Glorious Garlands


Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

I was marking attendance at a marriage. The next item on the agenda was for the Bride and Groom to exchange garlands-“Maalai Maattral”. I sat up in my seat and began to take notice, as this is the part of the marriage festivities that I like the most. It is very obviously a throwback to ancient times when girls used to garland the man they fancied the most, in a Swayamvaram. And it is so beautifully symbolic, don’t you think, of the bride choosing the man as her life mate. What better way to show your affections, than with flowers, and that too with garlands?

(Some harried husbands would, in retrospect, compare the wedding garland to a noose put around their unwitting neck, similar to the one around the sacrificial goat’s– but let us ignore them, as we are talking here of happy marriages). Coming back to the exchange of garlands between the bride and the groom, quite a few years back, the maternal uncles of the bride and the groom used to officiate over this part of the marriage, each carrying his ward on his shoulders and running back and forth. This is usually a hilarious scene, with
the uncles vying with each other in demonstrating their respective skills, making it difficult for the other party to put the garland around the neck of the bride or the groom. This carrying on shoulders was possible and easy, when marriages used to take place between children, or at best adolescents. However, with the current practice of marriages between full-grown adults in their late twenties, the uncles have to grunt and groan while carrying their charges, if at all they venture to undertake the rather risky business. I know of an uncle who, after carrying the rather bulky bride on his shoulders during the garland-exchange, was hospitalized for six months with a prolapsed disc.

However, this piece is not about uncles or prolapsed discs. It is about Garlands. You may think, “What is there to write on garlands! They are after all put together to be worn a few hours and thrown off once they wilt.” I too was under the same impression, till I did some research on the subject and found a wealth of information, which would make us look at them in a new light altogether.

As a ten-year-old, I remember being taken shopping for Sri Jayanti by my father. When he bought a small garland of Shenbaka flowers (with which Sri Periazhwar sought to adorn Sri Krishna) and entrusted it to me for carrying, I could not resist smelling the same, since the scent was extremely heady. When he happened to watch me at this, my father instantly threw away the garland, telling me that flowers meant for the Lord should not be smelt or used by us in any other way, before being submitted to Him. Though we bought a different
garland, the incident stuck to my memory. Sometime later, when my father was recounting to me the glorious tale of Sri Andal and came to the portion about Her having adorned Herself with the garlands meant for the Lord, painstakingly put together by Her father Sri Vishnuchitta, I promptly queried my father as to how Sri Andal could have done something which I had been prohibited from doing. And later too, when I was taught Sri Periazhwar’s pasuram describing the devotees’ delight in adorning themselves with garlands and clothes cast off by Emperuman, it rankled in my mind as to how the Lord could have made an exception in the case of Sri Andal and accepted garlands She had worn first. My father gently explained to me the ocean of difference between my humble self and Sri Andal, pointing out the intense and pure love that She had for Emperuman, which made the Lord not only accept the used garlands with unalloyed pleasure, but refuse to wear any others.

Normally, once you wear them, flowers lose their fragrance and wilt away gradually due to the wearer’s body heat. However, the garland worn by Sri Goda acquired a unique fragrance due to Her association, which the flowers did not originally possess. And when He wore the garlands of Goda, Sri Ranagnatha too smelled sweeter than ever, we are told by Swami Desikan. In fact, the Lord is touted to be the repository of all fragrance-“Sarva Gandha:”. However, the scent of the garlands which originally adorned Sri Andal was such as to
suppress and overwhelm all other sources of fragrance Emperuman sported, be it the sacred scent of the Shruti, that of the Vijayanti Vanamala constantly adorning the Lord’s chest or the sweet-smelling sandalwood paste smeared on His chest. Sri Kodai’s hair, on which the garlands originally resided, was so beautiful and so fragrant, that Sri Ranganatha, once He was used to such garlands, spurned any other which had not been worn first by Kodai. She is hence said to have captivated and captured the affections of Rangaraja through Her garlands-“Sragbhi: aakrishta naathaa”. We have heard of marriages resulting in garlands being exchanged. Andal’s, however, must be the first instance of garlands having been instrumental for Her divine marriage with the Ultimate. And Andal’s association with garlands doesn’t come as a surprise to us, considering that the word “Kodai” refers to a garland, in chaste Tamizh.

