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Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika Yatindra Mahadesikaya Nama:


                                Glorious Garlands



I was marking attendance at a marriage. The next item on the agenda was for the 
Bride and Groom to exchange garlands-"Maalai Maattral". I sat up in my seat and 
began to take notice, as this is the part of the marriage festivities that I 
like the most. It is very obviously a throwback to ancient times when girls 
used to garland the man they fancied the most, in a Swayamvaram. And it is so 
beautifully symbolic, don't you think, of the bride choosing the man as her 
life mate. What better way to show your affections, than with flowers, and that 
too with garlands?

(Some harried husbands would, in retrospect, compare the wedding garland to a 
noose put around their unwitting neck, similar to the one around the 
sacrificial goat's-- but let us ignore them, as we are talking here of happy 
marriages). Coming back to the exchange of garlands between the bride and the 
groom, quite a few years back, the maternal uncles of the bride and the groom 
used to officiate over this part of the marriage, each carrying his ward on his 
shoulders and running back and forth. This is usually a hilarious scene, with 
the uncles vying with each other in demonstrating their respective skills, 
making it difficult for the other party to put the garland around the neck of 
the bride or the groom. This carrying on shoulders was possible and easy, when 
marriages used to take place between children, or at best adolescents. However, 
with the current practice of marriages between full-grown adults in their late 
twenties, the uncles have to grunt and groan while carrying their charges, if 
at all they venture to undertake the rather risky business. I know of an uncle 
who, after carrying the rather bulky bride on his shoulders during the 
garland-exchange, was hospitalized for six months with a prolapsed disc. 


However, this piece is not about uncles or prolapsed discs. It is about 
Garlands. You may think, "What is there to write on garlands! They are after 
all put together to be worn a few hours and thrown off once they wilt." I too 
was under the same impression, till I did some research on the subject and 
found a wealth of information, which would make us look at them in a new light 


As a ten-year-old, I remember being taken shopping for Sri Jayanti by my 
father. When he bought a small garland of Shenbaka flowers (with which Sri 
Periazhwar sought to adorn Sri Krishna) and entrusted it to me for carrying, I 
could not resist smelling the same, since the scent was extremely heady. When 
he happened to watch me at this, my father instantly threw away the garland, 
telling me that flowers meant for the Lord should not be smelt or used by us in 
any other way, before being submitted to Him. Though we bought a different 
garland, the incident stuck to my memory. Sometime later, when my father was 
recounting to me the glorious tale of Sri Andal and came to the portion about 
Her having adorned Herself with the garlands meant for the Lord, painstakingly 
put together by Her father Sri Vishnuchitta, I promptly queried my father as to 
how Sri Andal could have done something which I had been prohibited from doing. 
And later too, when I was taught Sri Periazhwar's pasuram describing the 
devotees' delight in adorning themselves with garlands and clothes cast off by 
Emperuman, it rankled in my mind as to how the Lord could have made an 
exception in the case of Sri Andal and accepted garlands She had worn first.  
My father gently explained to me the ocean of difference between my humble self 
and Sri Andal, pointing out the intense and pure love that She had for 
Emperuman, which made the Lord not only accept the used garlands with unalloyed 
pleasure, but refuse to wear any others. 


Normally, once you wear them, flowers lose their fragrance and wilt away 
gradually due to the wearer's body heat. However, the garland worn by Sri Goda 
acquired a unique fragrance due to Her association, which the flowers did not 
originally possess. And when He wore the garlands of Goda, Sri Ranagnatha too 
smelled sweeter than ever, we are told by Swami Desikan. In fact, the Lord is 
touted to be the repository of all fragrance-"Sarva Gandha:". However, the 
scent of the garlands which originally adorned Sri Andal was such as to 
suppress and overwhelm all other sources of fragrance Emperuman sported, be it 
the sacred scent of the Shruti, that of the Vijayanti Vanamala constantly 
adorning the Lord's chest or the sweet-smelling sandalwood paste smeared on His 
chest. Sri Kodai's hair, on which the garlands originally resided, was so 
beautiful and so fragrant, that Sri Ranganatha, once He was used to such 
garlands, spurned any other which had not been worn first by Kodai. She is 
hence said to have captivated and captured the affections of Rangaraja through 
Her garlands-"Sragbhi: aakrishta naathaa". We have heard of marriages resulting 
in garlands being exchanged. Andal's, however, must be the first instance of 
garlands having been instrumental for Her divine marriage with the Ultimate. 
And Andal's association with garlands doesn't come as a surprise to us, 
considering that the word "Kodai" refers to a garland, in chaste Tamizh.


