The Fragrance Of Thoonga Nagaram

The jasmine vendors of Madurai face an uncertain future.


The closely woven Madurai Malli is an attraction for all.

Sowmya Raju

Madurai (Tamil Nadu): Walking into the Madurai jasmine market presents a treat for your eyes, ears, and nose - there are different varieties of roses, endless heaps of jasmine, the noise of the buyers and sellers, and the aromatic fragrance of jasmine filling the market.

Madurai Malli (Madurai Jasmine) is one of the most popular flowers exported from south India. Though the fertile soil and the cultivation techniques of the districts like Nagercoil, Usilampatti, Dindigul, Vethalagundu play a major role in the cultivation of jasmine, what makes Madurai Malli special is the way the florets are woven together. “There is a way we weave the flowers together. It is an art that most of us start to learn even before we learn to walk. Years of practice and techniques are what make Madurai Malli so special,” said Pandi, 40, a jasmine seller.

“In the past, a few professions were restricted to the members of a particular caste. Similarly, jasmine weaving is an art form. Not anyone can be a 'jasmine weaver'. It demands great passion and hard work,” said Rani, another seller of this fragrant flower.

The jasmine sellers of Madurai buy large quantities of the flower every day at dawn and sit together to weave the bunches. “This is one of the best parts of my day as I begin it by talking to people. Those few hours are just filled with happiness and laughter," said a vendor. These jasmine flowers that are bought from the nearby districts will not lose their fragrance for the next two days, whereas jasmine imported from Karnataka, called the ‘Bangalore jasmine’ loses its fragrance by the time it reaches Madurai.

“The wedding season is one of the most beautiful and profitable seasons for us. We have maximum sales during this time. This period is not just about making a profit; it is about how a small part we played makes someone’s special day even more special,” said a wholesale flower vendor.

The wedding season is also the time in Madurai when the jasmine harvest is scarce. Since flowers cannot be stored for long, there is a huge demand and decrease in the supply, leading to an increase in the prices of the flowers. Jasmine trade contributes to the revenue of the city.

During wedding months, the jasmine trade faces inflation, which in turn affects the economy of the city. “Wedding seasons are the most crucial for us. It breaks our hearts when we have to send back several hopeful fathers who come in looking to make their daughter’s wedding day more colourful,” said Nithya Ramani, jasmine seller.

School children helping their families keeping the art alive.

The struggles

“I learned to weave jasmine during the recent series of lockdowns so that I could help my family,” said Dinesh, a student of class 8. “I want to help my family, but my family wants me to study and become a doctor. So, I go to school and help my family’s jasmine business after I come back from school. I will not let go of this 'artform' wherever I go,” he added.

Although most people move out of the city in search of a better future, they always come back to their family’s jasmine business. They are thus hopeful of keeping the art of weaving jasmine alive for a long time.

Like every other person who depends on their daily earnings for survival, jasmine vendors of Madurai are also among the most affected. They had limited means of income in the last two years and with huge families to feed, most of them had to take loans at a high interest from money-lenders and are in the process of repaying their debts.

Other than the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent remodelling and reconstruction of the Periyar Bus Stand in Madurai has badly hit not just jasmine vendors, but also other street vendors. Previously a number of sellers used to do their business inside the bus stand but after the reconstruction, they are not allowed to do business inside the bus stop. “The government is building us a shopping complex. But that will take another three years to be fully ready. We have around 500 fruits, vegetables, and flower vendors here, which means it is almost 1500 people. The futures of these people are now uncertain because we are not allowed to sell our goods inside the bus stand or on the nearby roads,” said Shiva, the secretary of the Anna Vayabarigal Sangam (sellers cooperative).

The vendors in Madurai have already suffered considerably owing to the pandemic and the ongoing construction on the market has added to their misery as the project will take two more years to complete. Until then, their future seems to be uncertain.

A happy jasmine seller showing off her skill.

All photos taken by Sowmya Raju (PG '22)

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