If you have ever been to India you will recall the warm but most of all floral welcome that you receive upon arrival. Often a beautiful flower garland is laid around your neck and you are right at home, part of the fold! But what does it really mean, what is the significance of flowers in India and its culture of adornment?
First, we need to go back a little. The history and culture of adornment in India goes back millennia. Not only that, the shapes, forms, symbolism and design has also been part of this culture from time immortal. Starting with plant materials and thus flowers have always been used for personal adornment or rituals. The appeal of flowers has made them the most acceptable offering to both the feared and revered ancestors, spirits and gods. Encouraging this usage stems from the idea that the flower represents the symbol of creation and regeneration.
People have always strung flowerheads to make head, neck, wrist and other ornaments composed of flowers. The most popular, without a doubt is the Mala (North India) or Malai (South India), the flower garland, given as a token of respect and appreciation.
As flowers are perishable it is no surprise that the flower motif has inspired jewellery design from early on. One of the most recognizable examples is the so-called Chamkapali design in the form of a necklace. The necklace consists of identically strung units representing the bud of the Champaflower. The buds are strung as a garland, which is the inspiration of the design for this style of necklace.
Based on the same idea of flowers perishing we also see designs of ear ornaments influenced by the flower motif. Inspired by the idea of a single flower placed in the earlobe comes the Hindi term ‘Karnphul’ (Karn = ear and Phul = flower). The karnphul is the universal shape of a (flat) flower form sitting on the earlobe and held in place by a stud, representing the stem of the flower.
Perhaps the most recognisable representation of flower motifs in Indian jewellery is found in enamel design. Various styles of enamel design indicate the region where a piece has been made. The most famous, known for its refined craftmanship, is Jaipur in Rajasthan. Designs in bright red and deep greens, displaying the lotus or poppy flower are seen. The red enamel 5-petal flower design, typical for the Bikaner region of Rajasthan. Intricate design techniques and use of colour can also be found in Varanasi (Benaris). In typical pink enamel, or gulabi meena (gulabi = pink, meena = enamel) for Varanasi we see detailed designs of poppy flowers on a white opaque background.
The Mughals legendary love of the arts & crafts resulted in thriving workshops and highly skilled craftsmen or meenakari (enameller). Notably the flower motif in enamel design as part of the representation, according to Islamic precepts, of athe celestial garden, filled with all manner of flora and fauna. The unique combination of gems, precious stones and enamel design became the quintessential symbol of the Mughals Paradise on earth.
Contributing author: Marie Claire van Schooten–van Gelder
Cultural marketeer & consultant – Social entrepreneur – @marieclairevg