“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?” asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.
If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.
Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.
The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.
Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant and orange for carrots and mangos.
In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it is believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.
I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.
I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.
The volume of produce is staggering, yet somehow it seems to get sold. This is where the people of India procure their food. Not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.
As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be purchased by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.
Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.
I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told. “My sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India and the garland business is prolific.
They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.
I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.
When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”
The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers, one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.
Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen to the ground. Namajapam, or the repetition of holy names, should be done while plucking.
While constructing garlands the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base should be kept on a table but ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?
It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.
I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.
We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.
We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.
Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.
Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.
The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?
The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.
Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.
And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.
Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.
The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.
The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.