A garland can be defined as a band or chain of flowers, foliage, and leaves. In Tamil Nadu, and particularly in the temple town of Madurai, flower garlands are considered to play a significant role in expressing and enhancing Tamil culture. Every garland is a myriad of colours; a kaleidoscopic journey; an array of fragrant, vivid flowers weaved together to symbolize love, purity, and devotion. From the moon-lit creamy whites of the famous ‘Madurai Malli’ to the bright flashes of red and yellow in the roses and marigolds, from the earthy tones of the foliage and ferns to the soft pinks and pastel blues of lotuses and lilies- the Madurai garland is not simply a band of flowers, it is a culture, craft, and collection of stories of all those involved in the process of garland making.
Every garland is a myriad of colours; a kaleidoscopic journey; an array of fragrant, vivid flowers weaved together to symbolize love, purity, and devotion. These garlands also symbolize respect towards the deity and when each deity is adorned with his/her favourite flower, he/she is more likely to bestow favours and blessings on the people. The act of worship itself, called ‘puja’ translates into ‘flower act.’
Out of all the flowers, jasmine is commonly used for Garlands.
Garlands are used for a spectrum of purposes which includes doorway decoration, adorning hair, offerings for religious purposes, and garlanding photos of deities and even the deceased. Some of the garlands are weaved for the purpose of being worn around the neck.
The main difference is its shape: wreath is round, while garland is a long string.
The MadhuraiMalli is also deeply entrenched within Hinduism. They are considered to be unique because of their specialized characteristics. These include thick petals, strong fragrance, lengthiest petiole, delayed petal opening and discoloration, and the high quality. It was even said that the Madurai Malli is representative of the ancient Tamil culture.
The garlands also symbolize respect towards the deity and when each deity is adorned with his/her favourite flower, he/she is more likely to bestow favours and blessings on the people.
Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai is known to be adorned with jasmine, Lakshmi with red lotus, Saraswati with white lotus, Lalitha with hibiscus, neem leaf garlands are offered to goddess Kali since neem is a medicinal plant and Kali is seen as a healer and protector against evil. For lord Ganesha, a garland made out of grass is offered since he is seen as clearing obstacles. Garlands made out of neem are offered to goddess Durga since lime is considered to ward off evil spirits and negative energy and Durga herself is the protector against evil spirits.
Flowers and flower garlands are inextricably linked with Indian culture. Flowers are used in different facets of an individual’s life, from birth to death.
The usage of flowers and flower garlands can be seen for worship and prayer. Since flowers are seen as a symbol of devotion, several flower offerings are made to gods and goddesses in almost all religions. In South India, garlands play an important role in signifying the religious sentiment of the people. These garlands also symbolize respect towards the deity and when each deity is adorned with his/her favourite flower, he/she is more likely to bestow favours and blessings on the people. The act of worship itself, called ‘puja’ translates into ‘flower act.’
Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai is known to be adorned with jasmine, Lakshmi with red lotus, Saraswati with white lotus, Lalitha with hibiscus. When these garlands are offered to the deities, the symbolism of the flower/foliage is linked with what the deity stands for. For example, neem leaf garlands are offered to goddess Kali since neem is a medicinal plant and Kali is seen as a healer and protector against evil. For lord Ganesha, a garland made out of grass is offered since he is seen as clearing obstacles. Garlands made out of neem are offered to goddess Durga since lime is considered to ward off evil spirits and negative energy and Durga herself is the protector against evil spirits.
Flowers are also used in the celebration of different festivals. In Madurai, garlands with different flower combinations are made for special occasions. PuppunitaNiratu festival, Poo saram, Uhiripookal, Onam, and various other festivals pertaining to different deities are celebrated in South India.
Flowers and garlands are also used for many functions. Weddings in South India experience a large-scale usage of flowers- all the way from the ‘varmala’ of the bride and groom, to the decoration of the mandap- these flowers not only add to the aesthetics but are also used to symbolize love and purity. Flower garlands are also used in temple functions, engagement parties, house warming, and ear-piercing ceremonies.
