The flowers in our hearts
The Sunday Nation June 22, 2014 1:00 am
Cultivated for centuries, Thailand’s floral culture is perfumed with profound meaning
“Thai flower culture is believed to be older than that, but there’s no written record,” says Sakul, a former engineer. “Flower arrangement and other floral arts were practised among women of the royal court. They weren’t literate, so the knowledge was passed on orally, from generation to generation.
Siam inherited the arts from India via Cambodia, he says. “Indian trading ships had to spend at least six months in Cambodia waiting for the right winds to carry them back home, so they had plenty of time to share their knowledge with the locals, including tying and weaving flowers, which are the main techniques used in India.
“Unfortunately most of the Khmer written records were destroyed, but we can still learn from the statues of apsara at Angkor and other temples. They show that the people wore heaps of flowers as accessories, as in the apsara headdresses, which look like they’re made of agave blossoms and were likely inspired by coconut flowers. To get that look, they had to sew the blossoms into a pattern.”
Flower arrangement in Siam enjoyed a golden age during the reign of King Rama V, when the ladies of the court would spend hours each day developing new patterns and techniques. Their ladies-in-waiting would be taught each new design, along with the young girls from noble families who attended “finishing school” at the palace under royal patronage.
“That might sound absurd to some people – we recreate a flower using other flowers. But most tropical flowers only bloom for a day and then wither, so we have to use more durable flowers to recreate the short-lived ones.”
To this day, the palace plays an important role in developing floral techniques and preserving the knowledge, Sakul says. “Ladies-in-waiting and others who take care of all the floral decoration in the palace are very skilful. Their knowledge about each species is incredible.
“The malai they make – the jasmine garlands – are among the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. When they make phan phum – the lotus buds arranged on a pedestal tray – they colour-grade the globe amaranths from light pinkish-purple to dark purple. These skills are really hard to match.”
Theerachai Jantharangsi, who works in the Division of Ten Crafts at the government’s Fine Arts Department, points out how ubiquitous flowers are in our most treasured arts and crafts.
“At the temple you see floral patterns in all the murals. Look at this pedestal tray in the shape of a blooming lotus. And the blooming lotus is the seat for Arahans in most Buddha images.”
“Flowers have been entwined with our traditions and beliefs for centuries,” adds Special Professor Dr Prakhong Nimmanhemin of Chulalongkorn University. “The marigold represents prosperity, the crown flower – dok rak – is love, the globe amaranth is everlasting respect, and the jasmine represents motherly love.”
Not all the associations are positive, however, she says. “Some flowers, like lun thom [plumeria] and son glin [tuberose] have unpleasant meanings, since in the past they were used during funerals to mask the odour of the corpse.
“Red hibiscus was used to ‘brand’ a woman who’d committed adultery. The Three Seals Law of the early Rattanakosin Period allowed a man to punish his guilty wife by marking her face with red lime. She could be forced to wear red hibiscus in her ears, a red hibiscus wreath on her head and a red hibiscus garland around her neck, and then be paraded around town to humiliate her further.”
Amid the connotations both good and bad, there is no denying that flowers are often edible too, notes ML Darunee Jakraphan of the Royal Traditional Thai Crafts School for Women.
“Different species are cooked in different ways. The ones that are good for frying have thin petals and not much sap, like the blossoms of the coral vine, the butterfly pea and globe amaranths. Some are good to eat fresh, like the blossoms of the torch ginger. These blooms good as decoration and even better because of their taste and health benefits.”
Darunee recommends picking edible flowers early in the morning and sticking the stems in a sieve to drain the sap. “Then wash off the dry sap and rinse them water before cooking.”
In a courtyard full of plumeria and orange jessamine flowers, a warm breeze cajoles the chandelier-like pendants of blooms to frolic. Their delicate tassels sway like a woman’s long tresses when she dances. The enchanting scent of champak and jasmine embraces passers-by.