Everyone would agree that bees are the best judges of the quality of fragrance, flitting all their lives from flower to flower. Finding the Vanamaala adorning the Lord’s chest to be the most fragrant in the world, bees used to throng the garland. However, once the Lord started wearing the garlands passed on by Sri Andal, bees, the connoisseurs that they are, immediately deserted the Vanamaala and besieged the Andal maalai, finding the latter infinitely more fragrant than the former. All this and more we learn from the Goda Stuti of Swami Desikan, who waxes eloquent in the description of the garlands Kodai Nacchiar tried on before submission to Her Lord with love. If even bees with limited faculties were able to discern the difference between Andal’s maalai and others, is it any wonder that the omniscient Lord appreciated the same?

However, Sri Andal’s is not the first instance of someone mesmerizing and binding Emperuman head to foot with garlands. Sri Mythily too bound the Prince of Ayodhya with a garland of jasmine flowers, we are told by Sri Periazhwar. Though Valmiki omits to narrate the episode, we are told that the Divine Couple were playing chess (Chaturangam) and as a romantic punishment for Sri Rama who lost the game, Vaidehi playfully tied Him up with garlands of sweet-smelling jasmine. This intimate event is narrated by Sri Maruti to Sri Sita at Asokavanam, to establish his bona fides as Rama’s emissary. Here is Azhwar’s beautiful paasuram describing a divine romance-

“Alli am poo malar kodaai! Adi paninden vinnappam

sollugen kettarulaai tunai malar kan mada maane!

Elli am podu inidu iruttal irundador ida vagaiyil

Mallikai maalai kondu angu aarttadum or adayaalam”

We saw Swami Desikan speak of the Vanamaala being put to shame by the fragrance of garlands worn by Soodik koduttha Sudarkkodi. What then is this Vanamaala? Named Vaijayanti, the Vanamala is a garland of unfading flowers worn with élan by Emperuman. It adorns His broad chest constantly and is as much an indication of His supremacy as the other signs, such as Sri Mahalakshmi. It is one of the items that identifies Emperuman as the Supreme Lord of the universe-a so-called “Swaroopa Niroopaka Dharmam”. It is extremely soft, red and close to the Lord’s heart, physically and otherwise. It is the finest of garlands and fit in all respects to be worn by the Paramapurusha. All these we come to know from Swami
Desikan’s beautiful words, “Aamodavatyapi sadaa hridayangamaapi raagaanvitaapi lalitaapi gunottaraapi”. The Vanamaala’s fragrance is beyond measure, which attracts bees in droves. According to Sri Parasara Bhattar, the leaves and petals of this Vaijayanti maala come into contact with the holy feet of Sri Mahalakshmi, who too adorns the Lord’s chest. And due to the association, the Vaijayanti is made fresher, cooler, more fragrant and lustrous.

The Lord is so enamoured of the Vanamaala that He continues to sport it even during His avataras. It adorns Sri Krishna’s dark chest, we are told by Swami Desikan-“Jayanti Sambhavam dhaama Vaijayanti vibhooshanam”. The Uddhava Gita too speaks of the Lord sporting this Vanamaala during the Krishnavataram-

Shankha Chakra Gadaa Padma Vanamala vibhooshitam

Noopurai: vilasat paadam Koustubha prabhayaa yutam”

It is natural and appropriate for men and women to wear garlands. Have you ever heard of a Fish sporting a garland? Before you ridicule me for such an impossible suggestion, let me quote Sri Bhattar, who avers that even during the Matsyaavataaram, the Lord did not forsake the Vaijayanti, which continued to adorn His fishy neck. “Srak” in Sanskrit means a garland and the Lord is known as “Sragvee” (Vishnu Sahasranamam) because He constantly wears the Vaijayanti around His neck, irrespective of the form He assumes. Here is the relative quote from Sri Bhattar’s commentary-“Tiryaktvepi paratva soochinee Vaijayanti srak asya nitya yoginee iti Sragvee”. He is also known as “Vanamaalee” due to
His constant wearing of this priceless garland.

