It was early morning when we cruised through the Shenkottai-Madurai highway and reached Puliyankudi junction. Half a kilometer drive from here will take you to State Highway 76 and it is yet another 16 kilometer to Sankaran Kovil. And as you take the turn to Sankaran Kovil, you will see farms with flowers being harvested on either side.
The day was just beginning to break. Mari Amman, clad in a stitched-together checkered lungi, was plucking jasmine buds and putting them into his lap. Malli, grieving over the scarcity of rain, was transferring the jasmine buds she has collected in her sari to a basket. Annamalai was nipping cockscomb flowers with a knife and hoarding it in a sack. Annamalai narrated the story of marigold flower plot, which was abandoned for the goats to feed as the prices were too low to afford a harvest. A muster of peacocks scampered across the fields, screaming and hooting. As we passed through the level cross adjacent to the Sankaran Kovil railway station we could see the dome of the ancient temple that lends the land the name.
History says that this temple was constructed during the reign of Thirumala Naikan, who ruled Pandya kingdom. Two and three storied houses stood at either side of the road. Pick up vans, carrying flowers to Kerala, waited for their turn to cruise through roads etched with designs on rice flour (kolam).
This is Sankaran Kovil, the eternal flower pot that functions all through the year without a break. This place is the major source of flowers used by Keralites for decorating pookalams during Onam season and after.
Sankaran Kovil venerates three deities: Sankara Narayana Swami, Gomathi Ammal and Sankara Lingam. The air in the road was filled with the blended fragrance of jasmine, Mexican marigold, chrysanthemum, rose and tube rose. Small time shops sold idols of serpent, coconuts and pooja articles. Teapots in the tiny tea shops brim with steaming tea. Flower vendors were talking about the prices they got out of sales. Except for those who came for adoration in the temple, every face there reflected their indelible relationship with flowers.
8 am. Old time mopeds - TVS 50, nicknamed as ‘flower vehicles’, began arriving one after another. Plastic sacks filled with marigolds, Chrysanthemum and myrtle hung down with weight over the carriers and foot rest. Jasmines, roses and tube roses were hung upon the handle bar. Plastic covers were filled with oleander blossoms. The historic flower market is a hall built in granite on the left side of the east facing temple. Hundreds of tables selling flowers were arrayed in five rows. Each shop was managed by a group of four men.
There were two kinds of weighing machines to weigh the flowers. One is a spring balance, capable of weighing about a 100 kg; hung on steel pipes fixed horizontally beneath the roof of the building. Smaller machines are used to weigh jasmine, lotus and firecracker flowers. You can weigh up to 400 grams at a go, and if there was more, the method was continued.
Chrysanthemum, cockscomb and crysanthus that are filled in plastic sacks are not weighed on the balance. These flowers are sold as per the quantity that could be held in both the hands. The seller gathers handful of flowers. The merchants claim that ‘one time handful’ (which they call ‘ida’) will have flowers equivalent to 2 kg. Once the weighed flowers are removed from the table, one fellow will wipe the table with a wet piece of cloth.
At intervals, one of them will announce aloud the price list of the flowers for the customers to hear. Another one is assigned with the task of noting down the accounts on a piece of paper and handing it over to the farmers. He will also write down the names of the customers who buy the flowers. The exact price of the flowers cannot be calculated at this point. Most often, the price gets stabilized only at the midpoint of the sale. Those who are in urgent need must pay the full amount. Rest of the deals are settled at weekends.
Generally, purchases are done by agents on behalf of big traders. As soon as the deal is done, the flowers are immediately transferred by means of head-load or hand barrows to the pickup vans parked outside the way of a procession. Other deals are between the traders. Agent’s commission and other deals will be settled at a later occasion.
By 12 noon, the verve of the sale would slowly tone down. The sale points will be left empty. Most ‘flower carrying vehicles’ would have left for Kerala. Those coming from Ambasamudram, Kalakkad and Sharma Devi with banana fibre used to strap the flowers will transfer the unsold flower bunches to the carts. Thus ends a day at one of the most prominent flower markets in South India.