Dissecting the time-resistant love relation between Tamil Nadu and its flowers.
Text and photos: Divya Shaji
Tamil Nadu loves its flowers. Like no other land, the state romanticizes the flowers that their land gives them. Fancier flowers like imported orchids, Euphorbias, or Asters won't do. Only the flowers of their land will.
Saamanthi Marigold), malli (jasmine), kanakambaram (crossandra), roja (rose), and name any flowers indigenous to TN, they have a history. Though wearing flowers is a common feature in South India, TN has a distinct relation where flowers are not restricted to the women, but share quite a rapport with the men and the deities too.
While other states have marginalized the flowers to only special and auspicious occasions, TN stands tall in its inability to bring flowers into everyday trials. An ode to their relationship is therefore quite overdue.
The courtship between flowers and the women here is undeniable. As the final touch of the outfit, flowers accompany the women everywhere. Weddings and buses continue to be the most notorious venues to spot flowers as hair accessories. In weddings the flowers are much more intricately and meticulously placed, but in buses they’re more experimental daily-wear.
No flower is left behind — even the brightest bhantipoovu, the funkiest purple 'December poo', the kanakabarams, and the slightly more traditional paneer-roses of colours ranging from orange to red to hot pink, all find their way to women’s hair.
Usually spotted at the nape of the head, the liberty of the wearer takes the flowers to the top of the kondai (opted by the ladies out for some serious work), or smack at the start of the braid (most common to the real life fashionistas, aka college girls). The brave drama queens also leave a paneer-rose right behind the ear, as if imbibing fashion inspiration from the silver screen of the 70s.
Toddlers too are spotted with a tiny string of jasmine flowers taut between their two tiny pony tails, while the grey haired lovelies opt for either the graceful malli poo, many a times with a rose for a pinch of colour in contrast to their sarees.
If the best of one’s land is to be offered to one’s deities, is there anything better than flowers? Perhaps the simplest but certainly the brightest gifts the deities must have laid eyes on are what they are now lovingly swarmed with — garlands of marigold and jasmine and rose.
Flowers also participate not only in pooja rituals, but also in Sunday Mass. Remnants of any parade — be it a funeral or celebration — they are stampeded flowers.
Even leaves are fragrant here. The marikolunthu for instance, is unbiquitous in kalyana mandapams (wedding halls) and the garlands that the brides and grooms wear. Again, here in the abundance of bhantipoovu and malli, it's apparent that there is no casting call for the foreigners of the fauna species.
With flowers always appearing on women and gods, one might wonder as to this inexhaustible source of flowers. Even though the sight of bougainvilleas overflowing over walls and fences are not rare sights, nor are the feeble jaathi malli vines crawling over trees or the pink arali (oleander) in full bloom all year around, people seem to prefer buying stringed flowers from flower stalls. Almost every street has a designated flower stall, be simply an old lady selling loose flowers of only three varieties, or the slightly more established younger hawkers, sitting under coloured umbrellas with long strings of tied up flowers coiled up in circles.
Expectedly, women breathe life into these stalls, but men play a significant role in their economy too. Strings of flowers are found safely tucked into plastic covers, above their morning market haul. They buy it as a casual adornment for their autos or bikes, or as air freshners in their cars, or for poojas at home, with a few romantics buying it for their counterparts. Spotting men openly associating with flowers is a breath of fresh air.
From politicians to deities to superstars of cinema, TN pours out its love in flowers. This doesn’t skip any age group or social strata. Flower stalls are equipped to cater to all women, gods, and men, who need it for that final touch of finesse before their day begins. This is not a fashion statement. It is a crucial part of their unthinking yet well-thought out routine. It is culture.
Through flowers, TN takes a step back and breathes in the fragrance of what it has held near for centuries. The state is in no hurry to change what has and has had.
My takeaway: When in doubt, wear a flower. :)
Divya Shaji enjoys physics and literature, always mutually exclusively.