Flowers of various kinds and hues have many uses in our everyday life. They are used in abundance at all celebrations, religious functions and political gatherings though their use by individuals (read women) to decorate the plait of hair and add fragrance all around has sharply shrunk especially in urban Tamil homes. No pooja is complete without the use of strands or garlands of flowers and Udhiri Pookkal (loose flowers). Regardless of the affluence of a family, flowers are procured even at enormous prices to decorate the mandapam or the facade or the background at marriages. In spite of artificial alternatives, natural flowers have a permanent place on such occasions.
The art of stranding flowers was once an essential skill imparted by the mother or sisters to young girls. A variety of flowers in the neighbourhood would be collected by men, women and children early morning and the beautiful creations of nature used to be turned into lovely thick garlands or lengthy strands, with deft hands to adorn portraits of deities or ancestors.
At sunset, the flower vendor would be at the doorstep with two or three varieties of stranded flowers and even loose flowers like roses. Special flowers are sold for specific festivals. The stranded flowers worn by women used to emanate a pleasant aroma. Now the use of such stranded flowers is on the wane in line with changing preferences of hairdo, attire and lifestyle. The sweet smell of flowers is being replaced with synthetic deodorants and perfumes. The cosmetics industry has come up with endless varieties of chemical substances though some of them are purported to have natural ingredients. Now, there are perfumes exclusively for men also.
At the entrance to temples and places of tourist interest like the beach we can still find competing flower vendors, having a semi-permanent structure and just a broad circular basket to keep spherical bundles of floral strands. Some have a strong preference for thick short strands of flowers like jasmine. In Madurai, for example, jasmine strands are sold by the number and the way the counting is done is bound to astonish the first-time visitor. In most places the strands of flowers of the jasmine family are sold by cubit. The price dips as night advances because the vendor wants to convert the stock into cash.
When I was young, our regular flower vendor used to send small boys or girls to sell the product aiming to supply less quantity because the measurement of cubit (muzham) would be smaller when done by smaller ones. (The cubit is an ancient unit based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger). The vendors show their sleight of hand in measuring the flowers in various ways like bending the forearm or the middle finger when someone buys several cubits. One is easily tricked and trapped. Some discerning customers ask for the measurement to be done only by the buyer.
There is a business even in used, thrown away, discarded or wasted flowers. They are crushed to extract some scent or even make an edible product like Gulkand from dried rose petals.