The little sparrow chirps away merrily as it hops on and hops off from one mound of marigolds to the other. It is soon joined by another bird as they call out to each other, perhaps sing duets, as they discover another small hillock of flowers, heaped with jasmines.
I follow them to see long garlands of dark pink roses huddled together, almost touching the ground. More heaps of roses – this time in shades of orange and red fill the eyes. I look around and it feels like an entire playground is filled with flowers here, giving out a heady fragrance.
I am in a little village called Thovalai near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, where flowers bring cheer to the locals here. In Thovalai flower market, every tiny shop greets you with a palette of colours filled with garlands of oranges and yellows, whites and pinks. I am in one of the biggest wholesale flower markets watching bargains strike early in the morning. The roses are getting packed, even as the morning dew has not left them, and the pretty white jasmines, referred to as “Pichchi Vellai”, looking fresh and innocent are selling like hot cakes here. Thovalai is a quintessential flower town, where several acres of gardens produce fresh flowers that are even exported today.
I am however searching amidst these colourful flowers for a family who has been weaving garlands for the deity in the Padmanabhapuram temple every single day of their lives over the last four generations. I cut across heaps of chrysanthemums and marigolds, jasmines and roses to walk through narrow lanes until I reach the home of Muthamperumal. Sitting on a charpai, an elderly man in his sixties is surrounded by baskets filled with pink and white nerium oleanders as he is busy finishing the garland for the deity. His two year old grandson has just woken up, while his five year old granddaughter is all ready for school in her pretty uniform.
Muthamperumal’s wife soon joins him, bringing him a cup of coffee as she starts helping him with the garland. The flowers are fresh and his fingers work magic on them as they look like gemstones sparkling in the morning light. Five rows of the nerium oleander glow like rubies, giving this type of garland a unique name – “Manikkam Maalai.“ or the garland of rubies. “There is a special technique here, see, 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 a six year old when he learnt the technique from his father who learnt it from his grandfather and the art has been passed on from generation to generation. His young granddaughter quickly shows off her skill before running away to school, while her younger brother watches them with curiosity.
This garland is little more than a foot long, but he has woven garlands which are more than even twelve feet in length. Arranged in rows of five or seven or eleven, the design is first sketched on paper and then the flowers are counted and arranged precisely before the fingers start working on the thread. “ It’s an art and a science mixed together, “ says Muthamperumal, who is now ensuring that this technique does not die with his family. Along with the Crafts Council of Tamil Nadu, he has started teaching people on the art of “Manikkam Maalai.” Recently he was even conferred an award by the Council for his skill as an artist and his contribution to the art.
As we talk, his fingers continue to work while the passion radiates in his eyes as he lovingly puts the finishing touches to the garlands. Soon three garlands will leave for Trivandrum and we are on our way to Tirunelveli. As we leave, I wonder how much is packed into a small garland of fragrant flowers as we often take simple arts and crafts like this for granted.
This article on Thovalai flower market was published in my column Inside Story in The Hindu .