Garlands are also used for decoration purposes. These garlands are not only adorned by women in the form of gajras and veni, but are also used to decorate roads, vehicles, and houses. Flower jewellery is also common such as flower crowns and flower bangles.
In the present day, another usage of flowers can be seen in terms of its market. There are plenty of farmers, flower vendors, and garland weavers who earn their livelihood by selling flowers. Therefore, flowers can also be seen as a way of life in India.
The symbolism of elegance, grace, and vibrance that has been attached to flowers and garlands is the reason why they are used for a spectrum of purposes.
In Tamil culture, flowers have had a special place since time immemorial. From the neck of the deities to the hair of women- flower garlands occupy a remarkable position in Tamil Nadu. Valmiki was the first to notice in Ramayana, the tradition of wearing flowers by South Indians.
Tamils divided their land into five geographical areas giving a dominant flowering tree to each of these areas. These were- first, Mullai (jasmine variety) which depicted the forest area. Second, Kurinji (a mountain flower) which depicted the mountain area. Third, Marutham (red flowering tree) which depicted the pastoral area. Fourth, Neytal (water flower) which depicted the area of the seashore. Fifth, Palai (evergreen tree from arid regions) which depicted arid areas. Sanskrit literature also divided the world into 7 continents with these flowering trees kept as the foundation. This included- Jambu (Rose apple), Plaksha (fig tree), Shalmali (Silk cotton tree), Kusha (Darba grass), Krauncha (water birds), Shaka and Pushkara (Lotus). The significance of flowers can also be seen in Tamil Nadu by taking a look at the Sangam literature. According to the literature, three kingdoms from Tamil Nadu, each had a particular flower garland that was seen as an emblem for the kings- Pandya kings wore Neem flower garlands, the Chera kings wore Palmyra flower garlands and the Chola kings wore Athi flower garlands. The uniqueness of Tamil culture is further highlighted when we observe that Tamils were the only ones who wore flowers to the battlefield in order to denote the different war activities. These were-
This depicts that flowers were not only worn by women but also by men for different activities and purposes. Thereby, showcasing the significance of flower garlands.
In the present day, the significance of flowers and garlands can be exemplified by looking at the Madurai flower market which has gained international recognition. The flowers from this market are used to make perfumes for companies like Dior and heaps of flowers are exported to countries like Italy, Germany, and America. The geographical indication (GI) tag given to Madurai Malli adds to this significance. Moreover, the large number of professions that are linked with flowers, such as horticulture and farming, selling flowers, weaving flowers into garlands, gajras, and veni showcase how important flowers are in expressing Indian culture and traditions.
These flower garlands are also considered to be significant in other religions such as Christianity and Islam. In other cases, flowers are considered significant since they symbolize the interconnection between two generations and the binding of human relations.
The Sangam literature and the present market for flowers indicate that, not only due to the plethora of uses that flowers contain but also due to their historical richness, flowers have and will continue have a significant role in Indian culture; for they are not simply materials, but expressions of emotions, glimpses of divinity and embodiments of mankind’s journey.
The specialty of Madurai- Madurai Malli
Out of all the flowers, jasmine is the most unique and loved variety of Madurai. This flower is so special that it has its own set of history, significance, and usage in Madurai.
Madurai Malli is considered to be unique because of its specialized characteristics. These include thick petals, strong fragrance, lengthiest petiole, delayed petal opening and discolouration, and the high quality. These special characteristics of the flower enable the vendors to preserve the flowers in freezing conditions for 2 days- something which is impossible for the jasmine grown in other parts of the country. The special physical, physiological and geographical features of Madurai are known to lend to the uniqueness of the flower. Many also believe that goddess Meenakshi and her love for the jasmine flower is the reason for its speciality and uniqueness.
For the people in Madurai, jasmine is not simply a flower- it is a way of life. Both men and women earn their livelihood by weaving these milk colour flowers into garlands. There are a variety of techniques for weaving the Madurai Malli which creates intricate garlanding patterns. The flower weavers of Madurai are famous for the speed with which they weave these garlands. Due to the uniqueness of the jasmine grown here, Madurai has been labelled as the ‘Jasmine capital of the country.’
