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Apricots: The Essence of Ladakh

By Arka Chakraborty

We as ‘civilized’ human beings are prone to compartmentalize our experiences into mutually exclusive categories. Our natural surroundings and cultural heritage, for example, find expression as different domains of the human experience with no room or possibility of overlap. This tendency, however, makes us overlook that sometimes a single element of the natural environment can be emblematic of an entire culture. Apricot (Prunus armeniaca) can be deemed as one such instance when it comes to the diverse human communities of Ladakh. Nurtured by farmers and horticulturists, apricot plants which bloom during spring and bear fruit during summer are inextricably linked to the people of Ladakh through their culinary, cosmetic and ritual uses, natural beauty, religious significance and economic usages. What apples are to Kashmir, apricots are to Ladakh (Tuffail, 2018). This is no understatement, as will hopefully be demonstrated below.

Apricot plants are some of the most adaptable species of vegetation on earth. Different variants of apricot trees are found from the cold reaches of Siberia to the extreme heat of Central Asia and from desert regions to the humid plains of China and Japan. The total annual global apricot output was approximately 4,260,466 metric tonnes (MT), with Turkey taking the lead in terms of fresh apricot production. Spain is the biggest exporter of fresh apricots. Dried apricots also have a huge demand globally. Turkey is the leading exporter of dried apricots while the United States of America is the greatest importer, followed by the Russian Federation (Stobdan et al, 2021).

In India, there are numerous varieties of apricots ranging from the sweet Shakarpora to the firm Turkey, the Canadian Harcot, the large and juicy Moonpark, the white-fleshed Safeda, the smaller, less sweet and hardy Chinese and many, many more. Apricots are known in India as jardalu, zardalu, khubani, khumani etc. In Ladakh, they are known as chuli or chulli (Krishispray). Ladakh is the chief producer of apricots in India. In 2019, 15789 tonnes of apricots were produced in Ladakh which comprised 62 percent of the total apricot production in India (Stobdan et al, 2021; ANI, 2023). While the poor soil quality and extreme temperatures of the Roof of the World makes it challenging to grow anything through agriculture, apricot plants, once they were introduced to the region over a century ago from China or Central Asia, were unparalleled in adapting and synchronizing to the cold desert (Verma; Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012; Tuffail, 2018). Apricot trees, hence, made Ladakh their home and have since contributed generously to the society, culture and economy of the region.

In Ladakh, apricots generally are grown in the lower valleys of Sham, specifically Garkhon, Skurbuchan, Timosgang, Wanla, Khaltse, Dha-Hanu and Kargil (Tuffail, 2018). Here, the best season to plant apricot trees is considered to be late winter (around February) or early spring (March-April) as this gives the young plant time to establish itself on the soil before the onset of summer (Krishispray). Apricot trees in Ladakh grow up to 4-7 meters. The arrival of spring leads to the bloom of white and pinkish flowers. Apricot orchards are covered in a heavenly blanket of white and pink. As months pass, the flowers start giving way to oval and roundish fruits varying from shades of light yellow to a brilliant orange. By summer (August-September), apricot trees are laden with delightful yellow-orange single-pit delicacies (Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012; Tuffail, 2018; Krishispray).

Ladakhi apricots are categorized based on kernel taste and size. Based on kernel taste, Ladakhi apricots are divided into two categories: khante (bitter kernel) and ngarmo (sweet kernel). The ngarmo category is further subdivided into raktsey karpo (apricots with white seed stones) and nyarmo (apricots with brown seed stones). Based on size, Ladakhi apricots are called chenmo (meaning large) or chun (meaning small) (Stobdan et al, 2021).

