A Floral Sutra

February 16, 2019

A photo walk through a rural, humble, unpretentious open-air flower market in the heart of south India – Madurai.

Aural-visual impressions that greet visitors: vendors and buyers haggling over prices in the local language – Tamil, spoken with a strong regional accent. Alleys of flower vendors and weavers seated behind heaps, sacks and baskets filled with flowers – not just the famed Jasmine (Madurai Malli) but Marigolds, Celosias, Crossandras, and Roses too. It is hard to imagine that this seemingly unorganized marketspace set in an agrarian landscape on the banks of river Vaigai is a leading exporter of beautiful, fragile and dainty things such as petals and blosoms.

The unalluring aesthetics of this market belies its role as a global player while presenting an opportunity to observe and capture the system of organization and activity in a labor-centric trade and industry. Human hands and eyes override machines and equipment. Verbal commitments to supply and meet timelines in different timezones overrule written contracts signed and enforced by law. The dependency on flower harvest, fidelity to ancestory, the persistent need to provide for a family and the lack of comparable options to make a livelihood in that region bolster diligence and work ethics.

That Jasmine flowers from Madurai have a GI tag and are legendary is well known to most Indians; still, it was eye-opening to be in the epicenter of flower trade that was both over-the-counter as well as global.

An hour spent in this market chatting with flower vendors and weavers left me with more than a dozen photos. The flowers of Madurai, particularly the Jasmines remind me of an aphorism that could be served as a Sutra – a floral sutra: Hot and uninviting terrains can cultivate products of timeless elegance and immense global appeal.


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