Everyone would agree that bees are the best judges of the quality of fragrance, 
flitting all their lives from flower to flower. Finding the Vanamaala adorning 
the Lord's chest to be the most fragrant in the world, bees used to throng the 
garland. However, once the Lord started wearing the garlands passed on by Sri 
Andal, bees, the connoisseurs that they are, immediately deserted the Vanamaala 
and besieged the Andal maalai, finding the latter infinitely more fragrant than 
the former. All this and more we learn from the Goda Stuti of Swami Desikan, 
who waxes eloquent in the description of the garlands Kodai Nacchiar tried on 
before submission to Her Lord with love. If even bees with limited faculties 
were able to discern the difference between Andal's maalai and others, is it 
any wonder that the omniscient Lord appreciated the same?


However, Sri Andal's is not the first instance of someone mesmerizing and 
binding Emperuman head to foot with garlands. Sri Mythily too bound the Prince 
of Ayodhya with a garland of jasmine flowers, we are told by Sri Periazhwar. 
Though Valmiki omits to narrate the episode, we are told that the Divine Couple 
were playing chess (Chaturangam) and as a romantic punishment for Sri Rama who 
lost the game, Vaidehi playfully tied Him up with garlands of sweet-smelling 
jasmine. This intimate event is narrated by Sri Maruti to Sri Sita at 
Asokavanam, to establish his bona fides as Rama's emissary. Here is Azhwar's 
beautiful paasuram describing a divine romance-


"Alli am poo malar kodaai! Adi paninden vinnappam

sollugen kettarulaai tunai malar kan mada maane!

Elli am podu inidu iruttal irundador ida vagaiyil

Mallikai maalai kondu angu aarttadum or adayaalam"


We saw Swami Desikan speak of the Vanamaala being put to shame by the fragrance 
of garlands worn by Soodik koduttha Sudarkkodi. What then is this Vanamaala?


Named Vaijayanti, the Vanamala is a garland of unfading flowers worn with élan 
by Emperuman. It adorns His broad chest constantly and is as much an indication 
of His supremacy as the other signs, such as Sri Mahalakshmi. It is one of the 
items that identifies Emperuman as the Supreme Lord of the universe-a so-called 
"Swaroopa Niroopaka Dharmam". It is extremely soft, red and close to the Lord's 
heart, physically and otherwise. It is the finest of garlands and fit in all 
respects to be worn by the Paramapurusha. All these we come to know from Swami 
Desikan's beautiful words, "Aamodavatyapi sadaa hridayangamaapi raagaanvitaapi 
lalitaapi gunottaraapi". The Vanamaala's fragrance is beyond measure, which 
attracts bees in droves. According to Sri Parasara Bhattar, the leaves and 
petals of this Vaijayanti maala come into contact with the holy feet of Sri 
Mahalakshmi, who too adorns the Lord's chest. And due to the association, the 
Vaijayanti is made fresher, cooler, more fragrant and lustrous.


The Lord is so enamoured of the Vanamaala that He continues to sport it even 
during His avataras. It adorns Sri Krishna's dark chest, we are told by Swami 
Desikan-"Jayanti Sambhavam dhaama Vaijayanti vibhooshanam". The Uddhava Gita 
too speaks of the Lord sporting this Vanamaala during the Krishnavataram-


Shankha Chakra Gadaa Padma Vanamala vibhooshitam

Noopurai: vilasat paadam Koustubha prabhayaa yutam"


It is natural and appropriate for men and women to wear garlands. Have you ever 
heard of a Fish sporting a garland? Before you ridicule me for such an 
impossible suggestion, let me quote Sri Bhattar, who avers that even during the 
Matsyaavataaram, the Lord did not forsake the Vaijayanti, which continued to 
adorn His fishy neck. "Srak" in Sanskrit means a garland and the Lord is known 
as "Sragvee" (Vishnu Sahasranamam) because He constantly wears the Vaijayanti 
around His neck, irrespective of the form He assumes. Here is the relative 
quote from Sri Bhattar's commentary-"Tiryaktvepi paratva soochinee Vaijayanti 
srak asya nitya yoginee iti Sragvee". He is also known as "Vanamaalee" due to 
His constant wearing of this priceless garland. 


