CHENNAI: Legend has it that in Ramayana, Rama instructed Lakshmana to put a garland made of gaja pushpi flower around Sugriva’s neck to distinguish him from Vali. It would be no exaggeration to attribute the death of the invincible Vali to flowers. While today the use of flowers may be limited to weddings and worship, aesthetics and ornamentation, they had far more vital roles in war and victory in the era of Tamil dynasties. In her presentation for Inner Wheel Club of Madras and Rotary Agaram, historian Meenakshi Devaraj brought out their significance in ancient Tamil literature.
Transporting us to the Sangam era, Devaraj shed light on how flowers have been instrumental in determining victory in a war. Perhaps, that’s why every dynasty had its own royal flower and employed it as a strategy to identify its fellow members on the field. “The Pandyas had veppam poo (hence the name vembens), Cholas adorned themselves with aathi, Cheras with ponthai and Pallavas with thondai (Thondaimandalam could’ve come from that).”
Further explaining the convention of associating flowers with various stages of war, she highlighted, “The initiation of war commences with cattle raids (anirai kavarthal). Those raiding the cattle will wear the vetchi flowers around them and those protecting the cattle would wear karanthai. When a dynasty plans to expand its kingdom, the invaders wear vanji flowers and defenders wear kanchi. When a fort is under threat, the attackers wear uzhinai flowers and the defenders, nochi. Finally, when the big fight is about to take place, then thumbai can be seen. Vaagai is used to denote victory.”
While malar and poo are commonly used to denote flowers in Tamil, Devaraj explained the many terms that referred to flowers in literature. Depending on their stage of blossoming, they were called nanai (bud initiation stage), arumbu (when bud comes up), mugai (the bud starts to show its face), pothu (petals start spacing out and initiate to blossom), malar (full bloom with petals separated from each other), alar (petals start drooping down), vee (flowers get separated from the tree) and semmal (dried up and get old).
“Flowers were referred to with family names such as kottu poo (flowers grown in big trees), kodi poo (creepers), nila poo (normal plants that grow on land) and neer poo (lily or lotus). Even landscapes were named by flowers — kurinji (mountainous regions), mullai (forest land), marutham (agricultural land), neithal (seashore) and paalai (dryland).”
Flowers have always been a symbol of beauty and used in abundance for aesthetic purposes. The most common of them was as garlands for deities. The process of selecting flowers was called ainthu thoduthal. The choice and length of flowers determined the type of garland. “Thongal is the long garland, thaar resembles Aandal garland where the ends are not tied and kanni is like a tiara worn around the head. Temples even had poothiru mandapams where garlands were made, often by Devaradiyars (temple dancers),” she noted.
Besides this, gods also had their favourite flowers. “Lord Shiva is associated with kondrai, Vishnu with aambal, Ganesha with arukkam, Muruga with kadambu, Buddha and goddess Lakshmi with pink lotus, goddess Saraswati with white lotus and Jain with ashoka,” explained Devaraj. Lord Kamadeva’s five arrows (ainganai) were also made out of flowers. Even today, poo parikkum thiruvizha, where flowers are used to adorn kolams, is celebrated in different parts of Tamil Nadu.
Blooms with purpose
There are mentions of specific kinds of flowers used to denote the beauty of women in Tamil literature. “Thamarai would be used to appreciate facial features, vazhai poo for the beauty of hair, eyes would be compared to kuvalai, ears to kayam, nose to el poo, lips to ilava, teeth to mullai and fingers to kanthal. Once a girl attains puberty, the phase is referred to as pooppu nal,” said Devaraj.
Even back then, flowers were used in beauty care. Punnai, puli naga kondrai, shenbagam, magizham and lotus were used to nourish the skin. “There are over 99 flowers mentioned in Kurinji Paattu. But, today, our knowledge is restricted to roses, tulips and a select few varieties. We need to appreciate the diversity and preserve these indigenous species by planting them in our gardens,” concluded Devaraj.