Selling Blooms for Worship

16 October 2017

In Malaysia, roadside flower sellers are a common sight – their simple stalls distinguishable by the strings of fresh flowers on display. Far from being just decorative items, these flower garlands play a symbolic role in Hinduism. We track down one flower seller to learn more about the art of stringing flowers.

For a man who is nearing his sixties, Narayansamy Rengasamy, who sells jasmine flowers or mallipoo, works fast.

His lithe fingers pick up a pair of jasmine flowers and bunch their ends together while his other hand gently loops them with a string to hold the flowers in place.

Narayansamy stringing jasmine flowers.

Narayansamy works gently but firmly on the flowers, ensuring that there is at least an inch of space between each pair. In just five minutes, he could tie a whole molam (an ancient Tamil unit of measurement indicating the length between the middle finger and elbow – used today to refer to the length of a flower string).

After he’s done stringing a molam, Narayansamy starts working on the next molam without skipping a beat. He usually makes between 50 to 70 molam of jasmine strings per day.

The flowers, which play a symbolic role in Hinduism, are tied and stringed on the spot for his customers as soon as he receives their orders.

His customers, who are mostly traders and housewives, would usually use the flowers for worship purposes – they offer them to Hindu deities, hoping to receive luck and prosperity. In Indian culture, women also wear jasmine flowers in their hair for weddings and other celebrations. Occasionally, Narayansamy would also receive orders for Hindu weddings, where jasmine flowers are used to decorate the venue.

Chrysanthemum flower garlands on display at the shop, ready to be sold.

The art of tying and stringing jasmine flowers perfectly may come naturally for Narayansamy because of his genetic advantage: in his late twenties, he picked up the skills from his mother, whom he calls “a master of the art”.

"I was working as a dispatch boy in 1987 and I had my first baby then. My mother didn't want me to travel a lot after my baby was born, and she taught me how to tie jasmine flowers,” he says.

Narayansamy and his wife Boomathi run a small flower shop in Kampung Tasek Permai, Ampang.

"At that time, my mother already had 13 years of experience in tying and selling jasmine flowers in Pudu Market. It was pretty easy to pick up the skill from her.”

Narayansamy then passed on his skills to his wife, Boomathi Perumal, and together they took over the business from his mother. "We are still running it together until now," he says.

Together, the couple runs a flower shop in Kampung Tasek Permai, Ampang, where the surrounding community knows them by their names. Apart from selling strings of jasmine flowers, they also sell chrysanthemum flower garlands at their shop.

The couple also works with chrysanthemum flowers.

Narayansamy explains that being a jasmine flower seller is not easy, as it requires a lot of patience. “You have to ensure that every flower selected to be stringed has to be the freshest,” he says. “You have to ensure that the flowers are in perfect position before securing them into place with a string. It is detailed and difficult.”

He obtains loose flowers for his business from a local supplier who charges between RM26 to RM30 per packet. These flowers are then kept refrigerated to maintain freshness, but Narayansamy can only keep them for so long before they begin to wilt.

Boomathi strings a flower garland for a customer.

 “I have to finish selling the flowers in three days because they will wilt after that. I sell a molam of stringed flowers for 70 sen.”

He shares that on a good day, he could earn between RM500 to RM600, as he also supplies jasmine flower strings to other sellers. During festival season like Deepavali when demand increases, he can earn slightly more than usual.

Loose jasmine flowers will be tied on a thread rope and sold to customers.

Wishing to keep the business within the family, Narayansamy says he plans to pass on his skills to his three children who are all working adults now, but admits, “they are not too keen to take over the business”.

“They prefer office jobs,” he explains. “I will leave it in their hands if they want to do this business or sell it to someone else."

“You can't really be rich by selling jasmine flowers. You can only do it if you are passionate about it.”

Narayansamy's shop is located in front of Maha Mariamman Temple, Kampung Tasek Permai, Ampang. Open daily, 9am to 9pm.

By T.K. Letchumy Tamboo
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

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