There are several versions as to the actual composition of the Vaiyjayati. 
According to some, it is composed of Tulasi, Mallika, Mandara, Paarijaatam and 
Lotus and extends from the Lord's neck to His holy feet. Some others say that 
this necklace is composed of the five principal gems-Pearls, Rubies, Emeralds, 
Sapphires and Diamonds. Whatever the Vaijayanti may consist of, it symbolizes 
the five basic elements of nature-Fire, Water, Air, Atmosphere and Wind. The 
Lord wears these five elements and the five Tanmaatraas in their subtlest form 
around His neck in a floral form, says the Vishnu Puranam-


"Pancha roopaa yaa maala Vaijayanti gadaa bhrita:

 Saa bhoota hetu sangaataa bhoota maalaa cha vai dvija!"


According to the Bhaagavata Puraanam, the Vanamala is symbolic of the Lord's 
Maayaa and is comprised of the multifarious gunas--"Sva maayaam 
Vanamaalaakhyaam naanaa guna mayeem dadhat"


This Vaijayanti is no mere adornment, it multiplies manifold the strength and 
valour of the wearer, we are told by Mahabharata, which also informs us that 
the Lord lent this unique garland to Subrahmanya, to aid him in his battle 
against asuras--


"Vishnu: dadou Vaijayanteem maalaam bala vivardhineem

 Uma dadou cha arajasee vaasasee soorya sama prabhe"


When Bhagadatta, ranged against Arjuna in the battle between Pandavas and 
Kauravas, unleashes the Vaishnavaastram, a deadly weapon capable of destroying 
not only the Paandava but the entire world, Sri Krishna steps in and takes the 
missile on His broad chest. However, when it encounters the divine tirumeni, 
the potent astram turns into a garland and adorns the dark chest of Krishna, 
becoming the Vaijayanti maala, says the Mahabharata--" Vaijayanti abhavan 
maalaa tat astram Kesava urasi"


The Mahabhrata speaks about a different Vaijayanti maala too, one gifted by 
Indra to Maharaja Uparichara. While gifting the same, Indra tells the Raja that 
the garland was unique and would save him from any and all of opponents' 
weapons, during war-


"Dadaami te Vaijayanti maalaam amlaana pankajaam

 Dhaarayishyati sangraame yaa tvaam shastrai: avikshatam".


Such, then, is the glory of the Vaijayanti Vanamala. Sri Tondaradippodi Azhwar 
was born on this earth, as an "amsam" of this Vanamala, according to 


In the Nrisimhaavatara too, the Lord wore a garland--but this particular 
garland was entirely different from any He had sported earlier. Unable to 
tolerate the torture meted out to His devotee Prahlada, the leonine Lord put 
Hiranyakasipu on His lap, dug out his entrails with His nails and wore the 
asura's intestines around His neck, as a gory garland. This is the form in 
which we can stil see Him at the heights of Ahobilam, as Jwaalaa Nrsimhan. We 
might wonder why the Lord should not have stopped with merely killing 
Hiranyakasipu, without demonstrating excessive anger, leading Him to devise a 
new and unique garland for Himself: however, the Lord's apparently extreme 
anger stemmed from His intolerance to His devotees being insulted or injured. 
He could readily forgive offence aimed at Himself, but not that to His sincere 
Bhaktas. The episode demonstrates the gravity of Bhaagavata apachaaram, against 
which all Prapannaas are advised by the Acharya at the time of Saranagati.


