One of the first impressions I got in India were flowers – a garland that was put around my neck to welcome me at a school for street children. A garland of orange flowers, beautifully woven along with tiny white jasmine blossoms. It stood in strong contrast to the surroundings: Worn down huts, dirty pathways, many times patched shirts at the clothes lines, a small school house with raw walls, old desks and dozens of kids squeezed into a little room. I remember feeling a little bad: These kids were so poor and with the little budget the school had they had bought the garland for me.
The next weeks I spent at the school teaching the kids, or let’s say I was there to answer their shy questions and tell them a little bit about the world. I was 17 years old by that time and lucky to extend my summer holidays for social work in India. Since this summer I have been very often to India, working, studying, teaching at a college and an institute, getting exposed to the really wealthy parts of society as well as to very poor areas.
Last time I took European photography tourists to my favourite spots in Rajasthan. All in all I have spent more than two years in India. And whenever I have been there, I visited flower markets and bought the one or other to put into my hair. At home in Germany I probably would not do so, but I think it is a beautiful tradition and easy to keep up in India.
Throughout many cultures flowers have deeper meanings than just their beauty and good smell. Maybe it is even universal to attach meaning to something, which stands out so beautifully in colour and shape.
Let’s look at some meanings attributed to flowers in India: Jasmine, on of the most common flowers on Indian flower markets, is used in worship, as decorations of doorways, statues and photos signifying elegance and simplicity, sensuality and modesty. Jasmine tea should reduce anxiety and stress. Further it is said to be Lord Vishnu’s favourite flower. The orange flower I first encountered is marigold, used to honour persons or gods. Its smell is said to repell insects and it should have medical qualities as well. Red hibiscus stands for the tongue of the fierceful goddess Kali. It is assumed to destroy enemies. Lotus is very popular as well. Gods are often represented with lotus flowers. The goddess of wealth and beauty, Lakshmi, is portrayed sitting on a rose coloured lotus, whereas the goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, is placed on a white one. The lotus stands for purity, as it grows in muddy water but never gets dirty itself. Further it symbolizes triumph, fertility and wealth.
These flowers are integrated in everyday life as well as being part of special occasions. In Hindu weddings each step is accompanied with certain flowers. In former times a girl at an marriageable age would follow the tradition of Swayamvar, choosing her partner out of a group of suitors by putting a flower garland around his neck.
Statues of gods and of political leaders will be adorned with flowers, if the character is said to have a favourite flower it is auspicious to use primarily this one. Betel and neem leaves are plaited along with flowers after a food offering as these leaves support the digestion. The saying “Guest is God” is deeply rooted in the culture, so that guests are honoured with garlands such as gods. And there is one more aspect special to flowers in India: They are not exclusively used by Hindus; Muslims, Christians and other groups share the love for flowers – e.g. among Muslim scholars, the healing effects of roses are praised and for Christians they symbolize the virgin Mary.
Back to my trip: This summer I have been mainly in the North of India. It was a funny experience when walking over a flower market in Jaipur, and basically every flower vendor wanted to gift a flower to me. The first I put in my ponytail, but soon there was no space any more and I had to adorn my cameras and my camera bag. As usual, people were happy when I asked them if they like to be in my picture, I just had to wait for some moments until they proceeded with their work to capture the spirit of the place without too much posing.
The difficulty lies in the chaos: Yes, it is all very colourful, kind of picturesque, but it turns out to be rather difficult to find a clear frame for the picture. To the outsider it seems crowded and messy and further, looking foreign and carrying cameras, one is very eye-catching. I would suggest to pause for a while just observing what is going on. After some time people get used to the camera-carrying foreigner and continue their work. Apart from taking pictures it is awesome to discover the patterns in the chaos. If you have time, you should try to come back to the same spot several days in a row. You will notice, how everyday life is structured, what is done at which time etc. This actually is an anthropological method, observing, noticing repetitive patterns, and eventually taking part in the process. I asked one of the guys if he would teach me how to make a garland – unfortunately, I turned out to not be very talented…
This was my Northern Indian trip this year. But as my first steps on the Indian subcontinent had been in the South, as I spent the longest time there studying at a college in the Southern metropolis Chennai, I decided not just to stay in the North but to take also a little excursion southwards. The mega city Bangalore was the place where I usually went, it is famous for its pleasant climate and for nice shopping areas. When studying in Chennai going there had always been like a little holiday, getting away from my beloved, but dusty and hot “home city.” This time it was different: The weather was rainy, rather cold, and as I had spent most of my money already, so that there weren’t any great opportunities for extensive shopping trips. I came with high expectations and felt a bit disappointed. So I decided to discover new areas of the city – as it is a city of some million inhabitants it should not be too difficult to get new impressions. I decided to go to the city market where I had never been before. And yes, my enterprising spirit came back immediately. The market was housed in a huge concrete building. As expected, it was crowded. One of the favourite items for sale were flowers.
There it was, the feeling of sharp contrast I encountered when I first came to India: These beautiful, odorant flowers in this quite ugly, slightly stinky place. The perspective from the upper floor gave me the opportunity to watch the organized chaos for a while without being too visible, without disturbing the scene. I used a super wide angle lense, which let to adventurous posings leaning far over the balustrade, hoping neither me, nor my camera would fall down. There were various atria, one place was the real market hall, other places were used to sit down and thread flowers on woolen strings to make these beautiful garlands, which I had encountered right from the beginning of my Indian story. Later, when I went downstairs, I had the opportunity to talk to the flower sellers for a while. “It is a good job,” one of them said, “isn’t it much better to sort and thread flowers than anything else?”