Thiruvananthapuram: With Kerala`s most colourful festival Thiru Onam just a couple of days away, prices of flowers for decorating homes with floral carpeting, an age-old custom of Malayalis to welcome their mythical King Mahabali, has shot up manifold.
These days, Kerala relies mostly on neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh for supply of truckloads of flowers to meet the festival demand.
The legend behind Thiru Onam is linked to `Asura` (demon) king Mahabali, under whose reign everyone lived in happiness and equality. Jealous of him the `Devas` (Gods) prevailed on Lord Vishnu to get him banished into the netherworld.
The Lord took the form of "Vamana," a small brahmin boy, and approached Mahabali and requested a land -- although only as much as he could cover with three paces.
Bali granted this boon. Vamana then grew to a huge size and, with his first pace, traversed all of Earth and underworld. With his second, he covered heaven. Admitting defeat and seeing that Vamana has no more room for his last step, Mahabali offered his head as a stepping-stone.
Bali was thus banished to the underworld. But before going down, he secured a boon from Lord Vishnu to visit his subjects every year on Thiru Onam day in `Chingam` month.
His annual visit is celebrated by Keralites who deck their front yards with floral carpets and partake a sumptuous feast.
Colourful flowers such as gomphrena (`Vadamalli` in local parlance), crossandra (Kanakambaram), marigold (jamanthi) and chrysanthemum (arali) are on high demand during the season.
Local flower merchants bring the flowers from towns like Thovala in Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu and Gundalpet in Karnataka, where flowers are cultivated on a commercial scale.
According to market sources, flower prices have been going
up every year as demand keeps increasing.
`Vadamalli` and `jamanthi` (red and orange coloured) are the costliest this season, said Unni, a wholesale floral merchant in the city.
"One kg of white `jamanthi` costs Rs 250 today. Price of `vadamulla` cost upto Rs 801 on some days. Yellow `jamanthi` fetches Rs 120 per kg, its orange variety costs Rs 100 per kg today," he said,
Thovala in Tamil Nadu, known as the floral bowl, is the main source of flowers in South Kerala, he said.
"But flowers like rose and white jamanthi mainly come from Bangalore. They are comparatively costlier than those coming from Thovala," Unni said.
The on-going Ganeshotsav in north India has also led to an increase in prices of flowers, he added.
In the past, children used to go around and get flowers to make floral carpets for 10 days prior to Thiru Onam day, which this year falls on September 9.
Local varieties of flowers are now very hard to come by as most land has been converted to fragmented housing plots or real estate property and paddy fields have practically vanished. This has forced people to depend on the market for flowers.
Padmanabha Pillai, a former school teacher recalled that in the past, every home used to have a variety of flowering plants in their backyards. Children would also go around and collect flowers from open spaces in the neighbourhood. "Now we have to depend on neighbouring states to lay floral carpets in front of our houses," he said.
Though flowers have become rare and costly, these days not only homes, but schools, colleges and offices are decorated with floral carpets as part of the community festivity.
In villages and towns, local cultural forums organize floral carpeting competitions.
Flower-decking is done in a variety of designs, mostly laid in circular layers using flowers of contrasting colours to make them attractive.
In some homes, the `tantrik` pattern known as "sarpakettu", depicting two or four intertwined serpents, is laid out, which requires several baskets of flowers and artistic skills.
Keeping in tune with changed times, secular designs like Kerala`s famous snake boat race and the national tricolour are also created with flowers.
In many Hindu homes, poojas are also peformed on the Thiru
Onam day before the feast.