I write about flowers not as a botanist but as a person whose sensibilities have been conditioned by the different flowers sold at street corners in Chennai.
In Chennai, we wear just about any flower on our hairs. These flowers can be broadly classified into three categories. There are the flowers that are strung into strands or worn as clusters, and there are the large flowers that are worn singly. The third variety is a subset of the earlier two – these are the large flowers that are also strung together and worn on hairs.
Flowers Strung As Strands
Malli – Malli is a great hit. Everyone – young and old, irrespective of the background they hail from, wears it during all occasions. During the hot summer months malli blooms in abundance. The most popular variety of malli is the Madurai Malli; the arid plains of Madurai are a veritable growing place for these shrubs. This particular variety of malli is large and more fragrant than the common ones.
During summer months wonderful strands of densely strung mallis are available in aplenty. A mozham of malli during summer costs about three rupees and the flower seller offers four mozhams for ten rupees. The best strands of malli are available outside Nalli and Kumaran in T. Nagar, outside Kapaleshwar temple and near Luz corner in Mylapore.
Malli is available almost during most part of the year, though the best mallis are available during the hot summer months of April, May, June and July. During the other months they are expensive – we have to wrangle with the flower sellers to lower the price of the flowers that are not so exuberant and are strung very far apart. These are the times when malli looks sickly, the buds might not blossom, or the flowers are small without fragrance. Still the only flower we ask for is malli – “Malli erukka, poo-kara-amma.”
Malli is associated with all festivals in Chennai, starting from Vinaka Chathurthi in August, Navarathri in September/October, Deepavali in November, Pongal in January and Varusha pirappu in April. It is only during Varisha pirappu that the best malli is available; during other festivals we just about manage to get malli somehow.
Malli is best when it is worn in the evenings – that is the time when the buds open. If we are passionate about malli we have to follow its clock and not our own. I know many who put malli into plastic bags in the evenings and keep it in refrigerator. They take it out in the mornings and offer it to the gods or wear it on their hairs after the have their morning bath, just before going out for work. The mallis are dead by then, the stems shrink and the flowers fall away from the strand.
Mallis that are grown in home gardens are carefully cut along with the leaves. They are worn on the hair in clusters. The variety called the goondu malli commonly grown in gardens, is large; these have seven rows of petals and are as large as roses.
Jadi and Mullai Personally I classify jadi and mullai with malli, because it becomes very difficult for me to choose between malli, mullai and jadi, to wearon my hair. The fragrance of both mullai and jadi is as intoxicating as malli. Jadi is more common during the pleasant months of January and February, August and September, while mullai, like malli is a summer flower.
Jadi flowers are long and spiky, they appear dainty when they are still buds, and the ruby like translucence of the buds is striking. As they blossom jadi flowers become a blushed pink, which seems weak and sickly in comparison to the maroon streaked buds. The flowers are soft and it is like paradise to feel the sensation of the flowers near the skin while inhaling the fragrance. The life of jadi is short. It wilts and turns brown within a couple of hours.
Mullai is hardier than jadi. The flowers are pale yellow; sometimes they take the colour of yellowed cream that forms over stale milk. They are no nonsense flowers (not exuberant like malli or dreamy like jadi) – they are slim and sprightly. They are closed up as buds; they catch attention only after they blossom. They open out evenly and stay upright till they decide after long hours to die out. When the flowers dry out the cream curdles deeper and turns a cheese-like yellow – a colour opulent, but wasted on a dead flower – the way nature works!
Nithya malli – Nithya malli a flower that seems like a mix of mullai and jadi, grows on creepers. Every other home garden in Chennai has the creeper. Nithya malli has to be carefully picked from the plant, the pale yellow stem of the flowers snap if the gatherer is in haste. Then the flower cannot be strung into the strand, it has to be tucked deep into the plait so that we get up next morning carrying the lingering fragrance of the flower.
Nithya malli is called so because it is a non-fussy flower, blooms in abundance almost every day. The fragrance of the flower floats through the darkness from the gardens where these creepers grow. These flowers are not sold by flower sellers, for reasons that I can only conjecture – they are fragile flowers that cannot stand the journey from Koyambedu flower market to independent flower sellers. All the same those who grow this creeper in their garden make strands of these flowers and wear it in their hair. The pleasant smell stays on in the hair for days later.
Kattu malli – This variety of malli grows wild in the forests. They have no fragrance; they look like malli, a pearly white colour. They do not wilt away for a long time, and when they do, they turn a burnt brown in colour. Since it stays fresh for a long time, many favour it.
Kanakambaram – These are fragile flowers, red and orange hued, having translucent stems. The .red coloured variety is called as Delhi kanakambaram, red as a coral; the orange hued is the local one. It is the Delhi kanakambaram that is generally sold by flower sellers, the local kanakambaram is like the nithya malli – those who grow it in their garden loyally wear it on their hair.
Kanakambaram has no fragrance. They are available in the months of July, August and September. Children cherish these flowers as the colour of the flower appeals to them.
Samandhi – Samandhi is a variety of chrysanthemum, golden yellow in colour with a nondescript smell – we are so much taken in by the breathtaking colour that we do not mind that the flowers have a mundane smell.
Samandhi is considered the most auspi
cious flower to be offered to Gods. The price of samandhi is hiked during festival seasons. Large golden balls glow on the festival eve as women and men troupe to the flower sellers to buy the priced mozhams of samandhi.
Strands of samandhi adore the deities in homes; women tuck a small strand on their hair in hurry as they partake in the rituals of festivals. Spikes of yellow petals fall from these strands on the bronze or golden hued necks of women and litter the floors of their homes.
Kadambam – Kadambam is a mixture of malli, samandhi, sprigs of marjoram, davanam, marudani flowers, sampangi and sometimes thazhambu. I remember wearing the heavy strand on my hair. The strand of kadambam is heavy as sprigs of marjoram and davanam, the large samandhi and spiky petals of thazhambu lend weight to the strand.
Kabambam is also considered an auspicious flower as all sweet smelling flowers are offered to God. The confluence of various fragrances is deemed as a fitting offering to God. The different colours that constitute the strand of Kadambam are pleasing to the eyes.
December flowers – These flowers are named thus because they start blossoming in the month of December, and are found in aplenty during the months of January and February. The December flowers come in many hues – pale purple like the lavenders, deep purple like the egg plant, satin pink like the twilight sky, white like lily or striped purple like a child’s pajama. Children favour these gay coloured flowers and they wear the variety that matches with their dress.
Flowers Worn Singly Or As Strung Into Strands
Roses – We wear a variety of roses on our hair, singly, as clusters or as strung in strands. The most common one is paneer rose – the local variety of rose. These roses are pink in colour, this variety is seldom worn singly. They are strung into heavy strands. These are delicate flowers that emanate a very pleasant smell. Fresh ones have drops of dew on them. The petals of these flowers are picked and offered as udhiri poo (loose flowers) to gods.
The red roses are a variation of paneer rose, they too are native ones but red in colour. These, like the pink variety of paneer roses, are strung as strands or offered to gods as udhiri poo.
There are Bangalore roses, the sophisticated variety that arrive in different hues. These roses in blood red or yellow or saffron colours are worn singly on the hair, they are worn fashionably where the plait falls gracefully on the nape.
Dahlias – A flower that is worn singly is Dahlia. These are large flowers and they come in various colours – deep maroon, bright orange, sunshine yellow, eggplant purple. These flowers do not have any fragrance. Personally I feel they adorn a vase better than hair. Not many people feel the same; they love to wear this flower on their hairs.