. Another version states that walnut being oval in shape represents the universe and four kernels signify Iccha, Jnana, Kriya and Chitta. Walnut therefore is an auspicious part of the traditional Kashmiri culture.
During the Shiv Ratri it is an essential part of the Vatuk Pooja, performed during this most important Pandit festival. Walnuts with shells are soaked in water in a brass pitcher for 3 days towards the end of the three weeks of pooja. These are then distributed to neighbours and friends as a Prasad along with bread made of rice atta (tomlae chot)
Besides this, walnut is an essential part of the Thali (metallic plate) which has several articles and essential things like rice, roti, pen, paper, Jantri (new calendar, almanac) which is prepared at the beginning of Spring (Sonth) and the Kashmiri New year (Navreh).
Walnuts are also sent through the bride to her in laws when she goes to her husband’s place along with bakery products like Chot (baked roti).
Walnut kernels are calorie and energy dense providing 654 kcal per 100 grams. It contains 4% water, 15% protein, 65% poly unsaturated and mono unsaturated (heathy) fat, and 14% carbohydrates including 7% dietary fiber. It has several dietary minerals particularly manganese and good amounts of Vitamin B.
Historical Perspective of Walnut:
The ancient Greek era (Byzantine Empire) which lasted from 330-1453 mentions walnut by the name of “royal nut”. An article on walnut tree cultivation in Spain is mentioned in Ibn al-Awwam’s an, 12th century book on agriculture. Wal means foreign and is included in Dutch walnoot, Danish valnod and Swedish valnot.
Walnut as per the Kashmir’s historical records has been an indigenous tree. According to the Rajtarangni (A historical book of the Kings of Kashmir and North India of ancient times) the fruit culture which included walnuts dates back to 1000 BC during the rule of King Nara. During the period of King Lalitaditya (700 AD) and Harsha (1089 AD) the fruit culture received lot of boost. It is, however, surprising that its description in Mughal documents like Jahangir Nama (Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri) is conspicuous by its absence. However, Sir Walter Lawrence the resident commissioner (1887-94) in his report mentions the heritage status of walnuts for the state as a potential export item.
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Walnut wood Carving:
Another important use of walnut tree is the use to its wood to make intricately carved furniture and several decoration items. This was promoted in the 15th century by Sheikh Hamaz Makhdoom during the rule of Zainul Abdeen. Initially it was used to ornate the palaces and the residences of persons of the stature of emperors like Zainul Abdin. It also adorns the ceilings of the shrines of Nund Rishi, Noor-ud-din-Wali, and the Naqshaband mosque. These are just a few instances of the outstanding examples of finely carved buildings, shrines, and mausoleums that still exist in Kashmir. This carving is done by experts called Naqqash, using fine chisels and delicate instruments.
The wood used is from trees which are chopped only after the ages of 300 years. Walnut trees bearing walnuts are the property of the government. The owners can only take the walnuts. The laws regarding this are very stringent from the days of the Dogra Maharajas and probably even before.
Plucking walnuts for collecting and selling is considered to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the Valley, involving the scaling of giant trees, maintaining balance, while simultaneously beating a fruit-bearing branch with a long stick, locally known as a laanz. The walnut tree, cultivated mostly in the rural areas of Kashmir, is unique in that it has a very slippery surface and grows to a height of 10-20 feet. These result in serious orthopaedic injuries and surgeons have a harrowing time saving these persons. Many of them get spinal injuries paralysing those who survive. Every year around 100 persons get these injuries despite awareness spreading campaigns by the horticulture department and agricultural institutions.
In Kashmir, walnuts especially the Kagzee variety which has a thin shell are grown organically, without using any chemical fertilizers. Kashmiri walnuts are nutritious, of a very good quality and are sold the world over. They are popular throughout India and exported to UK, Netherlands, and France among many other countries.
Once, Kashmir walnuts were exported to China on a large scale. However, with China starting to cultivate walnuts on its own land, this export stopped and many other countries as well stopped importing walnuts from India. The sales of Kashmiri walnuts decreased further after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Recently the horticulture department has started encouraging planting Walnut trees especially in South Kashmir. It is however a time-consuming process which takes 15-20 years to give a good output of walnuts. Walnut trees of Kashmir are known to give fruit even at 100 years of age. Hybrid technology like in the case of apples is likely to produce better walnuts in a shorter time period.