Flowers are an expression of tradition, communication, joy, celebration and even sorrow. They add value to rituals, and landmark occasions in a lifetime. Places of worship are never complete without flowers. Thailand is a classic example of a country with a rich flower tradition. Floral art is an integral part of the celebration of life, royal feasts and religious ceremonies.
Sakul Intakul, an electronics engineer by profession, worked for a Japanese company in Bangkok for two years but got sidetracked when he completed advanced courses in European flower design at a Japanese flower school. He never looked back and Today he is a professional flower decorator with Her Majesty Queen Sikrit of Thailand commissioning his work. For 11 years he has offered his services to the Royal Court in Thailand. Intakul's vast knowledge has resulted in a book Dok Mai Thai:The Flower Culture of Thailand with Jirasak Thongyuak's mind blowing pictures of splendorous floral arrangements.
As with every craft, royal patronage adds a new dimension, enhancing craft skills and enabling them to flourish. According to Intakul, the golden age of Thai floral art emerged during the reign of King Rama V (King Chulalongkorn the Great) whose appreciation of floral art drove the ladies at court to study traditions in flower arranging. Queen Sirikit has been responsible for the preservation and development of Thai arts, craft and culture.
As in India, malais are the most common flower feature in Thailand, and they can be seen everywhere, from the simplest malai at Pak Khlong Talad (Bangkok's central flower market) to the most intricate creations at the inner courts of the Grand Palace. Homage to elders and tributes to gurus seem to be a compelling gesture in this country, and this is also expressed florally. Garlands are made with jasmine, light green dak khajorn, gardenias, orange jasmine, rose petals and patterned banana leaves sewn with flower petals.
An extract from Sakul Intakul's book describes the floral homage paid by classical musicians to their gurus. “Before the musician plays, he will wai khru using a wai gesture with a malai. He will then gently garland the musical instruments.”
In a beautiful Thai custom, the students follow the phithi wai khru ceremony to show respect to their teachers when the new academic year begins. Usually this is held on a Thursday. The students prepare intricate floral arrangements set on pedestal trays, which follow the norms of symbolism called phan dokmai, a combination of flowers and incense sticks. Pink, green, white and purple dendrobium and orchid petals are folded and incorporated into the design.
Offerings are also made to the main image in Wat Ratchabophit Sathitmahasimaram's main temple. The breathtaking displays are made up of spherical masses of globe amaranths, closely knit together and secured to an inner clay structure with slivers of the dry skin of the salak palm. This phan phum looks like globe of gems held together by a trellis of buds and is balanced on cut-glass cups with a long stem
Contemporary arrangements are as much a challenge as traditional ones. Intakul works with crown flowers, small gardenias and chrysanthemums to create floral strings hung close to each other to form delicate fragrant curtains. Intakul's contemporary designs are seen in modern homes in rooms assigned for prayer and meditation. Devarana Spa, Bangkok's arrival area, has his contemporary interpretations of phum dokmai. He uses white lotus flowers, crown flower finials, orchid petals and gardenias. The container is artistically draped with lotus leaf and tied with a string of small gardenias and ornamental crown flowers.
One of the most romantic full moon nights in Thailand is Loy Krathong or Festival of Lights in November. As the festival approaches, the markets are full of with floral floats, most fashioned from slices of banana trunk, the leaves folded in various styles to imitate lotus flowers. The container is filled with fresh flowers, candles and incense sticks. On the night of the festival Thais carry their krathongs to the water's edge, light the incense sticks and candles and gently lower them into the water. Hundreds of krathongs float down the river with their flickering reflections increasing the light manifold. Fireworks light up the sky and the moonlight coupled with the sweet fragrance of the flowers make it a memorable night.
The joint family system still abounds in Thailand, making it easy for the crafts tradition to continue. Elders teach children how to fashion their own toys from the mid rib of the banana leaves. Little girls deftly make dolls from lotus flowers, peacocks from crown flowers and fish from coconut fronds. The girls learn to use long needles used for floral decoration to make simple malais or jasmine garlands for daily use.
Each royal lady teaches her ladies-in-waiting the art of flower decoration, and they teach young girls who approach them for training. By the time they left the court, they were well equipped to pass on their knowledge to other young girls, as they did for hundreds of years.
The royal state banquet is an occasion for showcasing talent. The drill is amazing. The ladies work in two 24-hour shifts. A few days before the banquet the ladies are required to make the floral accessories. On the eve of the banquet the second team moves in to arrange the accessories and embellish them further. Chandeliers are designed with flowers, flower pendants and tassels adorn the room, and most beautiful are the bab fuang or petals sewn on layers of patterned banana leaves. Flowers used include Norfolk Island pine leaves, orchid petals, white crown flower sepals, purple crown flowers, and tiny gardenias
I ask Intakul if flowers are imported. “Orchids like vanda, dendrobium, cattleya are locally available. So are jasmine, crown flowers, marigolds, and small white gardenias. Chrysanthemums, gladioli, roses and other temperate flowers are from cooler places like Chiang Mai, Kanjanaburi, and Khao Yai in Nakornrachasima. We also import flowers from China, The Netherlands, and Australia.”
Is it frightfully expensive to order a floral arrangement for a special occasion? “It depends on the occasion. I have my standard fee. I think I am reasonably expensive!”
Whatever the cost, a floral presentation is worth a thousand words!