Ladakh grows more than thirty types of apricots but Raktsey karpo is a type of apricot that is unique to the region. Distinguished by the white seed stone of the fruits, these apricot trees bear fruits which are unmatched in terms of taste, juiciness, sweetness and high total soluble solids (TSS) content. This variant of apricot also has a higher sorbitol (a type of sugar alcohol used as sweetening agents) content than its cousins. The ripening of Ladakhi apricots gets delayed as the height of the place in which the trees are situated increases. The delayed ripening process gives Ladakhi apricots an edge as they do not have to compete with most other apricots during their harvesting season. There is a linear relationship between the sweetness of the apricots and the height of the place in which the tree is situated. Famous the world over for their premium quality, Ladakhi apricots are truly one of a kind (Stobdan et al, 2021).

In the past century, apricots have integrated seamlessly with Ladakhi society and culture. It is a matter of tradition to serve guests apricots, especially during the harvesting season. Moreover, apricots are served during festive occasions as well! During the terribly harsh winters of Ladakh when resources are scarce, dried apricots serve as marvelous energy-boosters due to their sugar content (Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012; Tuffail, 2018). Many Ladakhis send apricots to friends and family located outside the region as gifts (Peerzada, 2024)

Apricots are a reliable source of livelihood for thousands of Ladakhi people involved in their cultivation and marketing. Apricots are sold at a price of Rs. 400-1000 per kilogram (Tuffail, 2018). However, fresh apricots are highly perishable. Even though they are sent to the markets with haste, the limits of market demands lead to a situation where a bulk of apricots get spoiled and go to waste. Apricot processing seems to be one of the best ways to add value to the product while ensuring that it stays marketable (Ladakh Ecological Development Group).

While apricots are processed into an array of products for value addition and preservation purposes, no method is perhaps as old as the traditional method of apricot drying. Ladakhi women and children collect fresh apricots in a traditional basket (tsepo) and wash them thoroughly under running water. Thereafter, the apricots are laid to dry under the open sun. There are two types of apricot drying: drying with the seed (dried apricots with seed are known as phating) and drying apricots after taking out the seeds (dried, seedless apricots are known as chulli skampo) (Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012). This method, however, results in chemical changes that lead to suboptimal taste, texture and color. This is the reason why dried apricots do not have a huge market demand outside Ladakh even though traditionally it has been exported from Ladakh as a commodity (Stobdan et al, 2021; Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012). Numerous solar-powered apricot drying machines and methods have been introduced in Ladakh in a small scale to address this problem. Some alternative drying practices include: solar cabinet dryer, tent dryer, metallic solar dryer, solar polyhouse dryer, sunbest solar dryer, PEN solar dryer etc. The smaller scale of these alternatives, however, prevents the apricot processers from drying apricots with these methods on a commercial scale (Stobdan et al, 2021). In spite of the challenges, the production of dried apricots has increased by a staggering 6.1-fold in the Kargil district between 2015 and 2019 (Stobdan et al, 2021).

The sweet and tangy apricot jam is another significant by-product of apricots. The goodness of apricot in a jar, this jam often accompanies the traditional Ladakhi bread khambir. Apricot kernels are used to extract oil. Traditionally, semi-roasted apricot kernels are crushed on a wooden mortar (them) before compressing them with a few drops of water on a flat stone (tsigg). Apricot oil is a lucrative product and fetches a price of Rs. 1000-3000/liter in the market (Tuffail, 2018). There are two kinds of apricot oil. The oil extracted from sweet kernel is used as edible oil in pure form or mixed with walnut oil whereas the oil extracted from the bitter kernels has ritual, cosmetic and medicinal usages. Used as hair oil, body oil and massage oil, apricot oil is renowned for being able to penetrate the skin without leaving an oily feel. Moreover, it is reputed to be able to relieve joint ache, back ache and, when massaged on the chest with a pinch of salt, acidity (Stobdan et al, 2021).