The MadhuraiMalli is also deeply entrenched within Hinduism. This is evident from the 15th or 16th century when the region was under the rule of the Nayaks. Even today, Madurai Malli is used for a variety of purposes. These are- puja, temple Alankaram, doorway decoration, adorning hair, offerings for religious purposes, and garlanding photos of deities and even the deceased. After receiving the Geographical Indication (GI) tag, the market even opened up to international areas and served as inspiration for companies like Dior. It was even said that the Madurai Malli is representative of the ancient Tamil culture.
This flower forms such an integral part of Madurai and Tamil Nadu that ever woman has adorned herself with this flower at some point in time. Various studies indicate that jasmine production is highly profitable for Tamil Nadu due to its enormous demand and usage. Due to its significance in art, history, and literature, the authorities have even decided to announce a ‘jasmine day’ in order to pay abode to the Madurai Malli and its uniqueness.
Apart from the historical evidence found in Indian literature and manuscripts, there are several myths and legends regarding the usage of flowers and flower garlands. Among these, the most popular are as follows.
The oldest myth is that of King Pari in 300 BC (or earlier) where one Tamil poet sings about how this king gifted his royal chariot to a jasmine plant that was growing in the forest. Another myth related to jasmine is the King of Ayodhya, Pratham who became ‘Malleeswaran’ after worshipping Lord Shiva in a forest with jasmine creepers.
There is also a myth surrounding one of the 12 devotees of Vishnu– Periyar Alwar. To express his love and ardent devotion, Periyar Alwar used to collect various flowers from gardens and make garlands out of them every day for praising Vishnu. His daughter, Kothai also helped in the process of flower picking and garland making. Being a devotee of Vishnu herself, Kothai had a desire of marrying Lord Vishnu. One day, she wore the garland herself before Periyar Alwar took the garland for adorning Vishnu. She wore the garland thinking of herself as being married to Vishnu. Unaware of this, Periyar Alwar took the flower garland to the temple where the priest found a strand of hair in the garland. After seeing this, Periyar Alwar rushed back and rebuked his daughter for wearing the garland. He then proceeded to pick new flowers to make another garland for Vishnu. However, Vishnu made Periyar Alwar understand that he was happy and comfortable being garlanded with the garland worn by Kothai (who was named Andal after her marriage with Vishnu.) Andal was considered to the incarnation of goddess Lakshmi.
In ancient times, flowers and garlands were extensively written about and used in different rituals and ceremonies. The art of garland making was considered to be one of the 64 arts that enhanced the beauty of the deity and the wearer. The traces of flowers in Indian literature can be discovered, not only through the faint memories of the floral scent left behind but also through fallen petals that have transformed themselves into writings and scriptures.
Vedic and Epics: The earliest mentions of flowers can be found in the Rigveda. The Rigveda states that Ashvinikumara wore a garland made of lotuses and Goddess Sri was claimed to be born of lotuses, being lotus-eyed (Padmaakshi) and having the colour of lotus (Padminivarna). Flowers such as figs, turmeric, and ash trees find their mentions in the Atharvaveda. This text also lists out the medicinal and cosmetic properties of flowers.
In the epic of Ramayana, Valmiki mentions the beauty and mystique of flowers found in the forests, groves, and grasslands. This includes special mentions of the Aranya Kanda. The Mahabharata also uses flora to describe areas, and list out the different varieties of flowers such as the lotuses in the area surrounding the Kailasa Mountains close to the residence of Kubera. The Mahabharata also states how Damayanti went to search Nala in Ashokavana, abounding in flowers.
Purina’s and Kavyas: The Purina’s entail a list of flowers, classified on the basis of the deities that are worshipped using those flowers. The Padma Purana lists out several flowers devoted to deities like Ganpati, Saraswati. However, the longest list of flowers enlisted in the Puranas are those dedicated to the worship of Lord Vishnu, as stated in Skanda Purana Vamana Purana, Agni Purana, and Narada Purana. Other Puranas list out the flowers used for the worship of Shiva and Kali.
