The fragrance of survival | Sunday Observer

The fragrance of survival

Vendors waiting in hope
Vendors waiting in hope

The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The earth smiles with flowers”; this is true. Flowers have within their soft petals the ability to refresh our minds. For centuries they have been offered in veneration to religious deities all over the world.

For thousands of Sri Lankans the once quiet fishing hamlet of Kalutara is synonymous with the Kalutara Maha Bodhi. For decades this Buddhist temple has been an iconic landmark, and continues to attract devotees and hundreds of tourists.

On the right hand side of the road, nestling in small grotto like cement structures are the flower vendors of Kalutara. As we stopped at the first stall and alighted from the car the fragrance of lotus flowers filled the air. Curious vendors strained their necks to pick up our conversation. At a distance the evening train thundered on crossing the massive iron bridge.

The old woman smiled and extended a bunch of flowers. Her skin, permanently tanned by the sun, her hair is more grey than black. Dulcie 72, a soft spoken woman said, “I have been selling flowers here for 35 years. This has been my only income. We are thankful to the temple for building these stalls, which are given to us free of charge. The temple provides us with illumination at night”. Our conversation is halted as a German couple makes a purchase. Dulcie continues, “Those days there weren’t many vehicles. People used to visit Kalutara on hired buses. We get our flowers from as far as Kataragama and Anuradhapura, and we begin work around 5am. The lotus flowers are sold 5 or 7 for Rs 100. On days when the rains affect those areas we don’t get our supply, and during the rainy season we earn nothing”.

The woman in the next stall is rather shy, and requests us not to take her photo, saying that her daughter works in an office and would be embarrassed to see her mother working as a flower vendor. There are 26 stalls. Midway through our walk we met a man immersing flowers in a large bucket of water.

Nuwan, middle aged, is an electrician by profession. He said, “Brother, today I came to fill in for my wife. She is ill and is resting at home. We are not rich, but we consider this job a sacred duty to the Bodhi. On some days we make as much as 1,500 rupees. On Poya days our income is more, while on rainy days we earn only a few rupees. There is a demand for fresh lotus flowers. Also, with the Expressway the people from Colombo are taking that route. Those vehicles do not ply on this road - and so we lose their business. My wife is here till 7pm, and on Poya days till much later. She has her lunch and tea at a nearby boutique”. These humble vendors make their day-to-day income, by selling flowers to the devotees.

As we walk back, Dulcie offers me a bunch of flowers which I decline with a smile. For these faithful vendors their only prayer is that they may have a more secure life.

May their fervent hopes blossom into reality.

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