Art & Culture · India · Life

Notes of Jasmine – Belle of India

Last evening’s rain punished the mogra plant in our garden – it is a weakling, though tall – about eight feet – but it couldn’t hold onto the bougainvillea next to it which has a stronger stem. Many flowers fell down – they are tender and cannot withstand the terrible summer heat of India. So, mother picked up many and brought them indoors to be kept in the way they customarily are – in a glass bowl half filled with water.

It is an odd situation, our north Indian summer winds entice mogra buds and many more wake up then usual. On the other hand, they cannot last long under the harsh sun. Rains, however, make it smell stronger – flowers gives up their oils willingly to the water droplets and their fragrance is carried by the winds.


Their lovely notes sent me coursing down google path and into a conversation with my father, a botanist.Some highlights follow.

Jasminium Sambac (Arabian jasmine), in the form of its many cultivars is a widely grown plant throughout the Indian subcontinent. A native here, per early Chinese records, it originated perhaps in the eastern part of our country for it favors humid environs. In the great hot and dusty swathe of land from present day Pakistan to present day Bengal, the flower is called mogra, bela or ‘motia‘ (that last word may perhaps have its roots in ‘moti‘ or pearl – that fruit of a mollusc whose color it resembles). The similarity does not extend beyond their color for these flowers do not last even few hours without moisture.

The flower’s origins and domestication as an ornamental are lost to time, but its usage continues traditionally in south Asia. The flower is commonly sold outside temples where single string garlands may be purchased as an offering to the gods.Some use them for their personal temples – as in this case, a tea shop in Gadag, north Karnataka [photographed Jan 2014]


At dargahs (tombs of Muslim saints), these flowers are offered as well sometimes with the ‘chadar’ (sheet) or as a chadar itself. A seller I had photographed in 2014 in the old city of Hyderabad, meters away from the little dargah inside the charminar was busy dividing his produce into saleable lots. He kept them on a wet gunny-sack cloth so they may not wilt before they are all sold.


It serves as a national flower of Indonesia and the Philippines and has great importance in Thailand and Cambodia, where different cultivars are used extensively in cuisine, in wedding rituals and as an offering to the Buddha. Once we cross the Himalayas, across the table lands of Asia, the frosty climate does not let the plant survive but its close cousin Jasmine Officinale (true jasmine) thrives – all the way to the old world – France – where it has naturalized.

Back to our humble mogra now. It is usually picked early mornings, while still a bud, as that has higher quantity of essential oils. Strings of this flower are used for making ladies’ hair ornaments – its heady fragrance fills the bedchamber effortlessly. These strings, called ‘gajra‘ would usually be gifted to a  woman by her paramour. This usage became so widespread that during the late, decaying Mughal empire (eighteenth century) they got associated with nautch (dances of courtesans), kothas (their residences) and by extension with debauchery. A logical place for the gajra that didn’t find acceptance as a lady’s hair ornament was her admirer’s left wrist as a corsage.

Present day use across the country includes being an integral part of the bride’s wedding ensemble.  In the south of India, the devotional usage of flowers is similar, but  ornamental usage, is much more common by women as a hair ornament. [Photo below taken at the temple of Sirsi, Karnataka, 2014]. Called malligai in Tamil, the flower has a deep seated connection with the city of Madurai and the Meenakshi temple therein.


Though the flower is indigenous, it’s not well suited to our summers and once plucked, wilts within several hours. Historically, a way to enjoy the smell of this flower, longer than naturally possible was to extract its oil through hydro distillation and form an ‘ittar‘ or ‘attar‘. Evidence of such single ingredient perfumes go back to Indus valley civilization. In modern India, the city of Kannauj, in the gangetic plain is famed for extracting these essences.

With the advent of Arabic and Muslim influence in India, ittar found renewed patronage, as these perfumes were alcohol free and were used by emperors and kings as parting gifts.The nizams of Hyderabad were particularly fond of these intense perfumes and used beautiful crystal bottles to store them that are still widely available in the old city (photo from wikipedia) –

Interestingly, in the western world, designers such as Givenchy and Tom Ford have included this humble flower’s extract in their perfumes in the last decade. Givenchy included the word Jasmin in the name itself while Tom ford in his Jasmin Rouge ’11 said the perfume ‘unveils a new facet of jasmine’s erotic decadence’ and uses an ingredient ‘never before used in perfumery – jasmin sambac’.

Jasmine is well represented in Indian fine art – Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Lady with flower garland’ shows the muse stringing flowers for herself. It is a striking portrait – the Nair woman , bare shouldered and long haired gazes confidently at the onlooker. A rich curtain, carved table and the silver chalice in front conveys she’s one of rank and yet she finds this laborious task worth her time (photo from wikipedia).

The variety sold outside temples, and much more widely available  is the ‘maid of Orleans’, which has shorter petals, single whorled. My late grandfather had at least one plant which was double whorled and he called it ‘double mogra’ – I believe it was the ‘Grand duke of Tuscany’ cultivar. The bowl on my desk intrigued me enough to seek out the exact cultivar and it is in all likelihood, the ‘belle of India’. There are over eighty speculated cultivars throughout India!

Meanwhile, I’ve kept the two dozen that mother brought in, at my desk, they should survive couple of days sans air-conditioning. They have made my little corner seem more inviting than it normally is with their calming notes.


p.s. I will continue the Spiti travelogue from the next post.


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