There are several versions as to the actual composition of the Vaiyjayati. According to some, it is composed of Tulasi, Mallika, Mandara, Paarijaatam and Lotus and extends from the Lord’s neck to His holy feet. Some others say that this necklace is composed of the five principal gems-Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds, Sapphires and Diamonds. Whatever the Vaijayanti may consist of, it symbolizes the five basic elements of nature-Fire, Water, Air, Atmosphere and Wind. The Lord wears these five elements and the five Tanmaatraas in their subtlest form around His neck in a floral form, says the Vishnu Puranam-

“Pancha roopaa yaa maala Vaijayanti gadaa bhrita:

Saa bhoota hetu sangaataa bhoota maalaa cha vai dvija!”

According to the Bhaagavata Puraanam, the Vanamala is symbolic of the Lord’s Maayaa and is comprised of the multifarious gunas–“Sva maayaam Vanamaalaakhyaam naanaa guna mayeem dadhat”

This Vaijayanti is no mere adornment, it multiplies manifold the strength and valour of the wearer, we are told by Mahabharata, which also informs us that the Lord lent this unique garland to Subrahmanya, to aid him in his battle against asuras–

“Vishnu: dadou Vaijayanteem maalaam bala vivardhineem

Uma dadou cha arajasee vaasasee soorya sama prabhe”

When Bhagadatta, ranged against Arjuna in the battle between Pandavas and Kauravas, unleashes the Vaishnavaastram, a deadly weapon capable of destroying not only the Paandava but the entire world, Sri Krishna steps in and takes the missile on His broad chest. However, when it encounters the divine tirumeni, the potent astram turns into a garland and adorns the dark chest of Krishna, becoming the Vaijayanti maala, says the Mahabharata–” Vaijayanti abhavan maalaa tat astram Kesava urasi”

The Mahabhrata speaks about a different Vaijayanti maala too, one gifted by Indra to Maharaja Uparichara. While gifting the same, Indra tells the Raja that the garland was unique and would save him from any and all of opponents’ weapons, during war-

“Dadaami te Vaijayanti maalaam amlaana pankajaam

Dhaarayishyati sangraame yaa tvaam shastrai: avikshatam”.

Such, then, is the glory of the Vaijayanti Vanamala. Sri Tondaradippodi Azhwar was born on this earth, as an “amsam” of this Vanamala, according to Guruparampara.

In the Nrisimhaavatara too, the Lord wore a garland–but this particular garland was entirely different from any He had sported earlier. Unable to tolerate the torture meted out to His devotee Prahlada, the leonine Lord put Hiranyakasipu on His lap, dug out his entrails with His nails and wore the asura’s intestines around His neck, as a gory garland. This is the form in which we can stil see Him at the heights of Ahobilam, as Jwaalaa Nrsimhan. We might wonder why the Lord should not have stopped with merely killing Hiranyakasipu, without demonstrating excessive anger, leading Him to devise a new and unique garland for Himself: however, the Lord’s apparently extreme anger stemmed from His intolerance to His devotees being insulted or injured. He could readily forgive offence aimed at Himself, but not that to His sincere Bhaktas. The episode demonstrates the gravity of Bhaagavata apachaaram, against which all Prapannaas are advised by the Acharya at the time of Saranagati.

