Garlands and smells in Phuket, Thailand
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phuket Leisure: Of Garlands and Smells

 Of Garlands and Smells in Phuket

Although all humans possess a nose, it seems that smell is experienced in a variety of intensities by different people. Smell is unlike any other sense, like sight for example, where everyone will see the same thing regardless of whether they are wearing glasses or not. There are smells and there are smells. I am not talking about perfume and modern day fragrances, I am talking about the raw stuff, the smells of nature.

I have found that my sense of smell is quite acute. Now, this can be a curse sometimes, especially when travelling to countries with little consideration of hygiene. In this case, however, my nose, or what it was smelling, was dragging me to some exquisite, at first unidentifiable source. Unidentifiable was the name of the flower that produced the smell, for I was certain that it was a flower. The source was malik, or Arabic jasmine and it is made into a garland with colourful bows at both ends. This is phuang malai, the Thai garland, an equivalent to the Japanese art of flower arrangement.

Apparently this type of flower arrangement became more popular during the reign of King Rama V. It was then that ladies of the court practiced their design skills in creating a feast of garlands; skills which were passed on to other ladies in-waiting, or to students completing their education within the palace walls.

A garland can take on different shapes. It can either be circular to resemble a necklace or bracelet ending with two or more'tails' of flower ribbons, or long with two strands of flowers separated by a ribbon. The most common type of phuang malai is held together by a string of tiny white malik blossoms. Yet another type of jasmine, this one without smell, is strung onto the garland. There is something particular about this flower called dok ruk, the flower of love. It neither looks like a flower nor feels like one. It resembles the top stone of an ancient Greek Corinthian pillar and if I did not know it was real I would say that it was made of plastic. The resilient dok ruk is what keeps the garland from withering away all too soon, helping it last for a maximum of five days. Yellow marigold or red roses add the final touches and the garland is ready.

Flower garlands were traditionally hung in front of windows, thus allowing the aromatic jasmine to waft into the house. Hung in front of Buddha statues, or pictures of monks, they act as offerings to celestial beings. Placed in front of photographs of relatives, they are offerings to the dearly departed. On spirit houses, phuang malai are used to please the spirits with their smell. In the car, they are believed to have the power to prevent accidents and if offered to guests, they substitute for words like'Welcome'.

The higher the status of the person, the more elaborate the garland. A garland offered to the King, for example, is as intricate as any floor mosaic. Orchids, a reddish-purple flower called ban mai roo roi, roses or any other flower may be used to weave an elaborate pattern combined with the fragrant malik. Patterns of flowers are made out of a combination of smaller blossoms. Banana leaves, cut in small pieces, may be used to break up the colours, by inserting a tinge of much needed green in this ocean of colour. An elaborate garland such as this may resemble knots on a rope with little rings of white blossoms, thus creating a stunning effect of thickness and weight.

Although different flowers may be used to make a garland, the malik seems to be the most commonly used. The fact that it symbolizes purity explains it all. Of equal importance is the fragrance it emanates, which is sure to reach even the dullest of noses. Other flowers are associated with certain qualities and are used to accomplish different means. The orchid, for example, stands for endurance, after all it keeps very well for a long time, the yellow marigold has increasing qualities, while the ban mai roo roi represents a stable mood.

Phuang malai can be bought in front of temples, in the market, at flower stalls or in the street. Prices vary and elaborate ones generally have to be ordered in advance. It takes 13 minutes for an experienced florist to make a 15 cm garland. Most of all, patience is needed to string together flower after flower.

The materials for making phuang malai have changed over the years. Cotton thread may be used in place of the traditional banana leaf thread used in the past. Fluorescent plastic bows may be tied at the ends of tails, replacing those traditionally made by banana leaves. Phuang malai however, retains its place in Thai culture as strongly as ever, for their sacred mission of honouring seen and unseen beings alike is as relevant today as it was centuries ago.


- November Issue, 2002

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