Takhellei nachom na nappada, chini champa na samji da
Leiranggi ningthiba, shingelgi phajaba
Nuja napaal tangjabini
Nangi maithong urubada sajibu gulabna ikaijabini
One of my favourite Manipuri popular songs by the late Nongmaithem Pahari pays tribute to the beauty of a Meitei woman in her prime: A takhellei nachom on her side, a chini champa (ylang ylang) on the hair bun, the beauty of these beautiful flowers, however, are dependent on her beauty of which even the exemplary beauty of the red rose of early spring shies in comparison.
A nachom is something like a corsage, except, here it is not the man who gifts it but the women themselves who assemble it. It is a small arrangement of scented flowers and foliage that women use as adornments to be worn behind the ear.
A takhellei nachom is one such floral assemblage made with the fragrant gold spot ginger lily locally known as takhellei. The assembling of this floral package makes use of the little opening in the stalk next to the stamen. Other smaller fragrant flowers and herbs are inserted and bound with the petals of the ginger lily as the base. The bright yellow chingonglei (acacia farmesiana, commonly known as mimosa bush) takes a place of pride in a takhellei nachom. It is accompanied by the humble sangbrei foliage (sc. name microtoena patchoulii).
In a recent workshop I attended, Dr. Jamini Devi spoke on the Meitei aesthetics that can be seen expressed in different ways. The takhellei nachom, she points out, is one of the expressions of this cultural aesthetics. It is not bigger flowers such as dahlia that a woman traditionally uses to adorn herself on the ear but a combination of such smaller floral varieties assembled together. Oja Jamini attributes this to the appreciation of the variety of nature in its flora and fauna in her brief mention. I am however certain that if one were to push it, it would undoubtedly reveal competition among women for a skillful arrangement of such a nachom that would outshine all others, in arrangement as well as in its fragrance.
Needless to say, there are certain flowers and foliage that are not (or cannot be) used in a nachom. The skills of making that perfect nachom would thus require more than a basic cultural understanding of the world of flowers and plants but has to be combined with nimble fingers and the finesse to arrange the little delicate blossoms. Given the delicate nature of both a takhellei and sangbrei that would readily droop, time is an important factor besides careful handling.
The nachom as an adornment is also a statement of a woman’s affection or marital status. A married woman or an unmarried women who has been spoken for would wear it on her right side while an unmarried or unattached woman wears it on her left side. Many a Manipuri love story set in an earlier time have romanticized the nachom as much as they continue to romanticize the fragility of the heroines in contemporary Manipuri films.
In this winter chill when the sangbrei leaves were hard to find and takhellei also became rare, it was khagi leihao (frangipani) that took the place of the lily to hold the little florets as one assemblage. The fragipani is a more sturdy flower and has a larger opening which seems more feasible and durable for the assembling. But then, it is the fragility of the delicate takhellei that is cherished.
Dr. Jamini may have remarked on the finer aesthetics of the Meitei culture, however, it appears that it is bigger flowers like dahlia, hibiscus and roses if not the artificial flowers that now adorn the Meitei women. In all the enthusiasm to represent the Meitei women in ‘traditional costume’, the nachom appears to have been overlooked and conveniently replaced by large attractive flowers – natural or artificial. The subtlety and appreciation of an assembled nachom arrangement now stands out as a remnant of another way of life – one that had the time to stop by and appreciate the little things that nature and life has to offer. The contemporary way of life seems disconnected to the subtle finesse of a nachom, preferring in its place the obvious glamour of the bigger flowers that do not require any further arranging.
The humble appreciation of the small flowers as ingredients to a well defined cultural aesthetics of a nachom brings my thoughts to a post where I read about Loki Schmidt Foundation’s public awareness campaign to draw attention to endangered wild flowers by celebrating them through its “Flower of the Year” campaign. It sounds like a wonderful initiative.