Visit to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu 3—Organic Jasmine Flower Gardens
Visit to Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu: India's Jasmine Capital -- July 1998
Part 3: Organic Jasmine Flower Gardens
The early morning journey from Coimbatore into the surrounding countryside was a delight. The hours just before and after sunrise are charged ones in India. It is called the Amrit Vela or the Time of the Nectar as the quiet hours of early morning are considered the most auspicious for prayer and meditation. For thousands of years, the countries people have been rising during this time to pay homage to the Hidden Power which supports all life and the atmosphere is alive with the concentrated energy of this collective devotion. John Hayland, an Englishman who loved India wrote in his book, The Life of Christ:
"There is an hour of the Indian night, a little before the glimmer of the dawn, when the stars arer unbelievably clear and closer, shining with the radiance beyond our beliefm in this foggy land. The trees stand silent wround one with a friendly presence. As yet there is no sound from the awakening birds, but the whole world seems to be intent, alive, listening, eager. At such a moment the veil between the things that are seen and the things that are unseen becomes so thin as to interpose scarcely any barrier at all beteen the eternal beauty and truth and the soul which would comprehend them."
This quiet yet powerful energy greatly affects ones own thinking process and opens it to a rare and refined appreciation of the environment through which one is moving. It is as if the universe is ready and willing to speak of its hidden mysteries so that the soul can live a higher, more noble life. I cannot pretend to be that receptive to these subtle vibrations, but I do feel them and have felt them throughout the many trips to India I have made since 1971 and that experience lives in my mind and heart as being something real and meaningful. Perhaps by the end of this life's journey I will understand more of what it truly means.
As the sun begin to rise in this ancient land, we approached one of the small, immaculate farms that grace this rural district. A small farm house nestled amidst well-tended fields of sugar cane, banannas, coconuts, and jasmine. The cool air was filled with the ethereal aroma of newly opened jasmine buds and the farmer's family was moving through the new days crop with deftness and precision collecting the delicate blossoms before the heat dissipiated their(the flowers) concentrated fragrance. Men, women and children all joined together to work in the fields, to collect a crop that would bring them added income to preserve their rural lifestyles. The simple beauty of their faces, the clear sparkle in their eyes, and the grace and balance of their movements as they gather this fragile crop, all appeal to my inner sensibilities. There are no disturbing, jarring elements here, only the profound beauty of the land and her people working together to produce crops which satisfy both body and soul. In fact, one might argue that the farming community are the only ones who really get the real essence of the jasmine because the odor emitted by the living flower can never be fully captured in the absolute or essential oil. There are certain extremely volatile molecules that disappear once the flower is plucked. The absolute does approach that fragrance but it can only capture the memory of what occurs when one is totally surrounded by the timeless beauty of rural India with gentle, cool breezes blowing and birds singing their own unique praises to that pure Power which sustains all life in the creation.
The dignity and serenity of the farmer himself was testimony to the benefits of a life lived close to the land where only one's intuitive genuius can assist in dealing with the seasonal vagaries of nature. The knowledge contained in such people is not the wisdom of their generation alone but that which has been passed down through the long lineage of their forefathers.
Sethuraman told us that he was the most respected man of the area and his word was considered better than any legal document. He was responsible for ten or more families involved in jasmine cultivation connected with their factory and by his good example all involved in this activity adhered to verbal promises made with regards to paying back loans, cultivation of crops using organic gardening techniques, etc. It was on his property that the local farmers assembled early in the year to discuss the game plan for the coming season, problems from the previous year, new cultivation techniques, fertilizer needs, etc. While having their discussions they would all sit together and enjoy a simple vegetarian repast further cementing the bond of trust and friendship which is at the heart of any truly successful business enterprise.
The day-to-day operations for the jasmine harvest for farms like the one we were on commence at 5:30-6:00 when the family rises and begins the harvest. It use to be that the collection began at 3:00 or 4:00 but it became increasingly difficult to convince the farmers to begin the day so early, plus in that area of India there was the real danger of stepping on cobras or other poisnous snakes which one cannot see in the dark. Harvest goes on for 2-2.5 hours when the heat of the sun increases rapidly dissipating the flowers perfume. After the flowers are harvested they are placed in shallow wicker baskets in a cool place until the factory truck arrives for the morning pickup. Two specially designed trucks begin their rounds at 7:30 AM. The walls of the truck are thick and well insulated but perforated in such a way that cool air circulates without forcibly blowing on the collected flowers. When the truck arrives at the farm, the days collection is weighed on an accurate scale and the flowers are transferred to perforated plastic trays which are stacked one on top of the other in the truck's storage compartment. Each farmer has a card upon which is noted his daily contribution to the jasmine harvest. The truck goes from farm to farm and by 11:00 AM returns to the factory at which time the day's extraction begins.
A typical farm might have as much as 1 acre and as little as a quarter acre of Jasmin grandiflorum(Jasmin sambac is grown to a small extent but the bulk of the sambac comes from Madurai) One acre of land holds approximately 800-900 plants depending on the spacing. During the height of the season one plant can yield as much as 350 grams(12.5 ounces) of flowers per day. A yield of 2000 kilos(4400 lbs) of flowers per year can be gathered from an acre of land if it is well tended. One person can gather 1 kilo(2.2 lbs.) of flowers in a 2 hour period. It means that an experienced collector is able to pick over 80 individual flowers per minute or 5,000 per hour. When I first stopped to study these figures I realized how important it was to offer others not directly involved in the industry a glimpse into the world of the people engaged in the actual labor of harvesting the flowers. Only when we clearly understand the labor intensive nature of their work can we do our part to use their precious products in the best possilbe way. If we fail to grasp the importance of supporting the work of the farming community by paying them fair prices, then the day will certainly come when these lovely essential oils and absolutes will no longer be available. Even as I write this article prices of jasmine are beginning to rise in India because the Indian ruppee continues to be devalued against the US $. The people of the farming community do lead simple lives but they need a certain amount of cash to maintain that lifestyle. If they cannot receive a fair price for their floral products they will, of necessity, have to turn that land over to the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes because those are consumable crops.
Before leaving the farm, the farmer had fresh coconuts plucked from nearby trees, and we drank some of the most delicious coconut water I have ever tasted, both tangy and sweet. He then accompanied us to one of the an adjacent farm where we could see an operation similar to the one we had come from. Again I beheld immaculately kept fields where the jasmine plants exhibited large, perfect, deliciously fragrant flowers. I asked them if they had noticed any difference between the organic growing methods and the chemical ones which use to be the norm. They told me that when they used chemical fertilizers in the beginning years they use to get a collectabile amount of flowers every other month from June through December but when they switched to the organic technique they were able to get flowers consistently throughout this 7 month period. They also said that the fragrance quality of the flowers was superior with the organic technique.
As I watched the family work through their fields, seemingly not missing a single newly-opened flower, the thought came to me that through this common endeavor they were, without any complex thinking, maintaining an ancient tradition of family unity based upon mutual dependence on one another. It was a shared activity in which the whole family could participate because it did not demand tremendous physical strenghth, only deftness of fingers and patience. The good influence of the early morning hours, the pleasant temperature, the songs of the birds, the nice aromas, the beautiful landscape all provided an environment for promoting harmony and peace with ones family and the world. Even though I can only experience this world as an outsider I feel it is a lifestyle worth supporting and I feel determined to do whatever I can to promote the products they make so that this way of life might not altogether disappear.