Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Belle of India

Out in the lonely woods the jasmine burns
Its fragrant lamps, and turns
Into a royal court with green festoons
The banks of dark lagoons.”
HernyTimrod, American poet
That Nature is a never ending source of wonderment and joy is nothing new, but as marvelous as its creatures and creations is also the fact that it can be so thoughtful. As all mothers are and I guess that is why we say “Mother Nature”. Look, for example, how she takes care of us in the hot, exhausting months of summer. Stocking us with all kinds of fruits and vegetables swollen with water and bursting with nutrients to combat the heat. And as if that is not enough, a whole array of summer flowers, exquisitely scented to soothe and refresh our hot, distraught bodies and spirits. Today, we visit this enchanting summer garden to acquaint ourselves with what has been rightly dubbed the queen of flowers – the jasmine…..
A jasmine by any other name…..
Mogra, motia, chameli, malli poo, jaati, mallige, juhi, mogra or moonlight in the grove…. Even I, being a native of the place where the famous Mysore mallige grows, did not know that there are an astonishing 300 varieties of jasmine. Mostly summer flowers that bloom in the evening or at night, scenting the air their delightful fragrance, to gently and sweetly lull the long, hot, exhausting day out of us. All tracing their ancestry to several centuries back to the Old World - China, Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan and all over the Far East. And it makes me proud to say that many varieties of jasmines are natives of our beloved land including the gorgeously fragrant Mysore mallige, also appropriately called “Belle of India”.
Naturally, you can’t bottle up such a beautiful fragrance for long and the jasmine soon crossed the seas. From Asia to Europe, landing first along the Mediterranean Sea, conquering Greece and Turkey, reaching Western Europe through Spain, then France and Italy and finally landing in England in the latter part of the 17th century. (By the 18th century, jasmine scented gloves became popular in Britain!)

Today, much of modern day perfumery is unthinkable without the jasmine, which is one of the key scents in some of the most celebrated perfumes in the world. Chanel No. 5, created by the legendary Coco Chanel and the famous “Joy” perfume, created by the French designer Jean Patou. A single ounce of Joy, still known as the 'costliest perfume in the world”, contains 10,600 jasmine flowers!

So delectable, so cool, so calm, so uplifting…
There is a reason for those 10,600 jasmines. As the story goes, “Joy” was created in 1930 to chase away the Depression blues that West was in the grip of. So, jasmine was a natural selection because both in Ayurveda and aromatherapy, the jasmine and its essential oil have powerful mood uplifting and antidepressant properties. Aromatherapists prescribe jasmine as a calming agent, to soothe stress, pain, and anxiety. Naturally, for the disbelievers who pooh-pooh all this herbal mumbo-jumbo, there is some research data. Dr. Alan Hirsch, a researcher on the effects of smell and taste on physiology, published a research report in which he has stated that inhaling jasmine scent increases beta waves in the brain. Beta waves are associated with increased states of alertness.
Now tell me, what more can you ask of a flower to do for your drooping self on a hard, hot, sweaty hot summer’s day?
But, though its relaxing, soothing qualities make it something of a summer specialist, the jasmine is also a flower for other seasons, therapeutically speaking. In Ayurveda, the jasmine essential oil is an important one, used in nourishing, warming sadhanas for vatta types in autumn and winter and to calm the mind and the stomach of Pitta types in the rainy season. It is also used as an anti nausea treatment during purgation therapy and for respiratory problems and uterine disorders. And its soothing, cooling, rejuvenating qualities make it the key ingredient in the famous “chameli ka tel” popular all over North India to both scent the hair and cool the brain…

and oh so sexy….

"Perfume is the unseen but unforgettable and ultimate fashion accessory. It heralds a woman's arrival and prolongs her departure." Coco Chanel
Naturally, a flower with a scent so exhilarating cannot but also be…. yup, an aphrodisiac! Its reputation as an intoxicant is ancient and formidable, and while researching it, I came across a whole clutch of stories ranging from the possible to the bizarre. Naturally, Cleopatra figured prominently in most of them and according to one story, she used jasmine in her hair when she wanted to distract Marc Antony during “business” meetings! But my favourite story features not the gorgeous Queen of the Nile but elephants. Apparently when elephants need some help to reproduce, it is said that the owners put jasmine oil on them to excite them. True or false – dunno. But on a more serious note, the jasmine used as an aphrodisiac by many ancient civilizations - the Chinese, Indians, the Arabians, the Egyptians (and possibly Cleopatra!). Even today, aroma therapists recommend it. And you can try it any which way – from dabbing your pillow with a drop or two of the oil to even wearing the flowers in your hair. So now, you know why Malli poo is so popular with us South Indian women!!!

Whither jasmine?
Like the rose, the essential oil of the jasmine is one of the most coveted and expensive in the world. Naturally, since it takes over 8 million jasmine flowers to produce 1 kilo or 2750 kgs to make about 12 drop of Jasmine oil! And you would think that the best jasmine oil in the world would come from the country where it originated and has grown for centuries - India. Sadly, the story of the Indian jasmine is the same as Indian saffron. The best jasmine oil comes not from India but from countries like France, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, China, Japan and Turkey. In France, growing jasmine and distilling its perfume is a billion-dollar industry and the town of Grasse in the French Rivera is so famous for jasmine flowers that the best jasmine is often referred to as “Grasse jasmine”.
But, as I bemoan the current status of the Indian jasmine, I rejoice because in the course of writing this piece, I found something else. In my garden, there are 3 beautiful creepers planted by my father that trail their beautiful, delicate dark green feathery selves to the ground like girls drying their hair in the sun. Every year, for just 2 to 3 months, to coincide with the monsoons, they stud themselves with the most exquisitely scented star-shaped white flowers that start as blush-pink-dipped buds in the evening and bloom to pure white virginal stars the next morning. They are my mother’s favourite flower and their perfume is like no other, heady but with an intoxication that is delicate and utterly enchanting. I only knew it by the local Kannada name by which it is popular all over Karnataka. Jaji. Till I researched for this article and found its botanical name - Jasminum officinale grandiflorum. Which is the very same jasmine that grows in Grasse and finds its way to the most fabulous perfumes in the world! Its English name is Poet’s jasmine.
And so, I end this article with Rabindranath Tagore’s paean to this exquisite denizen of India….

AH, these jasmines, these white jasmines!
I seem to remember the first day when I filled my hands
with these jasmines, these white jasmines.have loved the sunlight, the sky and the green earth;
I have heard the liquid murmur of the riverthrough the darkness of midnight;
Autumn sunsets have come to me at the bend of the road
in the lonely waste, like a bride raising her veil
to accept her lover.Yet my memory is still sweet with the first white jasmines
that I held in my hands when I was a child…..

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