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India: Inside Kolkata's biggest flower market

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A vendor weighs a purchase of marigolds at Kolkata's Malik Ghat flower market. Photo / Jill Worrall
A vendor weighs a purchase of marigolds at Kolkata's Malik Ghat flower market. Photo / Jill Worrall

Even half an hour in Kolkata's Malik Ghat flower market is sufficient to overwhelm one's senses. A walk leaves you reeling among the mounds of petals and garlands of blooms, bruised by the constant flow of humanity laden with produce, submerged in marigolds and awash with roses.

It is also a perilous place of hard sell and sweaty armpits, of creaking trolleys and flower carriers who press through the crush of shoppers heedless of onlookers.

Stand still for too long and you will be buffeted by men on a mission - porters bent under the weight of vast, multi-hued baskets of flowers from the lush, sultry fields of West Bengal.

Malik Ghat is Kolkata's largest flower market; some say even west Asia's biggest - no one really seems to know. But the city itself has more than 15 million inhabitants and the market is always frenetic, so this has to be a place of serious financial flower power.

Every morning, from about 3am, up to 2000 sellers arrive in the market area that lies in the shadow of the Howrah Bridge which spans the Hoogly River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges.

The market is more than 125 years old and in 2008 it was almost completely destroyed by fire. However it has risen again from the ruins.

Ramshackle definitely but thriving never-the-less - flowers are big business here, an essential element in temple rituals and offerings, of weddings and festivals.

Wholesalers also export flowers to the rest of India and even to Europe, bought from these rickety stalls and from sellers who have simply spread their wares out on the pavement.

The main approach for visitors is via a railway overbridge. At the bottom of the steps a few salesmen and women, unable to find space in the market proper, have set up shop, as have others on the bridge itself.

Porters bearing their baskets of flowers on their heads pass perilously close by but somehow even the tiniest of bare-bottomed toddlers who cling to the legs of their beggar mothers manage to stay out of their way.

Progress down the other side of the bridge into the market is slow as the porters clearly have right of way and have no time or patience to wait for rubber-necking travellers. In the alley between the stalls there is a little more room to manoeuvre - but only just.

I stopped to watch a woman threading tightly furled hibiscus buds into garlands, only to be shouted out by four men who were inexplicably carrying four fake marble columns through the market.

Even our guide, a veteran of 45 years introducing visitors to his city, couldn't explain where they were going.

Among the carefully constructed mounds of flowers were other sellers creating strings of marigolds, bouquets of roses and delicate bracelets of tiny white, sweet-swelling buds of a flower I couldn't identify.

There were mounds of glossy green leaves too; these are used to keep delicate blooms fresh and cool and for wrapping up food and the ubiquitous betel nut that is chewed by millions of Indians, leaving teeth and spit stained startlingly blood red.

Despite the narrowness of the passageway, optimistic drivers still manage to weave their way through the chaos in small trucks. While flower-sellers patiently drag their displays out of harm's way, other passers-by helpfully bang on the side of the vehicle to signal there's room to move and the driver himself keeps the horn blaring constantly, just in case his presence hasn't been noticed.

It's not advisable to avert one's gaze from the road... flower sellers are extremely protective of their delicate blooms, and although stray petals are strewn everywhere, not everything one stands on is quite as fragrant.

It's hard not to miss the Howrah Bridge that looms overhead even so. Building the bridge took from 1937-1943; it is one of the largest cantilever bridges in the world and one of the busiest.

Every day more than 80,000 vehicles choke its eight lanes, along with about a million pedestrians. When the weather is hot, the bridge lengthens by up to one metre.

If I'd kept walking through the market and under the bridge I'd be on the burning ghats, where every year thousands of people are cremated, their ashes being scattered in the Ganges, the most desired end for Hindus. The river is also the final resting place for many thousands of pottery images of the Hindu gods and goddesses during religious ceremonies.

Most of these have been made just a few kilometres away in the potters' village known as Kumartuli. About 250 families of potters churn out thousands of statues a year, especially of the mother goddess Durga. Although the main buyers are locals, thousands are also exported around the world to far-flung Indian communities.

The potters-cum-sculptors who work here are the latest in untold generations of workers. Their skills are passed down from father to son. The latest generation of potters sits among the unpainted drying forms of Durga, row upon row of shapely thighs and pert breasts.

Among the sculptures are shops selling fireworks, thick, gaudy festoons of tinsel and other festival and ceremonial essentials.

In the midst of all the glitz and curvaceous limbs, two men are tying two life-sized cross-legged pottery sculptures onto the roof of a car and a skinny boy is darting from shop to shop delivering chai to potters toiling away in the shadowy depths of their studios.

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