Garlands are basically a feminine adornment. We are hence hardly surprised to learn from the Lakshmi Ashtottarasatanaama Stotram that Sridevi too wears a garland of beautiful lotus blooms–“Padma maalaa dharaam Deveem, Padmineem Padma gandhineem”. And when Ravana reaches Rama’s aashramam in the garb of an ascetic on the unholy mission of kidnapping Vaidehi, he finds Her sporting a similar lotus garland-

“Kaa tvam kaanchana varnaabhe peeta kouseya vaasinee

kamalaanaam subhaam maalaam Padmineem iva bibhratee”

Garlands, especially of gold and pearls, made ideal gifts too. We often hear of kings and queens instantly rewarding couriers (with good news) with chains and necklaces from their necks. We thus see Kaikeyee assuring a reward of a golden garland to the scheming hunchback Manthara, for her diabolic idea for Bharata’s coronation and Rama’s banishment to the forests for fourteen long years-

“Atra te pratimokshyaami maalaam kubje! Hiranmayem

Abhishikte cha Bharate Raghave cha vanam gate”

As a humble offering from Indra, Vaayu Bhagawan presents Raghava with a beautiful golden garland on the occasion of His coronation. Sri Rama and His Consort too bestow gifts upon all those who attended the function. It is no coincidence that all the principal Vaanara Veeras are gifted with garlands of gold and precious gems. Sri Sita takes off a golden necklace (haaram) from Her neck and looks at those assembled contemplatively, as if wondering whom to give it to. Sri Rama, reading Her mind, tells Her to give it to the person She likes most, to one endowed with unmatched valour and wisdom. Immediately, Vaidehi gifts the golden garland to Maaruti–

“Avamuchya aatmana: kantthaat haaram Janaka Nandini

dadou saa Vaayu Putraaya tam haaram asitekshanaa”.

It would be no exaggeration to ascribe the death of the apparently invincible Vali to a garland. Sugriva engages Vali in combat, spurred on by Rama’s promise that He would kill Vali. However, the battling brothers are so alike that Rama knows not who is who and as a result, Sugriva just manages to escape with a sound thrashing. To avoid the confusion, Rama tells Lakshmana to adorn Sugriva with a garland made of Gajapushpi flowers, so that positive identification can be made of Vali, who would not be wearing such a garland. And ultimately, when Sugriva fights again with a confident Vali, the latter is felled with a single Rama baanam. A slightly different version is available in the story of Sri Rama narrated in Mahabharata, with Hanuman, and not Rama, coming up with the idea of Sugriva wearing a distinctive garland for purposes of identification–

“Na visesha: tayo: yuddhe tadaa kaschana drisyate

Sugreevasya tadaa maalaam Hanooman kantta aasajat”

Vali, though not wearing a garland of flowers, was nevertheless adorned by a golden garland–“Vaalinam hema maalinam”. Legend has it that this was no ordinary garland and was gifted to Vali by his august father Indra. When Vali went into combat wearing this garland, it sucked away half of the opponent’s strength, thus making it ridiculously easy for Vali to triumph. We find from the Kishkindha Kaandam that Vali wore this garland during all his major battles, for instance the one with Dundhubhi, the dreaded asura in a buffalo

“Tam evam uktvaa samkruddho maalaam utkshipya kaanchaneem

Pitraa dattaam Mahendrena yuddhaaya vyapatishttata”

Given his innate, phenomenal strength, Vali was made so powerful by this unique garland that he never lost any of his battles. However, it is a confirmation of fate’s long arm that even the magical garland could not save Vali, when his end was at hand. Upon his death, the broad-minded Vali bequeaths this unique garland to his detractor Sugriva, duly advising the latter about the garland’s divine properties.

If Vali lost his life due to a garland, it is indeed a coincidence to find that his father Indra too lost his entire riches and fame, again due to a garland. Once Sage Dhurvaasa, known for his irascibility, presented Indra with a garland obtained from Paarvathi Devi as prasaadam. Indra placed the sacred garland on the neck of Iraavatam, his elephant, from where it fell and was trampled under the pachyderm’s feet. Dhurvaasa was enraged at the apparent disrespect shown by Indra and cursed him immediately, as a result of which Indra lost all his wealth, splendour and status as the head of the devas.

