In a tiny village near Nagercoil, Lakshmi Sharath discovers a family that does it differently

The little sparrow chirps merrily as it hops on and off mounds of marigold. It is soon joined by its mate, and they call out to each other, perhaps singing a duet, as they move over to the jasmines. I follow them and find long garlands of dark pink roses bunched together, almost touching the ground. Nearby are more roses, this time in shades of orange and red. I look around and the entire playground is filled with the heady fragrance of flowers.

I am in a little village called Thovalai near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. Every tiny shop here greets you with a palette of colours, garlands in oranges and yellows, whites and pinks. I am in one of the biggest wholesale flower markets watching bargains being struck early in the morning. Roses are being packed, still fresh with morning dew, along with pretty white jasmines, called ‘Pichchi Vellai’, that look fresh and innocent. Thovalai is a flower town, where several acres of gardens produce fresh flowers for domestic and export markets.

Amid the colourful blooms, I am looking for a family that has been weaving a unique kind of garland every single day for over four generations. I cut across heaps of chrysanthemums and marigolds, jasmines and roses and walk through narrow lanes to reach the home of Muthamperumal.

Sitting on a charpai, an elderly man in his sixties is surrounded by baskets of pink and white nerium oleander (arali). He is busy finishing a garland.

His wife soon joins him, bearing a cup of coffee, and starts helping with the garland. As their fingers work magic, the flowers come to life like gemstones sparkling in the morning light.

Five rows of oleander glow like rubies, giving the garland its unique name, Manikkam Maalai or garland of rubies. “We use a special technique; you can hardly see the petals or the thread; the flowers are folded in such a way that they look like precious stones,” explains Muthamperumal.

Muthamperumal was six when he learnt the art from his father who learnt it from his grandfather. The art has been passed down for many generations now, and the family weaves the garlands for the deity in Padmanabhapuram Temple at Tiruvananthapuram. His young granddaughter quickly shows off her skill before running away to school.

This piece is little more than a foot long, but Muthamperumal has even woven garlands more than 12 feet long. Arranged in rows of five, seven or eleven, the design is first sketched on paper and then the flowers counted and arranged precisely before the fingers start knotting the thread. “It is art and science mixed together,” says Muthamperumal.

Working with the Crafts Council of Tamil Nadu, he has started teaching people the art of Manikkam Maalai. He was recently awarded by the Council for his contribution.

As we talk, his fingers continue to work and passion radiates from his eyes as he lovingly puts the finishing touches to the garlands. Soon, three of them will leave for the temple.

As we leave, I think of how much is packed into a small string of fragrant flowers that we often take for granted.

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