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Updated: March 25, 2013 23:25 IST

Celebrating the jasmine

Soma Basu
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Madurai Malli
Madurai Malli

Mrs. Uma Kannan’s enchanting book on Madurai mallipoo captures the mystique and beauty of the amazing flower and the cast of characters who have been enticed with its fragrance from yore to now.

Whether it is the mythological story of the Ayodhya King Parthan who became Malleeswaran after worshipping Lord Shiva in a forest full of jasmine creepers or King Pari of Sangam period who could not bear to see the delicate jasmine creeper lying on the forest floor and gifted his royal chariot to the plant to enable it to twine itself around it. Or, as it finds mention in the Vedas, the ancient and medieval literature in various Indian languages, the epic Mahabharata and Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, the malli mania of the royals, the rulers and the commoners, the botanists and horticulturalists, the growers, buyers and sellers. The book tells you though historically they were all centuries apart, their love for the ‘plant of love’ was common.

One of the oldest flowers cultivated by man and believed to have aphrodisiac qualities, the jasmine, is the subject of this first-ever full-length speciality book. There are several books on other flowers as they make perfect gift books but none on jasmine. And particularly, the Madurai jasmine, which is world famous and gave the Temple town the epithet of jasmine capital of India.

The author, who grew up in London, had her first glimpse of jasmine when she came visiting then Madras as a child. “We were told we should not visit a temple empty-handed. A little bundle of neatly-strung jasmine wrapped in a bit of fresh banana leaf and tied with banana fibre was always taken as an offering to the deity. Even dressing up was never complete unless we tucked a few strands of jasmine in our hair,” writes Uma.

Rituals

When marriage brought her to Madurai four decades ago, she saw how the city revelled in an abundance of jasmine. Even the lone Indian Airlines flight to Chennai from Madurai in the 1970s was known as “Malli Special” and carried more jasmine baskets than passengers.

With time, the jasmine acquired a new meaning for her. She studied the significance of jasmine in ceremonies and rituals — from puja rooms to wedding mandapams, as an alankaram (decoration) in kolams, doorways, statues and on photos, to their use in making of perfumes, incense sticks, candles, tea, sherbet and other recipes. She realised malli is “an intrinsic part of the city’s ethos”. During her interactions with the flower weavers, she was struck by their humility and dedication, the magic in their fingers to transform the mounds of soft white fragrance into works of art, their joy and peace at stringing and selling flowers. It was all so appealing that Uma spent 18 months in research.

Though she started writing about the flower, she found it was the lives and stories of jasmine weavers that were woven intricately into each strand of jasmine they strung. “They have a justifiable pride in their craft but the benefits don’t really trickle down to them. While the market sizzles in the booming trade, the malligai weavers lead a mundane life and rarely complain. They bring cheers every morning but do their lives blossom too? They lead their lives facing hardship and try to live their dreams,” she writes.

Uma felt compelled to share the story from behind the scenes, how commission agents fix the price and sell to customers, they determine what is due to each farmer and also give loans to them. The flower market is a buyer’s market and not a farmer’s market and flower sellers have no role in fixing the fluctuating prices during bumper season or lean harvest. The agents fix the price depending on the quantity that arrives and the demand for the flowers.

Though bulk consignments are packed in fresh banana leaves and bundled in woven palm leaves, will this eco-friendly traditional method survive in the age of synthetics? The Madurai Malligai exported to Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, London and France, is already found to be sold in plastic packets in its hometown and many times the bulk orders are transported to other cities in synthetic bags.

Fragrance

Every year in Madurai alone, 9,557 tonnes of malligai are produced annually from 1,220 hectares. It is also cultivated in Virudhunagar, Theni, Dindiul and Sivaganga. What makes the Madurai malligai extra special? Its fragrance lasts for 36 hours as it is grown on laterite and reddish soils. Its petals are thicker and help the flower to retain moisture and delay withering. It blooms only after 6 p.m. and stays fresh longer and leaves no odour once it withers. It is greenish white in colour when it is manually plucked from the plant early morning. After a few hours it turns milky white and then a shiny creamy white during the evening.

The 21 chapters have many such facts and an equal dose of stunning photographs of the flower in all its forms. It is a treasure trove of flowery facts and the folklore, the religious and the commercial angle, the trade and logistics, and the floral things to do. It is a charming tribute to the sacred ‘satwik’ flower that has a unique link with Madurai dating back to 300 B.C., or even earlier.

In some chapters, Uma allows the flowers to speak for themselves, limiting the text to simple photo captions. As a result, the flowers burst to the fore-front, bright in hue and voluptuous in form and are the types that you can pull out and frame.

(Soma Basu is a feature writer with The Hindu in Madurai)

Madurai and Its Jasmine – A Celebration: Dr. Uma Kannan; Pub. by Thiagarajar College Publication Division, 139-140 Kamarajar Salai, Madurai-625009. Rs. 600.

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