Flower Power

Delhi has lost its nose, and not merely in the metaphorical sense of having lost its pride but literally, with the unceremonious displacement of its flower mandis (markets) whose fragrance is now submerged in the stench of Ghazipur’s garbage dumps.

The agriculture ministry’s move is easily understood in the corporate context of “consolidating” what it sees as a business with annual returns of over Rs 100 crore from what is touted as Asia’s largest flower market. Put all under one roof, it is easy to monitor, issue licenses and then collect taxes. Lured by better transport and connectivity, the flower vendors were shifted to isolated Ghazipur where the promise of cold storage facilities and even a shelter of a building are yet to be met.

Can hypothetical efficiency and cold practicality displace urban heritage? These flower bazaars are the essence of Delhi’s pride as a city of flowers. The three mandis — at Mehrauli, Hanuman Mandir at Connaught Place and Chandni Chowk — were not merely ad hoc markets but rooted firmly in the culture of the city. Their displacement is akin to taking all the monuments of Delhi, from Humayun’s tomb to Tughlaqabad, and shifting them to the outskirts into one large heritage amusement park. So much more efficient for the Aracheological Survey of India to issue tickets and ensure security. But, of course, it is a ludicrous suggestion. And not merely because of the impracticality of moving the structures, but in the understanding that they are incomplete without their setting. Yet it is such a preposterous logic that has resulted in the erasure of every markers of these markets’ existence in Delhi.

Take Mehrauli, for instance, where the Phoolwaalon ki Sair, a spring festival of communal harmony, has been celebrated since the Mughal era and was revived by Jawaharlal Nehru. The dargah and temple in Meharauli see simultaneous floral offerings at the culmination of a procession adorned with flowers. Why couldn’t the mandi be re-created within the gardens amidst the flowing waters of poetic Hauz-i-Shamsi, the erstwhile and now ruined Mughal gardens? Thus integrating history, space and use in a memorable manner. How much does it take to sensitively build vending tenements and storage facilities that combine commerce and heritage?

Both markets in Hanuman Mandir and Chandini Chowk were brilliant examples of what the West calls adaptive re-use. Not pre-meditated but organic. Both commence with the predawn fog that shields the radiant hues of roses, marigold and orchids and end abruptly as the first rays of the morning sun sears its face. Later, the one at Connaught place turned into a crafts hub while the other gave way to the aromas of spices at Khari Baoli. Why could the logistics of transport and even storage not be provided in these existing commercial havens? Why couldn’t architecture here have designed itself for impermanence?

It’s been done at Covent Garden in London and in Bangkok’s famous orchid marts. While it is claimed that dislodgment is not the same as removal, yet however ‘well meaning’ it seems to be, it stems out of a hierarchical valuation of what is of importance to the city. And evidently flowers are not.

If this displacement is an act of sanitising Delhi, then the silence that has ensued in its wake has left it with a stench that reeks of an apathy of what actually makes the “sense” in a city. It clearly does not lie in a sensibility but in its ability to evoke feelings and emotions that continue to enthrall the hearts of its dwellers.
Suparna Bhalla
Published on November, 19th 2011

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