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-
- Vetchi – the provocation of war through attack and cattle raids
- Karanthai – defending against cattle raids
- Vanchi – the invasion of the enemy’s territory
- Kanchi – transience and change, the fragility of human life, against the backdrop of war
- Uzhingai- attacking the fort
- Nochchi – defence of the fort or territory
- Thumpai – the frenzy of battle
- Vaakai – victory
- Paadaan – praise of a king’s heroism or generosity, asking for gifts
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.
Myths & Legends
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-
- Thoduthamaalai- These garlands are made from the banana tree fibre. These are common in marriage ceremonies and offerings. The length of these garlands varies from 1.5 feet to 12 feet and the thickness various from 2-4 feet in diameter.
- Korthamaalai- These flower garlands are made up of jasmine and lotus and are strung together with a needle and thread. These are used for the worship of gods and goddesses. They are designed in a way that the two lower ends of the garland are not joined.
- Nilamaalai- These garlands are used for house warming and decoration of the entrances in the house.
- ManikkamMaalai- These types of garlands are usually made of oleander. They are also called ‘garland of rubies’ since the flowers are folded with a special technique that makes them appear like special stones.
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-
- UruttuKattu- This type of garlanding technique is considered special and unique in Madurai. Under this technique, the jasmine flowers are garlanded like a spring
- PattaiKattu- In this type of garlanding, the flowers are weaved like a metal strip.
- Normal tying- This is the most common garlanding technique used in Madurai. Many women belonging to the lower strata are considered to be using this technique.
- Kadhambam – In this type of technique, Jasmine is combined with other flowers.
- Malai- In this, the garland is weaved for the purpose of being worn around the neck
- Thirumbippaar- In this garlanding technique, the jasmine flowers are combined with other artificial flowers and sewn into a garland.
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.