Many poets recognize the different flower categories and their uses. They further distinguish between flowers based on the varieties, colours, and period of blooming. Such is illustrated through the works of Kalidasa.
Agamas and Tantras: These texts provide a vivid description of flowers that should be used for worship and those that should be discarded. Many of such classifications and distinctions are found in the Panchatantra and Vaikhanasa Agamas.
The Atri Samhita gives a classification in chapter 44 where it states that flowers can be divided into 11 categories, these are- Daiva, Maanusha, Brahma, Paitrika, Bhautika, Yaksha, Gandharva, Asura, Rakshasa, Pisacha, and Mishra. The basis for this classification is given as: see the images below.
Which translates into, “Flowers that are torn are to be regarded as Asura class, those that are fresh and new are Daiva, those with thorns on trees are to be discarded for worship as they belong to Rakshasa class, those that are ugly or having holes or being cut are Yaksha class, those that look burnt or not fresh when kept for a night are Gandharva class, those that fade away when plucked belong to Bhuta class, those that are touched by men who are not clean or by Chandalas are termed to belong to Vidyadhara class.”
The Kamika Agama also includes more classification of flowers. The Sages like Narada and others have spoken of flowers as being of five classes namely Para, Apara, Uttama, Madhyama, and Adhama.
Post-Vedic Texts: Several post-Vedic texts were also oriented towards the classification of flowers. These include texts such as Sushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita, Bhela Samhita, Ayurveda, and Ashtangahridaya of Vagbhata. Sage Parashara in his Vrikshayurveda classifies flowers based on various factors. These are- stem, sterility, blossoming, dominating influence of sun or moon, petals and stamens, position of ovary, blooming, and petal arrangements.
Treaties: Some treaties have been specifically devoted to flowers. These include Pushpachintamani, Pushpa Maahaatmyan, Parijatamanjari, and PupphajoniSattha.
In Tamil Nadu, the history of flowers and garlands can be known through the Sangam literature.
There are different designs of flower garlands depending on the weaving technique that is used to sue them together. Some popular South Indian garlands are-
In the city of Madurai, Jasmine or ‘Madurai Malli’ is famous not only because of its uniqueness but also because of the special garlanding techniques that are used to weave this Madurai Malli into beautiful garlands. These techniques are claimed to be used solely in Madurai. They are-
In the contemporary days, all temples in South India have a flower garden called ‘nandavanam.’ Flowers and trees grown in these gardens are used to make flower garlands for the worship of deities. However, in recent years, these nandavanams have started to disappear. With the expanding city, decreasing rainfall, and changing sensibilities, these flower gardens have now shrunk to size or disappeared entirely. Moreover, the unavailability of manpower and funds have been stated as the reason for the disintegration of these flower garlands. The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is one of the few temples that has been able to preserve the tradition of Nandavanams.
The problem of waste disposal also poses a grave challenge in the Matthuthvani flower market of Madurai. The rotting flowers covering the ground of the market not only give off a foul smell but also take away from the aesthetic value of the flowers. Despite the efforts of various stakeholders and associations, there is a need to improve the amenities in the market and ensure regular cleaning.
Price fluctuation of flowers can also be a challenge for the vendors and weavers who do not earn a stable income. Depending on the days of the week and festive months, the demand for flowers keeps changing due to which there is continuous price fluctuation. For example, during Pongal, the price of Jasmine rises to 5000 rupees per kilogram, however, in some seasons the price goes down to 50 rupees per kilogram.
With the coronavirus pandemic impacting the individuals all across the globe- the Madurai flower vendors and garland weavers are no exception. For the first time in 50 years, the Madurai flower market had been shut down. After 20 days, it was allowed to reopen, however, the sales were extremely low. The Mattuthavani flower market association also expressed their concerns regarding the possibility of heavy losses being incurred on the vendors since all temples were shut and no festivals were taking place. Therefore, people were only buying essential items and the sale of flowers had gone down. For the first time in ever, the Chithirai festival for goddess Meenakshi has been cancelled. As a result, the vendors and garland weavers are finding it difficult to sell their craft and earn money to sustain their livelihood.
