garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
In the two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana, Hanuman the monkey god encourages a group of bears to join him in a Wine Forest. Soon the animals are drunk, “a mob of bears bristly with glee, … singing and imitating birds and thumping their feet on the ground.” When challenged by the guard in the Forest, Hanuman himself “whizzed out of the bushes. He had orange-petaled flowers and red berries, vines and blue-green leaves and buds stuck all over his white fur. He looked like Spring running lightly all over the world.”
Flowers such as those stuck to the monkey god’s fur have for millennia played a highly significant role in Indian life – used for festivals, rituals, weddings, temple offerings and all sorts of other religious and cultural displays. Above is a 2011 recreation of the Ramayana in Rajasthan, for instance, complete with flowers and feathers and the little red face of Hanuman to the left.
Last week we visited the flower market in Kolkata, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. It was the day after Holi, the festival of colours, when vast amounts of flowers are ground into powder to colour water and pastes that people apply to each other in a mad, joyous celebration of Spring and love. So we feared the flower farmers may have rather exhausted their supplies and, indeed, were told that the market was smaller and more subdued than usual.
Yet it was still a jostling, hectic mass of sellers. We squeezed unheeded between and among them, surrounded by streamers and colours and haggling. Although this is a wholesale market, it still felt fairly small-scale and personal. Indeed it is only in the past two decades or so that flowers have really been grown commercially in India.
West Bengal may be the country’s largest producer of cut flowers (those sold with their stems, for bouquets), but their presence in the market was still dwarfed by the amount of traditional loose flowers on sale – bags and boxes of flower buds and flower heads of marigold, chrysanthemum, tuberose and hibiscus. It is these that are used as hair decorations and made up into countless garlands and streamers for all those festivals and celebrations.
Our time in India is coming to an end, and this mix of colour and ritual is one of the things we shall miss most, that sense of it being always like Spring running lightly all over the world.