June 22, 2022

Bengal flower economy | The star of the day

Zamindar Narendra Narayan Roy Chowdhury (front row, fourth from right) with eminent personalities at the premises of Baldha Garden in the 1920s. He established the garden in 1909.

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Zamindar Narendra Narayan Roy Chowdhury (front row, fourth from right) with eminent personalities at the premises of Baldha Garden in the 1920s. He established the garden in 1909.

During the Mughal period, gardens were a ubiquitous feature of the city landscape. Dhaka, once the capital of the Subah of Bengal, was no exception, and the names of certain areas of the city such as Shahbag, Lalbag, Golapbag, Malibag, Malitola and Fulbaria testify to this heritage. There are also many historical references to the widespread cultivation of various types of flowers in Bengal.

Poush 1311 issue of Krishak, an agricultural magazine edited by Shri Nagendranath Swarnakar.

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Poush 1311 issue of Krishak, an agricultural magazine edited by Shri Nagendranath Swarnakar.

Interesting details about an exceptional flower from Bengal and the perfume prepared from it can be found in the book entitled Voyages by Fray Sébastien Manrique (1629-1643). However, the author does not mention the name of the flower. He informs that this flower was once cultivated in Medinipur. Oil could be extracted from it. It was also exported to various states.

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James Taylor wrote extensively about safflower cultivation in Dhaka in his book “A Sketch of the Topography & Statistics of Dacca” (1840). He noted, “Dhaka safflower, however, is superior to anything grown in India and ranks next to Chinese safflower in the London market.”

During the 1860s, James Wise was the civil surgeon in Dhaka. His book, “Notes on the Races, Castes and Trades of East Bengal”, published in 1883, provides a detailed account of the types of flowers available in the region and the activities of gardeners in the 19th century. The author shares that there were many Muslim gardeners in Dhaka during this period. They cultivated the flower seedlings and sold them in the market. They have been involved in the production of different varieties of jasmine, royal jasmine, Arabian jasmine, marigold and rose saplings. Also, they made various kinds of flower garlands, flower bracelets and flower sticks for Muslim women. Bouquets of flowers were very popular with aristocratic Muslims. Flowers were offered at the shrines of the saints.

There were also Hindu Malakars (garland makers and sellers). They were known to decorate homes, shops and boats with flowers. They provided flowers to the temples. Special flowers such as Champak, Royal Jasmine, Arabian Jasmine and Gandharaj were offered to specific gods and goddesses in Puja. Garlands made by anyone other than the Malakars were not considered sacred. The Malakars were also responsible for tying the buns of the brides. Jasmine and Arabian rose were the usual components of updos.

Shri Jatindra Mohan Roy, in his book ‘History of Dhaka (Volume 1)’ (1912), provides a long list of flowers that were produced in Dhaka during this period: Marigold, Jasmine, Arabian Jasmine, Malati, Butterfly Pea, China Rose (white and red), Spanish Cherry, Champak, Rotunda, Golden Champak, Giant Calotrope, Oleander (blood red and white), Fringed Rosemallow, Lotus, Philippine Violet, Bhat, Tuni, Hazra, Nandadulal and Crape Jasmine.

That the flower trade did not flourish in India in the early 20th century can be inferred from ‘Fuler Mulyo’ (The Price of Flowers), written by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee. It was published in 1904. The main character of the story is Maggie, a poor British teenager. When she gave the writer a shilling for offering a floral tribute at her brother’s grave in India, the writer’s soliloquy read: I was thinking of returning this hard-earned shilling of the maiden. I said, “Flowers are abundantly available in our country, you don’t have to buy them with money.

Shahbagh Garden, Dhaka, 1904.

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Shahbagh Garden, Dhaka, 1904.

The flower industry grew during the British period through the importation of foreign flowers from England and other countries, the establishment of organizations such as the Calcutta Botanical Garden and the Agriculture Society Calcutta and collecting local flowers from different regions. Kamini, kanchan and gandharaj bloomed alongside the exquisite and colorful seasonal British flowers.

Various features related to the cultivation, marketing and use of flowers in Bengal can be gleaned from various agricultural periodicals published in the region. The illustrated monthly, Krishi-Samachar, was published under the editorship of Shri Nishikanta Ghosh. He had his office in Dhaka. Later, the diary was renamed “Krishi-Sampad”. Another magazine titled ‘Krishikatha’ was published from Faridpur during the same period. Examples of other agricultural periodicals include Bhumilakshmi (Birbhum), Prakriti (Kolkata) and Krishak (Kolkata). One of the recurring subjects of these magazines was the cultivation of roses. Relevant magazines contained instructions on how to feed roses and apply fertilizers.

An article titled “Rose Flower Fair” was published in Krishak on January 31, 1901. The fair was held at Alipore Garden. In another issue of the magazine, a report was published on a flower show held at Shillong in 1905. Medals and prizes were distributed at the flower fair. People’s curiosity was so great that about 240 people bought tickets for this exhibition. A wide range of gardening implements were on display. At this time, rows of fruits and vegetables were also appearing in flower shows. Additionally, new and rare trees were also exhibited. The Gorer Math in Kolkata was the designated space for many flower fairs.

An old issue of “Krishak”, published in 1911, contains interesting facts about flower sales. In Kolkata, flowers like China rose, Gandharaj, chrysanthemum, marigold, ground lotus, lotus, and champak were sold in a large number of temples. Profits from the sale of flowers were generally good. The main place of sale of Arabian jasmine and jasmine flowers was Mechuabazar, later known as Jorasanko. Gardeners and wholesalers bought flowers under arrangements with garden owners. These flowers would then be sold to buyers on the street.

Source: Look & Learn / Valérie Jackson Harris Collection. Stuart Hog Market, popularly known as New Market. The photo was taken in 1905.

Source: Look & Learn / Valérie Jackson Harris Collection. Stuart Hog Market, popularly known as New Market. The photo was taken in 1905.