Are garlands and flowers losing their glory? | Daily News

Are garlands and flowers losing their glory?

With modern conveniences overtaking our lifestyles in Colombo and other major towns, flowers and garlands seem to be going out of vogue

There is something very refreshing about fresh flowers. They wield their magic over our senses. This is why the famous writer Ralph Emerson once said the earth smiles with flowers. Flowers have been used in sacred worship for centuries, by all religions. They are piously offered to a deity in the hope of inducing divine blessings. With modern conveniences overtaking our lifestyle in Colombo and other major towns, flowers and garlands seem to be going out of vogue. During the long Covid prevention curfew the garland vendors were deeply affected. As Hindu kovils and Buddhist temples were closed there were no devotees. Amidst the modern high-rise buildings in Colombo one area in Pettah sustains this beautiful tradition associated with flowers. As you walk along Kathiresan Street you can take the parallel road ofSea Street, an area with its gold jewellery shops with Tamil songs blaring from the radio. Business is not brisk like before. Nearing the topmost end of this road is the KathiresanKovil.

Along this area I was able to witness the skill of men and women, patiently making garlands with fresh flowers. For more than 50 years this area has been the domain of garlands in Colombo, used for every religious and social event of all communities.

I spotted an older man who smiled at me. Vairawanathan was seated on a wooden stool, his eyes gazing on the thread that binds the garland. He looked up and quoted his prices. I told him I am not buying any garlands today. We began to talk, and he said “I have been here for 38 years, making garlands which devotees take to worship at this kovil and other kovils around the area. Today, we still manage to get our fresh flowers, but it is not easy.” He pointed at the wild Jasmine flowers which are the common choice, and takes five minutes to weave and are sold at around Rs. 150 each. Vairawanathan explained, “Each garland has a purpose in terms of worship, and is affiliated with various Hindu festivals. See this green Thulasi leaves, the garlands made of this are offered to Vishnu. The best quality Thulasi comes from as far as Anuradhapura. At times, we are very busy, when we have prior orders for wedding garlands, the minimum price of which is Rs. 500 and varies as per the customer’s choice. Over the past three years the trend of some customers has shifted to artificial flower garlands.”

Vairawanathan, a resident of Hatton, has spent many years making garlands, the intense focus of which has resulted in a mild squint in his left eye. With the onset of Covid-19 and delays in transport, getting fresh flowers from the green hills is a challenge, he says.

Adjacent to this garland stall is another young man, probably in his early 20s. Vishvanath had just finished making some large garlands which are suspended on a hook. The garlands seem to match his height. He explained, “These Jasmine garlands are used to decorate kovils and also the manawara - the pedestal where Hindu couples get married. The wedding garlands are a key element in Hindu weddings and known as the varmala – garland for the groom. During bygone days the exchange of garlands was perhaps more important that gold rings or chains. It takes a longer time to make these jasmine streamers.”

I walked back passing the kovil entrance, where a pooja is in progress. On the other side a bearded man is busy at work. He is Muthukumaran, the senior most garland maker who has been in business for 50 years. His fingernails are stained from the natural dyes of the flowers. He greeted me and said, “I came from Kandy when I was just eight years old.Colombo was a very different city those days. I learnt my craft here, and have no regrets. I feel I am helping people in their act of sacred worship. Our garlands make them happy as they offer it to the gods. On Fridays we are very busy. Many devotees come to the kovil.”

The amiable man continues to make a garland as he talked. He pointed to a bunch of thin needle-like grass and explained, “You may not have seen this? Well this is known as arugampullu (a kind of grass) and is used for specific forms of worship. The best quality comes from the Puttalam area. Some now buy artificial garlands, but we feel, fresh garlands have a special aura. The devotees have a choice, certain forms of tradition must be maintained don’t you think?”

Walking via Andival Street, we approach a line of six shops selling artificial garlands, bursting in beautiful colours. However, there were no customers. The vendors began to offer discounts. One salesman said, “These garlands are from India. As you know there many kovils there of great prominence. We don’t compete with the natural garlandmakers, but we offer the devotees a choice.” To me the artificial garlands have no essence and are certainly void of beautiful fragrance.

These shops sell the famous urutharasaimallai– a chain made with wooden beads, often used by meditating sages and pious hermits in India. Some wear it for various spiritual beliefs and others as an outward sign of attaining a higher realm of spiritual liberation. Thus, a mix of natural and artificial garlands adorns this area down Sea Street. But the garland making skill is a dying craft, at least in Colombo. Though garlands are not used widely in Buddhist worship, baskets of jasmine and lotus flowers are piously offered at all temples. It is common to see young and old women selling fresh flowers. These humble vendors too lost their income due to Covid-19, but are seen making some sales these days. I saw a few female vendors near the Bellanwila Temple and the magnificent Kalutara Bodhi.

Where weddings are concerned, with all the intense fashions that are trending, fresh flowers are taking their role in a more artistic sense moving from their traditional value to be a “glam accompaniment” that enhances the appeal of the wedding album. Wedding flowers is a lucrative business. On a solemn note, flowers are losing their place at funerals. One friend opined that flower wreaths are very costly. Again, the new trend seems to be handing the grieving family member or friend a smaller (and cheaper) bouquet. Valentine’s Day always sees an increase in flowers. Again, the modern females would rather prefer the gift of an I-phone than some red roses, which would diminish the charm of good old Cupid. Be that as it may, fresh flowers and garlands are slowly losing their appeal and charm in a divine sense.