Thu | Dec 1, 2022

Marigold – a mystical journey from Mexico to India

Published:Sunday | November 13, 2022 | 12:06 AM

A Catrina, a folk skeleton doll, stands over a field of cempasuchil or marigold flowers at a farm in Xochimilco, Mexico City. The Mexican marigold flower is known as the flower of the dead and is used in Day of the Dead celebrations.
A Catrina, a folk skeleton doll, stands over a field of cempasuchil or marigold flowers at a farm in Xochimilco, Mexico City. The Mexican marigold flower is known as the flower of the dead and is used in Day of the Dead celebrations.

Farm workers move cempasúchil flowers on flat boats through the canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City. Cempasuchil or the Mexican marigold flower is also known as the flower of the dead and is used in Day of the Dead celebrations.
Farm workers move cempasúchil flowers on flat boats through the canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City. Cempasuchil or the Mexican marigold flower is also known as the flower of the dead and is used in Day of the Dead celebrations.
Marigold blooms in the garden in front of Taj Mahal, in Agra.
Marigold blooms in the garden in front of Taj Mahal, in Agra.
Amitabh Sharma
Amitabh Sharma

Family and community members lay flowers on a Day of the Dead altar honouring the lives of the Uvalde school shooting victims on November 1, 2022, in Austin, Texas.
Family and community members lay flowers on a Day of the Dead altar honouring the lives of the Uvalde school shooting victims on November 1, 2022, in Austin, Texas.

In this February 2022 photo a woman farmer plucks marigold flowers from a field ahead of the Saraswati (Hindu Goddess of Knowledge) Puja, at Khirai, in Paschim Medinipur in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
In this February 2022 photo a woman farmer plucks marigold flowers from a field ahead of the Saraswati (Hindu Goddess of Knowledge) Puja, at Khirai, in Paschim Medinipur in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
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What do Día de los Muertos and a grand Indian wedding have in common? A bizzare question one may say, but the significance of the colour yellow and marigold flowers connect Mexico to India.

There is no Hindu ritual that is complete without marigold. The bright-orange flowers are made into garlands and hung at the entrance of homes. The significance is manifold. First, the colour yellow symbolises sanctity, and saffron represents courage and sacrifice, which is also the top band of the Indian national flag.

Likewise, in Mexico, offering marigold is a celebration of the lives of those who have passed on. The vibrant colours remind us of the never-say-die spirit, vibrancy, and looking beyond the sadness of death. Marigolds are used to decorate altars and are placed with personal effects, the deceased’s favourite food and drinks, making a connection with the souls who have transitioned from their mortal state. Día de los Muertos altar decorations usually include hand-cut paper marigolds or fresh marigolds. It is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colours and pungent scent.

In India, garlands or ‘torana’ (gateway in Sanskrit). Apart from ushering vibrant energies into the home, it is believed that the smell of marigolds keeps insects away.

HISTORY

According to remezcla.com, the earliest written mention of cempasúchil (the flower of 400 lives/also flower with 20 petals) dates back to the 16th century in a text known as the Florentine Codex. Written by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, the manuscript is a 2,400-page document of the culture and customs of the Aztec people. In it, de Sahagún describes the Aztecs’ sophisticated medicinal use of various flowers and plants, noting the important role marigolds played in both medicines and celebrations.

It is believed that Día de los Muertos stems from an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, whose role was to guard the bones of the dead.

The Aztecs considered marigolds a sacred flower so bred them to create bigger and more attractive blooms. Aztecs used the sacred flower for decorative and medicinal purposes. The flowers are edible and thought by the Aztecs to cure hiccups and even heal those struck by lightning.

While the history of the marigold post-Aztecs is a bit murky, all Targetes species can be traced back to the New World. Spanish explorers took seeds from the Aztecs. These seeds survived the long trips across the Atlantic – a testament to how hearty these flowers are – and were cultivated in Spain, France, and then northern Africa. (This is why we have French marigolds and African marigolds. What is even more confusing is that Mexican marigolds are often referred to as African marigolds even though they originated in Mexico.)

REMOVER OF OBSTACLES

The common name used for it in many parts of India is ‘Genda’, which could also mean a ball, which in Hindi is called gend. This vibrant and fragrant import from the Americas has been revered, accepted, and claimed as the curries in India. Apart from being made into garlands to adorn entrances, marigolds are offered at the feet of the deities in temples. The flower has spiritual symbolism, both in Christianity and Hinduism.

The flower is offered to Mother Mary on the Feast of the Annunciation (observed on March 25). It is said that this is the day when the angel Gabriel came to Mother Mary to tell her of Jesus Christ’s coming. On this day, in some traditions, marigold seeds are sown in pots as a symbol for auspiciousness and patience to await the divine.

In Hinduism, marigold symbolises the vibrancy and positivity of life and auspiciousness. The saffron/orange-coloured flower is offered to God as a symbol of surrender of the mortal human being to the supreme power. Also, the flower, which is the confluence of many manifestations of life, is a hardy and low-maintenance flower, which also symbolises the belief in oneself to rise above challenges, and importantly, to trust in God to help overcome life’s obstacles. The resilience of the marigold also signifies the victory of good over evil.

In both Mexican and Indian cultures, the marigold celebrates and reminds us of the fragility of life. The symbolism of the marigold may be resonated in the Pavamana Mantra ( pavamana – being purified; mantra – prayer), from the ancient Hindu scripture Upanishad – “Lead me from the unreal to the real, lead me from darkness to light, lead me from death to immortality.”

Let us celebrate life as the marigold teaches us – in this mortal state and beyond.

amitabh.sharma@gleanerjm.com

Twitter: @amitabhs