Going on to the Krishnavataram, we find the Lord extremely enamoured of garlands. When He goes to Mathura to do away with Kamsa, Sri Krishna goes to the royal court in style. First and foremost, He appropriates beautiful apparel, freshly washed and pressed, being carried by the washer man for Kamsa’s use and dresses Himself in the freshly laundered clothes, much to the chagrin of the dhobi.

Krishna goes next to the royal florist, who is busily stringing together fresh and fragrant flowers in beautiful garlands for Kamsa and asks him for the garlands. The florist, recognizing Krishna to be the Paramatma come in person, welcomes Him with bowed head and offers the lovingly strung garlands to Krishna and Balarama, deeming himself extremely fortunate to be of service to the Divine Duo.

In contrast, when Krishna, Bheema and Arjuna go to Magadha to battle with Jaraasandha, the three snatch fresh garlands being taken by the florist for the use of Jaraasandha and adorn themselves with the flowers, thereby adding insult to the injury to be inflicted on the Magadha sovereign.

Garlands have another role–they serve as an ideal way of welcoming VIPs. No meeting, political or otherwise, is complete without the speakers being profusely garlanded by the organizers. If you think this practice is a recent one, you are in for a surprise. The Kousheetaki Upanishad tells us that all new entrants to Paradise are welcomed by a hundred divine damsels, all holding beautiful garlands in their hands, to adorn the necks of those fortunate souls who have performed Prapatti and are hence led to Sri Vaikunttam upon release from their mortal coils–

“Tam pancha shataani apsarasaam prati dhaavanti, shatam maalaa hastaa:

shatam anjana hastaa: shatam choorna hastaa: shatam vaasohastaa:”

There are actually five hundred beautiful maidens in the welcoming party–while a hundred hold garlands, the other four hundred hold spanking new garments, fragrant powders, etc., with which to welcome the VIPs.

Though it would appear from the aforesaid that garlands are of universal application, there is a particular section of the populace that is specifically prohibited from wearing garlands or using them in any fashion. According to Manu, Brahmachaaris are forbidden from wearing garlands and are directed to avoid them, along with other items like perfumes, intoxicating liquor, female company, etc. Here is the relative sloka from Manusmriti–

“Varjayet madhu maamsam gandham maalyam rasaan striya:

suktaani yaani sarvaani praninaam cha eva himsanam”

The same Manusmriti tells us that whenever Brahmins well versed in Veda and Vedanta visit us, these athithis hould be propitiated with garlands, inter alia–

“Upavesya tu taan vipraan aasaneshu ajugupsitaan

gandha maalyai: surabhibhi: archayet daiva poorvakam”

We saw how Sri Andal bedecked the Lord with not only floral garlands, but verbal ones too–not only “Poomaalai” but “Paamaalai” too. Inspired by Her example, Sri Tyagaraja of Tiruvaiyaaru speaks of stringing together a unique garland of diamonds: however, these are no mere stony and hard gems, but are composed of lyrics in a hundred delightful tunes, filled with devotion and brimming over with Bhakti–“Raaga ratna maalika che, ranjillu nata Hari shata raga ratna maalika che”. Not only the Lord, even His ceremonial umbrellas are
decorated with garlands of pearls and precious stones, we are told by Azhwars–“Maalai ser ven kudai”.

Shall we end this rather long narrative with an interesting tidbit? To go back to the beginning of this piece, to the bride’s adornment with a garland, it appears to be ancient custom (which is followed to this day) to have the kalyaana maalai placed on the bride’s neck by the sister-in-law (naatthanaar), as soon as the bride is bedecked in the bridal dress (koorai pudavai). This we learn from Sri Andal’s own words, where, dreaming of Her wedding with Sri Krishna, She finds Durga Devi (also born to Yasoda) gently placing the sweet-smelling garland around Her (Andal’s) beautiful neck–“Mana maalai andari chootta kanaa kanden tozhee naan”.

Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore


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