The process of making the garlands is an intricate and delicate process wherein the flowers are strung together one by one. This process can be broadly classified into two categories- first, garland making with the needle and thread, and second, garland making without needle and thread.
Flowers with a sweet scent are given more preference than the others, however, non-fragrant flowers are also used. The most popular flowers are jasmine and tuberose, followed by marigold, chrysanthemum, roses, and hibiscus that are used widely in the worship of gods and goddesses. Other flowers such as lotus, lily, ashoka, oleander, and manorajini are also used. Each of these flowers has a symbolism attached to them and are used in combination with each other to make garlands that fulfil different purposes. To enhance the beauty of the garland, some decorative foliage from ornamental plants such as ferns are also incorporated. It is important to note that the flowers listed here are the most commonly used, however, various other flowers such as seasonal varieties specific to a particular area may also be used in the garlands.
A cotton/nylon/silk thread is used to bind these flowers together. However, in some cases, the stem of the banana plant is also used as an alternative to thread. By pinching out the outer skin of the banana stem, it acts as a silky thread and is then used for making lei and flower garlands (especially those made of jasmine) In Madurai, usage of the banana stem for making the garland is a common practice. Since the banana stem is strong, it can hold big and heavy flowers that are used for making large, decorative garlands.
In order to make the garland more extravagant, crystal stone and decorative balls are also incorporated alongside the flowers.
In Madurai, Mattuthavani is the main flower market where a large number of flower vendors and garland weavers sell their products. Due to the bulk of flowers that is brought in every morning, the lack of dustbin bags, and sanitary facilities, this market faces a huge problem pertaining to the flower waste and its disposal.
With over 100 shops in the market and approximately 10 tonnes of flowers brought in every day, (and even more during festive occasions) the smell of the decaying flowers often overpowers the fragrant, sweet-smell of jasmine, rose and marigold. In an interview with Times of India, a rickshaw puller named Deivendran claimed that as he took tourists to the flower market, they expected to bathe in the aroma of the flowers but were instead disturbed by the rotting flowers on which they had to walk. Apart from this, many flower vendors also complain about the lack of amenities in the flower market. S. Muniyandi, a flower vendor from the market complained about how the toilets that had been constructed in the past were of no use now since they had not been maintained. He also specified that no toilets had been created for women. Apart from this, a lack of water drinking facilities in the market also posed as a great inconvenience, not only for the vendors but also for the tourists. Another vendor called R. Chandrasekar pointed out that the garbage had not been cleared for over 10 days by the municipal corporation. The potholes and huge amounts of garbage in the flower market made it inconvenient and unsanitary to the vendors, customers, and tourists.
Keeping these concerns in mind, a makeover for the Madurai flower market was initiated. The market committee in 2013, distributed 20 dustbins for biodegradable waste and 10 dustbins for non-biodegradable waste. A team of 15 members was also called upon to clean the entire premises including the toilets. Moreover, a fine of 50 rupees was issued on any violator who spilled garbage inside the market. After these efforts were made, a flower merchant named Meena expressed her gratitude, however, she also stated that the market committee must ensure that continuous and diligent measures are taken to keep the market clean. The secretary of the market committee, J Thavasu Muthu, stated that to ensure this momentum, efforts were required by all stakeholders.
The Madras High Court Bench communicated to the district administration the need to “develop the Madurai flower market as a model facility in the State, in view of the Geographical Indication tag given to the ‘Madurai Malli’ and the commercial importance on account of the said recognition.”
Various petitioners from the ‘Madurai Flower Merchants and Commission Agents Association’ stated that the lax attitude of the Madurai Marketing Committee and the Municipal Corporation had led to a neglect of the flower market and incompetent garbage disposal. Though efforts were then made by the marketing committee, AVE Kesavan, the former president of the committee stated that “It is due to the irresponsible ways of the vendors, who just throw the unused flowers without depositing them in bins. Also, as there is no coordination between the various associations at the market, the question is, who will bell the cat?” highlighting that the lack of sanitation could not be entirely blamed on the committee.
Some vendors also raised concerns about how different political affiliations with the market was creating a disparity among the associations, as a result of which, they were unable to come to a consensus.
