We drove past dry arid lands, for a very long time. The scorching sun, the empty roads and the eerie stillness did not deter us. We were in search of the famous Madurai malli. The local guide, internet research and every villager whom we stopped to ask for directions said the same thing: keep going straight and you will see jasmine plants till as far as the eye can see. So, we drove in the scorching heat for miles, through the small village called ‘Nilakottai’ and could only see emptiness. Madurai and malli (jasmine) go hand in hand and this one flower defines the very essence of this temple city, often referred to as ‘Jasmine City’. With an international fan following, including fragrance barons, a single bud of malli dictates the whole city, from morning to night.

So, what makes the Madurai malli different from the jasmine found in other parts of India? This particular jasmine cultivated in this part of Tamil Nadu has thick petals and a very strong fragrance. Usually the stalk of a jasmine is thick and heavy and the petals are delicate. However, in this variety even the petals are heavy. So, the thick strands of jasmine that you find flower vendors selling at premium prices are usually the Madurai malli variety. The jasmine cultivated in Madurai and its surrounding taluks of Perungudi, Nilakottai, Uthappanaickanur and Ammainaickanur are collected early morning and transported to Chennai by 8 am and are safely kept in an ice box and flown to different countries across the globe; and this happens almost every day. The colour and the fragrance of the flower stays intact for two days and hence is a popular choice for overseas vendors.

The madurai malli gajra (jasmine flower garland) comes wrapped in a banana leaf & is often sold at the roadside down South. Women wear it either around a bun or tuck it into a plait; we visit Nilakottai, a small village in Tamil Nadu, to know more about the jasmine flower.

– The Indian Trumpet’s Debut Edition

Though, I personally know how to tie the flowers in one style (the simple knot), the Madurai malli can be tied together in a variety of styles. It is woven in six different forms, ‘uruttu kattu,’ ‘pattai katti,’ ‘kadhambam,’ ‘maalai’ and ‘thirumbipaar’ and with time it turns from greenish white to a milky white before drying out. It is usually in the evening that the fragrance emanates; there are women who buy jasmine garlands in the morning and save it for the evening to tuck them into their neatly plaited hair.

The best season for jasmine farms is from February to November when the flower is cultivated on vast stretches of land. We were on the jasmine trail in late December and we knew that these famous plantations had to be in full bloom. Just as we were about to give up, we decided to ask three villagers who were waiting at what looked like a bus stop. We expected them to tell us to keep going straight but they asked us to take the next right and go in. The lane they pointed at was narrow and if one vehicle went in another would have to wait on the main road. We turned in, only to find houses on either side. After a point, we saw vast empty land, and then we spotted it. At the furthest end, we saw a farmer tend to his jasmine plants. It seemed like a very small farm, yet, we were delighted to have found it. We parked the car and walked across the dry and heated red soil to meet this man.

Though I don’t recollect his name, I remember that he was excited to see us. In his small 1 ground property he had bunches of jasmine growing and in between them he had vegetable saplings. At three pm, they were not in bloom, but he went onto explain that jasmines bloom at night and by 6 am his family starts work on the farm. “We pluck the flowers, and once we have a certain quantity, I take in a large sack to the Nilakottai town market. Here we trade it and it’s always by the kg. Sometime, I also take it to the flower market near the Mattuthavani bus stand in Madurai. In the meantime, the women of the household continue plucking the flowers for the next batch,” he explained. Children are also a part of this process and they rise early and work on the farm, then head out to school. His children smile at us and are bewildered, wondering why this interest in a flower. On bare foot these children took us to another farm, where we saw vast stretches of jasmine. In some families, children are sent to school with a bag in hand and flower basket in another. After school gets over, they sit in the market selling these flowers. This kind of fragrance and size of jasmine produce is only possible from this city. It is superior in quality and it can be attributed mainly to the soil. There is a heavy presence of aromatic alkaloids jamone and alpha terpineol in the soil. The lateritic and red soils of Madurai district are rich in sulphur, which is the precursor of these alkaloids, hence the fine quality buds. Earlier this year, the Madurai malli got a Geographical Indications tag (GI tag). This tag certifies the product’s reputation completely based on its geographical origin or traditional method of manufacturing. Just like the Darjeeling tea or the Pochampalli sarees, the Madurai malli has created a unique space and demand for itself. When we drive back in the evening to the city centre we spot women wearing long strands of malli tucked into their plaited hair or wound around a bun. It is believed to be one of the oldest flowers cultivated by man for its mesmerising fragrance and is considered the plant of love because it has aphrodisiac qualities. In fact, South Indian men, after a hard days’ work, usually buy home a ‘mozham’ (roughly one-feet long) of jasmine flower wrapped in a banana leaf for their wives.

Author and cultural anthropologist Uma Kannan writes in her book ‘Madurai Malligai – Madurai and its Jasmine- A Celebration’, “When I arrived in Madurai after my marriage, the city seemed to revel in an abundance of jasmine. The only Indian Airlines flight to Chennai, which was known as the ‘Malli Special’ in the 1970s, would be loading baskets and baskets of Madurai malli.” She further explains in the book that sometimes there were more baskets of Madurai malli than passengers on the flight! With the new GI status, the city of Madurai is quite literally blooming. The flower market seems to be getting busier each morning, and prices of the jasmine fluctuate steadily, even during off season, but the demand for the Madurai malli only seems to increasing, cluster by cluster and thread by thread.

Image: K.Kirankumar

Keep blowing the Trumpet! This & many more stories await in the pages!