Apart from the above mentioned products, apricots are also used to prepare squash, jelly and even cakes! (Tuffail, 2018)

Apricots are rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron, carbohydrate, sugars and amino acids (Dorjey and Rinchen, 2012). A healthy sweet treat, apricots possess Vitamin A which provides nourishment and support to the skin, vision and immune system. The beta-carotene present in apricots, moreover, helps to produce more Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A and anti-oxidants present in apricots protect the skin from the sun’s harmful rays and help in cell renewal. Vitamin A also prevents night blindness and age-related macular degeneration. The potassium in apricots help to maintain muscle health and blood pressure regulation. The fiber-rich fruit helps to keep the digestive tract stable and brings a sense of satiety to the body, making us feel full for longer periods which is great if one is trying to manage their weight. The anti-oxidants present in apricots help in curbing inflammation which, in turn, helps to prevent chronic diseases like arthritis and heart diseases. A great source of natural sugars, apricots help to energize the body. Moreover, the water content in apricots helps to keep the body hydrated (Krishispray). Evidently, an apricot a day can also keep the doctor away!

In the past decades, Ladakhi apricots, in spite of their huge annual production, were mostly consumed internally and a sizable chunk (40-50 %) of them was wasted due to a lack of organization in the apricot sector and inefficient production and processing techniques (Stobdan et al, 2021). However, this scenario has been changing lately. In 2021, an experimental shipment of around 150 kg of apricots was sent to Dubai (Peerzada, 2024). The massive success of the reception of apricots in the international markets led to large-scale export of apricots by numerous organizations and in 2023, 31 tonnes of Halman apricots were successfully exported abroad (ANI, 2023).

The government is also making genuine efforts to improve the horticulture sector or Ladakh in general and the apricot sector in particular. After the creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory, a specialists committee was formed to recommend changes to the apricot cultivation in Ladakh. Based on this committee’s report, the Horticulture Department assigned the Defense Institute of High Altitude Research of DRDO the responsibility of securing the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the Raktsey Karpo apricot of Ladakh on behalf of the apricot cultivating community there. As a result, in 2022, the Raktsey Karpo apricot finally received the GI tag which will aid greatly in its popularization (Statesman News Service, 2022) across the globe. Moreover, apricots are being promoted as a part of the One District One Product scheme. The ODOP scheme is designed to promote balanced regional growth by identifying, branding and promoting at least one product from a district. So far, around 1102 products have been identified from 761 districts (National Portal of India). As a part of the ODOP scheme in Kargil, the district administration is assisting apricot farmers and marketers of the region. Apricots of Kargil, along with other products, are being promoted under the Brand Ladakh initiative. Programs like PMRGP and PMFME are being implemented to produce and process apricots on a large scale. Kargil district has participated in numerous international expos and facilities have been established to directly export apricots. Prestigious organization like Indian Institute of Packaging, National Institute of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management and CSIR CFTRI are providing technical guidance and testing assistance (Champions of Change – NITI Aayog). The Ladakh Tourism Department organizes Apricot Blossom Festivals every year during April in order to promote Ladakhi natural beauty and cultural heritage, popularize apricots and their by-products to tourists and outsiders and promote Ladakhi handicrafts. In a series of day-long events organized in multiple phases across different parts of Ladakh, the Apricot Blossom Festival is made dynamic and vibrant with numerous traditional dance form performances, songs, dramas and guided tours through apricot orchards. Visitors have the opportunity to support the horticulture sector by buying apricot products and purchase locally-made handicraft items as well. Full of nature, heritage and fun, this festival celebrates Ladakh and its people with apricots at it center (Et Al Desk; Peerzada, 2024; News Desk, 2024; Utsav: India: the land of festivals).

For more than a century, apricots have been intricately linked to the culture of Ladakh. Consumed delightfully by the people of Ladakh for the marvelous taste and numerous health benefits, apricots and their many by-products are sources of livelihood for thousands of Ladakhi people engaged in their cultivation, processing and marketing. The traditional pattern of internal consumption and lack of export has experienced a general shift in recent years thanks to the concerted efforts of governmental and non- governmental entities and stakeholders and Ladakhi apricots are being propagated in a large scale to international markets. A key marker of Ladakhi heritage, economy and society, the apricots of Ladakh seem to have a global future ahead of them.


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