As recent as 2019, Madurai Corporation initiated a cleaning drive in the market wherein 75 workers were deployed for cleaning purposes. One tipper truck, a tractor, an earthmover, and two autorickshaws were used to clean the market. Areas facing the issue of rainwater stagnation had also been cleared out. Apart from this, S Visakan also conducted a surprise inspection of the market wherein he found the flower vendors still making use of the banned plastic bags. As a result, a warning was issued to all flower vendors stating that they will be fined for 5000 rupees if they were found using the plastic bags again.
Therefore, despite the blame game that has taken place in the past regarding the responsibility of cleanliness of the flower market, efforts have been made by all stakeholders to bring about a change and keep this flower market clean and sanitary.
In order to make flower garlands, needles, threads/banana stem, and different varieties of flowers are used.
Flower garlands are widely used not only in Madurai but all over South India for various rituals and ceremonies.
The rice harvest festival of Onam is celebrated by all communities in South India. A part of this celebration involves the usage of flowers to make a flower carpet called ‘pokkallam’ or ‘rangoli.’ This is done to welcome the spirit of King Mahabali in whose honour Onam is celebrated. The rangoli is made by the girls at the entrance of the house and the boys help in flower collection. Different petals from different flowers are used to create a colourful design and arrangement that involves creativity and art. Petals of jasmine, rose, marigold, daisy, and kanakambara are used to make the rangoli and many times flower garlands and methi leaves are used to outline the rangoli.
Pushpanchali, also known as ‘flower offering’ has been mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita and is considered an annual even in several South Indian temples where heaps of flowers are offered to the deities.
The jasmine flower has special significance in Madurai and used for the worship of goddess Meenakshi. She is adorned with jasmine flowers every night in a ceremony that prepares her for her time with her husband, Shiva. A commonly held belief in Madurai is that the goddess and her love for the jasmine flower is the reason behind the unique variety of jasmine being found here.
Andal of Srivilliputtur, who was a devotee of Vishnu is made a special offering with one of the biggest flower garlands called Andal Malai. It is usually 8 feet long and is made up of different flowers. Many times, this flower garland is also offered to political candidates after winning elections.
Apart from these, garlands and flowers play a significant role in marriage ceremonies where a special ‘varmala’ or ‘jaimala’ is designed for the bride and groom as a symbol of love and unity. In south Indian weddings, the area above the mandap is decorated with flower drapes. Sometimes, floating flower decorations are also made on top of the mandap not only for traditional but also aesthetic purposes.
Flower garlands are also used in various other South Indian rituals that involve worship and prayer, weddings, house warming, and decoration.
As visible to the naked eye, the raw materials used for flower garlands include mainly two components- first, different varieties of flowers, and second, a material to bind these flowers together.
For the flower market in Madurai, the process of collecting the flowers begins early in the morning around 3 am where the plucked flowers are brought in by the farmers in large sacks. The prices of these flowers are then fixed by commissioning agents. These prices fluctuate on various factors such as the flower quality, weight of the produce, day of the week, and other special events. For example, Fridays are special prayer days for goddess Meenakshi due to which the flower prices hike. After the auctioning and vending, the flowers are brought to their locations- temples, flower vendors, garland makers, and horticulturalists.
The process of making the garlands is an intricate and delicate process wherein the flowers are strung together one by one. This process can be broadly classified into two categories- first, garland making with the needle and thread, and second, garland making without needle and thread.
In the first type, the process of making the garlands involves using of a thread and needle. Multiple flower varieties are sewn together by using different needles and one common thread. This thread is strong enough to hold small as well as slightly heavy flowers.
In the second type, banana stems are used for making the flower garlands instead of the needle and thread. The artists use a folding and knotting technique that allows the flowers toget stringed together onto the banana stem. The banana stem is usually used while making big garlands that include a lot of flowers or heavy flowers.
This process of garland making varies with the different designs used for garlands. Since there are different ways of arranging the flowers in a garland, the process of making these garlands depends on the expected style and design required.
List of craftsmen.
Interview : Madurai Flower Marker & Meenikshi Temple