Posted: Thu, Feb 9 2012. 7:54 PM IST
Earth laughs in flowers
All over the world, people are moving towards handmade, handcrafted local objects—made to measure and customized right in front of your eyes
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

I am at a flower market in New Delhi en route to dinner at a colleague’s home. I want to take some flowers for my hostess, Anita, but everywhere I see, there are strings of bright yellow marigolds. Where are the cut, long-stemmed roses or Oriental lilies?

I want a big bunch of yellow roses, I tell the vendor behind the wooden bench. In response, he lifts a string of marigold he is braiding. It is only after walking through six stalls with no rose to show for it that I pause and reflect on the irony of the situation.

Street blooms: The Dadar flower market in Mumbai, on a recent winter morning. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
All over the world, people are moving towards handmade, handcrafted local objects—made to measure and customized right in front of your eyes. Here I am, doing the opposite. All around me are fragrant, beautifully stitched strings of native Indian flowers. Why am I harking for a bouquet when stringing flowers together is the Indian way? So this Valentine’s Day, as you search for flowers for your sweetie, I submit to you an alternative: Rather than buying those obligatory long-stemmed red roses, why not braid some intoxicating Madurai jasmine in your hair instead? Instead of dazzling her with a bouquet, caress her with a rose garland instead? Or hang chains of tuberose all around the bed. Why? Because here in India, it is possible; and when done right, it is wonderful.
As this issue points out, there are 99 Sanskrit words for love. There are just as many Indian flowers that are available to us if only we cared to look: champa, mogra, neel kamal, rajnigandha, raat ki rani, nithyakalyani, jati, parijat, kadamb, punnaga, the list goes on. A wonderful site called has photographs of native Indian flowers and their historical significance. As collector and scholar Kamala Vasudevan points out in her essay, Ancient Gardens of India, the Aryans of Vedic times were great nature lovers. They called flowers sumanasa, which means “that which pleases the mind”. A hymn that I listened to while growing up begins: Sumanasa vandita sundari madhavi, and was dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi.

I am crazy about flowers. When I die, I want to be surrounded by them: fragrant tuberose, strings of heady night jasmine, Oriental lilies, roses, gardenia, if possible, all of the above. Why do Western societies collect their flowers in bouquets while here in India, we string them together? I have two theories to explain this. One has to do with cheap labour. It is far less labour-intensive to cut flowers into bouquets. Stringing them into garlands takes work. Visit the flower markets in any city to see men and women busily stringing fragrant flowers into garlands that we all take for granted. Tuberose with a dash of green tulsi in between; yellow and orange marigolds alternating; scented mogra, mixed with green, differently scented marugu; orange kadamba; rose garlands encased in a silvery net—the varieties of ways we string flowers together reflects an aesthetic that pays attention to pattern and ritual. The fact that early European societies used to string flowers into their hats lends credence to this theory of labour-intensiveness contributing to the fall of handwork with respect to flowers and the rise of easy-cut bouquets.

The second reason, I believe, has to do with adornment. Indian literature is full of flower references. They are viewed as symbols of auspiciousness and adornment, which is why no Indian function is complete without them. Flowers are also symbols of “shringara rasa”, as depicted in pretty much every miniature painting and all our dance forms. The adornments are usually the same: sandal paste; strings of jasmine flowers coiled through black hair; and little else. The whole effect is simple, sensual, divine.

I wear strings of jasmine in my hair when I am home but take them out when I go out, mostly because I stand out. In Bangalore, philanthropist Sudha Murty appears in public with flowers in her hair but I haven’t seen anyone else. Mostly, we wear our hair loose these days and how does one attach flowers to loose hair? Chennai weddings, thankfully, are still full of young girls in half-saris, as we call them, with long strings of jasmine pinned on braided hair. The scent and sight are intoxicating. Western adornment with flowers usually involves just one, if that. You may pin a flower behind your hair, or in the place of a brooch but that’s it. Complex adornment, the way we Indians do it, requires the flowers to be stitched or strung together. The practice may be dying though.

According to an essay, Cut Flower Production in India by the Delhi-based Narendra K. Dadlani, editor-in-chief of the journal of Indian Society of Ornamental Horticulture, there are about 65,000 hectares of land under cultivation for flowers. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the states with maximum flower cultivation and the bulk of it comprises loose flowers used for our strings and garlands. But slowly, stemmed flowers for bouquets are gaining ground and there may come a time when strings and garlands will become too expensive to produce. Until then, enjoy.

So this Valentine’s, take your lover out for a candlelit dinner by all means. Buy them expensive foreign brands—I want a handbag by Moynat, if you must know. But when it comes to buying flowers, why not visit one of our flower bazaars, chat with the guy sitting on the wooden bench and get a custom-made string or garland to take home? The Rs.3,000 that it will cost you to get a nice bouquet will buy you enough fragrant strings to suffuse every corner of your home with the scent of love.

Shoba Narayan buys Oriental lilies for her vases and strings of jasmine every day. She floats marigolds in her uruli and wears whatever she can get in her hair. Write to her at [email protected]

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