Garlands are basically a feminine adornment. We are hence hardly surprised to 
learn from the Lakshmi Ashtottarasatanaama Stotram that Sridevi too wears a 
garland of beautiful lotus blooms--"Padma maalaa dharaam Deveem, Padmineem 
Padma gandhineem". And when Ravana reaches Rama's aashramam in the garb of an 
ascetic on the unholy mission of kidnapping Vaidehi, he finds Her sporting a 
similar lotus garland-


"Kaa tvam kaanchana varnaabhe peeta kouseya vaasinee

 kamalaanaam subhaam maalaam Padmineem iva bibhratee"


Garlands, especially of gold and pearls, made ideal gifts too. We often hear of 
kings and queens instantly rewarding couriers (with good news) with chains and 
necklaces from their necks. We thus see Kaikeyee assuring a reward of a golden 
garland to the scheming hunchback Manthara, for her diabolic idea for Bharata's 
coronation and Rama's banishment to the forests for fourteen long years-


"Atra te pratimokshyaami maalaam kubje! Hiranmayem

 Abhishikte cha Bharate Raghave cha vanam gate"


As a humble offering from Indra, Vaayu Bhagawan presents Raghava with a 
beautiful golden garland on the occasion of His coronation. Sri Rama and His 
Consort too bestow gifts upon all those who attended the function. It is no 
coincidence that all the principal Vaanara Veeras are gifted with garlands of 
gold and precious gems. Sri Sita takes off a golden necklace (haaram) from Her 
neck and looks at those assembled contemplatively, as if wondering whom to give 
it to. Sri Rama, reading Her mind, tells Her to give it to the person She likes 
most, to one endowed with unmatched valour and wisdom. Immediately, Vaidehi 
gifts the golden garland to Maaruti--


"Avamuchya aatmana: kantthaat haaram Janaka Nandini

 dadou saa Vaayu Putraaya tam haaram asitekshanaa".


It would be no exaggeration to ascribe the death of the apparently invincible 
Vali to a garland. Sugriva engages Vali in combat, spurred on by Rama's promise 
that He would kill Vali. However, the battling brothers are so alike that Rama 
knows not who is who and as a result, Sugriva just manages to escape with a 
sound thrashing. To avoid the confusion, Rama tells Lakshmana to adorn Sugriva 
with a garland made of Gajapushpi flowers, so that positive identification can 
be made of Vali, who would not be wearing such a garland. And ultimately, when 
Sugriva fights again with a confident Vali, the latter is felled with a single 
Rama baanam. A slightly different version is available in the story of Sri Rama 
narrated in Mahabharata, with Hanuman, and not Rama, coming up with the idea of 
Sugriva wearing a distinctive garland for purposes of identification--


"Na visesha: tayo: yuddhe tadaa kaschana drisyate

 Sugreevasya tadaa maalaam Hanooman kantta aasajat"


Vali, though not wearing a garland of flowers, was nevertheless adorned by a 
golden garland--"Vaalinam hema maalinam". Legend has it that this was no 
ordinary garland and was gifted to Vali by his august father Indra. When Vali 
went into combat wearing this garland, it sucked away half of the opponent's 
strength, thus making it ridiculously easy for Vali to triumph. We find from 
the Kishkindha Kaandam that Vali wore this garland during all his major 
battles, for instance the one with Dundhubhi, the dreaded asura in a buffalo 


"Tam evam uktvaa samkruddho maalaam utkshipya kaanchaneem

 Pitraa dattaam Mahendrena yuddhaaya vyapatishttata"


Given his innate, phenomenal strength, Vali was made so powerful by this unique 
garland that he never lost any of his battles. However, it is a confirmation of 
fate's long arm that even the magical garland could not save Vali, when his end 
was at hand. Upon his death, the broad-minded Vali bequeaths this unique 
garland to his detractor Sugriva, duly advising the latter about the garland's 
divine properties.


If Vali lost his life due to a garland, it is indeed a coincidence to find that 
his father Indra too lost his entire riches and fame, again due to a garland. 
Once Sage Dhurvaasa, known for his irascibility, presented Indra with a garland 
obtained from Paarvathi Devi as prasaadam. Indra placed the sacred garland on 
the neck of Iraavatam, his elephant, from where it fell and was trampled under 
the pachyderm's feet. Dhurvaasa was enraged at the apparent disrespect shown by 
Indra and cursed him immediately, as a result of which Indra lost all his 
wealth, splendour and status as the head of the devas.  

