Whether you know it as Calcutta, or Kolkata, this city seduces with sheer force of personality. It’s not somewhere many people choose to holiday but if you get a chance, take it and go – immerse yourself in one of the most culturally rich and diverse cities in India. I love it and revel in the marvels around every corner – a tiny street circus; the poignant South Street Cemetery, full of youthful colonists packed into monumental tombs; a street of clay- figure artists, each with his own special skill. Holding its own in this city of secret wonders is the fabulous Mullick Ghat Flower Market – a Festival of blooming beauties where the head-line act is undeniably – The Marigolds.
You will find the Flower Market along a stretch of the Hooghly River near the famous Howrah Bridge, (in fact, the foliage specialists use the beach as their sorting bay). There are just two things I need to tell you – make sure you visit, and do it in sensible closed shoes. This is a wholesale market where nearly 2000 sellers gather to do business from 3am onward. Like any busy place there is debris and slosh which grows throughout the day – remember this is reputed to be the biggest in India, indeed in the whole of Asia. If you’re expecting to see something like you would in Covent Garden, don’t; this is India, where flowers are an essential part of everyday life; of spiritual well-being, hospitality and celebration. I was utterly swept away with the drama of this place. There are no buckets full of willowy stems, just sacks and sacks of flower heads and plump, fresh garlands of intense colour. And, oh my goodness, if you like marigolds you will be in heaven.
I really enjoy the grating, green, peppery and distinctive scent of marigolds. I grow them in my garden and have fond childhood memories of them. In India they are known as Genda – possibly after the Gonda tribe in Chhattisgarh, where the flower is cultivated. To see ropes of tightly packed flower heads, fat and fulsome, demanding, ‘aren’t we gorgeous?’ in their arresting colours, ranging from palest yellow, through sulphur, saffron and sunshine, to russet and ruby – is thrilling. They are so much part of the national story that you would think they are a native plant – but they’re not. They were brought to India by Christian Portuguese who discovered them in Central America in the sixteenth century. The name is said to derive from ‘Mary’s Gold’, because people left these bright orange flowers on altars dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Like the chilli, which is also an import, Indians have made it their own.
What happens to all these splendid ropes of flowers? Indians present garlands as a sign of honour and respect. I drew gasps once when I bought one for myself and put it on – a real faux pas. Marigold garlands are a traditional offering to the gods, especially Vishnu and Laxmi, the ideal couple, which is why they are an important symbol at weddings. In this context they represent divine blessing and the brightness of the sun, which brings positive energy for the couple. People also use them to decorate the entrance of their home or a celebration venue – a symbolic gesture but also practical as marigolds repel insects very effectively. Visitors will often be greeted with a garland, usually in orange and yellow marigolds, with a little jasmine added for scent. Most Indians will be well aware of the language of flowers with white representing peace and purity, yellow the colour of sanctity, saffron being auspicious and sacred, and orange meaning courage and sacrifice (which is why it is on the Indian national flag). But the market isn’t just about Marigolds.
Flowers are very important in Hindu ritual. Jasmine has been mentioned in Hindu scripture since the time of the Vedas and is used in worship, weddings statues, doorways and kholams (a kind of geometric floor decoration often using rice and flowers). It is valued for its pure white colour and for its heavenly scent. Single blooms were on sale by the sack full, in skeins and in beautifully crafted nets destined for bridal beds. I stuck my head down by a large bag stuffed to the gunwales and nearly fainted with sensory overload. Can you imagine the luxury of a wonderfully perfumed bedroom veiled in living blossom? I rather assumed, in a sexist way I suppose, that they would be made up by the sensitive hands of a woman. I was wrong – there are no women to be seen in this patchwork of floral workshops, just men, mainly young men, either concentrating on their work or smiling as they create someone’s dream. Hibiscus is another important flower. It brings wealth and destroys enemies and is the symbol of the goddess Kali, being the red colour of her tongue. And lovely lotus Nelumbo nucifera, symbol of triumph, fertility and wealth. It is an aquatic plant rooted in mud but floating on water without becoming muddy and, it is taught, likewise, Hinduism shows how one should live in the world without attachment to your surroundings.
The market pretty much lines a single thoroughfare and pools at the foot of the Howrah Bridge but there are little spurs reaching down toward the river with stalls and a semi-covered area which sell slightly more specialised wares. Hidden in a blue plastic tent, a group of young men entwine red and white roses in a pillar of romance. Here, as elsewhere in the world, a red rose is the symbol of passionate love – white ones symbolise charm and grace, while pink is the colour of happiness. Notice the pointy arrangement too – an exotic variation on the Constance Spry triangle, which I notice is all the rage in Kolkata. There are other novelties too; circlets are finding favour, perhaps because they are cheaper but still effective? And less traditional varieties too – I took the photo but I can’t think what these pale blue buds are. I have a feeling they may be orchids, which I am told are growing in popularity with modern brides.
There comes a point where the market obviously ends but shapely doorways allow glimpses of the river and another world of activity beyond. I was with family friend and cultural guide extraordinaire, Bomti Iyengar, who I followed through an opening onto the beach and into a beautiful heritage building, created around 1890 as a place for privileged women to change and relax when bathing in the sacred river. The Zenana Bathing Ghat is there for anyone to wander into, which is both a delight and a worry for those concerned with preserving some of Kolkata’s historic buildings. Inside, dividing walls lend privacy to the bathers, while pretty tiles depicting roses must have given a garden-party air. Hopefully, someone will fund a restoration project because, as the photo below taken in 1944 by Glenn S Hensley shows, it is a splendid piece of architecture. Bomti also pointed out a caged wrestling ring, famed for its bouts of Pehlwani Indian wrestling and its legendary teacher Gobar Guha, who has featured in many Hollywood films including Gladiator. We turn from the river, the water’s edge fringed with the bright orange of escaped petals, and climb the stairs up to the bridge for a view down on the fantastic market. It is a place of commerce and hard headed deals while also being a place where colour, form, scent, beauty and sensibility jostle in the crowd. It is simply unforgettable.
Mullick Ghat Flower Market, P222 Strand Bank Road, Kolkata, West Bengal 700001, India
Bomti Iyengar is the perfect companion for anyone who would like to experience the city and its treasures with a knowledgeable Kolkattan. He also leads gastronomic tours which end with a home cooked Bengali lunch in his Heritage apartment on historical Chowringhee. Getting there is a thrilling adventure in itself – I won’t spoil the surprise, and afterwards there is always the chance that Bomti will talk about his favourite emerging contemporary artists.
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