Going on to the Krishnavataram, we find the Lord extremely enamoured of 
garlands. When He goes to Mathura to do away with Kamsa, Sri Krishna goes to 
the royal court in style. First and foremost, He appropriates beautiful 
apparel, freshly washed and pressed, being carried by the washer man for 
Kamsa's use and dresses Himself in the freshly laundered clothes, much to the 
chagrin of the dhobi.

Krishna goes next to the royal florist, who is busily stringing together fresh 
and fragrant flowers in beautiful garlands for Kamsa and asks him for the 
garlands. The florist, recognizing Krishna to be the Paramatma come in person, 
welcomes Him with bowed head and offers the lovingly strung garlands to Krishna 
and Balarama, deeming himself extremely fortunate to be of service to the 
Divine Duo.


In contrast, when Krishna, Bheema and Arjuna go to Magadha to battle with 
Jaraasandha, the three snatch fresh garlands being taken by the florist for the 
use of Jaraasandha and adorn themselves with the flowers, thereby adding insult 
to the injury to be inflicted on the Magadha sovereign.


Garlands have another role--they serve as an ideal way of welcoming VIPs. No 
meeting, political or otherwise, is complete without the speakers being 
profusely garlanded by the organizers. If you think this practice is a recent 
one, you are in for a surprise. The Kousheetaki Upanishad tells us that all new 
entrants to Paradise are welcomed by a hundred divine damsels, all holding 
beautiful garlands in their hands, to adorn the necks of those fortunate souls 
who have performed Prapatti and are hence led to Sri Vaikunttam upon release 
from their mortal coils--


"Tam pancha shataani apsarasaam prati dhaavanti, shatam maalaa hastaa:

  shatam anjana hastaa: shatam choorna hastaa: shatam vaasohastaa:"


There are actually five hundred beautiful maidens in the welcoming party--while 
a hundred hold garlands, the other four hundred hold spanking new garments, 
fragrant powders, etc., with which to welcome the VIPs. 


Though it would appear from the aforesaid that garlands are of universal 
application, there is a particular section of the populace that is specifically 
prohibited from wearing garlands or using them in any fashion. According to 
Manu, Brahmachaaris are forbidden from wearing garlands and are directed to 
avoid them, along with other items like perfumes, intoxicating liquor, female 
company, etc. Here is the relative sloka from Manusmriti--


"Varjayet madhu maamsam gandham maalyam rasaan striya:

 suktaani yaani sarvaani praninaam cha eva himsanam"


The same Manusmriti tells us that whenever Brahmins well versed in Veda and 
Vedanta visit us, these athithis hould be propitiated with garlands, inter 


"Upavesya tu taan vipraan aasaneshu ajugupsitaan

 gandha maalyai: surabhibhi: archayet daiva poorvakam"


We saw how Sri Andal bedecked the Lord with not only floral garlands, but 
verbal ones too--not only "Poomaalai" but "Paamaalai" too. Inspired by Her 
example, Sri Tyagaraja of Tiruvaiyaaru speaks of stringing together a unique 
garland of diamonds: however, these are no mere stony and hard gems, but are 
composed of lyrics in a hundred delightful tunes, filled with devotion and 
brimming over with Bhakti--"Raaga ratna maalika che, ranjillu nata Hari shata 
raga ratna maalika che". Not only the Lord, even His ceremonial umbrellas are 
decorated with garlands of pearls and precious stones, we are told by 
Azhwars--"Maalai ser ven kudai".


Shall we end this rather long narrative with an interesting tidbit? To go back 
to the beginning of this piece, to the bride's adornment with a garland, it 
appears to be ancient custom (which is followed to this day) to have the 
kalyaana maalai placed on the bride's neck by the sister-in-law (naatthanaar), 
as soon as the bride is bedecked in the bridal dress (koorai pudavai). This we 
learn from Sri Andal's own words, where, dreaming of Her wedding with Sri 
Krishna, She finds Durga Devi (also born to Yasoda) gently placing the 
sweet-smelling garland around Her (Andal's) beautiful neck--"Mana maalai andari 
chootta kanaa kanden tozhee naan". 


Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana 
Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

dasan, sadagopan














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