If you are up even before dawn in Delhi, you may want to go for a run along the city’s many green belts. Or you could pay a visit to India’s biggest wholesale flower market in Connaught Place, the main commercial and shopping district in the centre of the capital of the country.
First question: Why early morning? Because it is a temporary market that comes alive at 4 am and disappears by 9 am. Traders display their offerings during this time when retailers and decorators, and some customers who want flowers for their personal use, come to stock up for their own customers. Hundreds of traders set up shop every day of the year, all temporary, to do an annual business over $100 million (unofficial estimates). A permanent market to the east of Delhi is currently being planned. But the market may remain primarily a morning one as trade customers need to attend to their respective businesses during the day.
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Focusing on the flowers themselves, the range is as impressive as the source itself. Flowers come here from all over India – and it is a big country – as well as from distant countries like Thailand, China and Holland amongst others. And these include roses, orchids, zebras, lilies, iris, marigolds, anthuriums, and even artificial ones. In all shades of reds, oranges, yellows, blues, whites to highlight just a few.
This is the market where you pick up bargains. For example, a high quality rose one would but for Rs. 15 ($ 0.4) in a retail shop can be purchased for Rs. 4 only. Or a zebra going for Rs. 100 for 10 can be had for a tenth of the price. But this was today – March 26, 2008 – when I was there. It is off-season, and bargains are there for the taking. During peak season, usually lasting September – February, and in short bursts at other times, prices can be higher with sellers less willing to discount their products.
Being less busy also meant the traders had time to talk in a friendly manner; when business is good, be prepared to be snubbed if you are not a serious buyer. But all kinds of interesting people come to this market. A lady – with family name Rathore – is the third generation of her family in this business inheriting it from her father and grandfather. A rare social phenomena even now in India when the baton passes on to the daughter, her two sons are also involved in this work. Besides the wholesale stall where they sell dahlias and marigolds, they also have a shop in the old Delhi area of Chandni Chowk. She was offering a bunch of 10 dahlias for Rs. 20 when they could go for thrice as much when demand is better.
But she could not stop complaining about days like today are ones when they may not even earn enough to pay for transport to and from the market. But to her credit, she admitted the nature of this business is such where you earn for six months in a year, and live off it for the remaining six.
Another lady from West Bengal, selling artificial flowers, was excited to get her photos taken; she readily started posing when she extracted a promise from me to send her a print. Upon asking, she said her name is Gandhan, but added everyone knows her as the phoolwali aunty (the aunt who sells flowers). Around for eight years, her whole family is engaged in making these flowers and also participating in Government sponsored events around the country. She even fished out a visiting card for me with her business listed as ‘Radha Krishnan Handicrafts,’ manufacturers of all of kinds of dry flowers, dry baskets, pot pourri and cane baskets. They also do wedding decorations.
As you walk around, it is easy to chat up with very interesting people. Or you can just sit around and overhear conversations, calls to customers and other things sellers and buyers do. One trader, selling carnations, jokingly asked me not to take pictures because business is not good. Another, Ashok Kumar, could not help boasting of his own farms in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh where they grew lilies which were the best going around because they ensured the bulbs are imported from Holland. They also grew carnations, again the best as they changed the stems every 5-6 months. Kishen Haldar, selling tea from a portable contraption, seemed to be only one doing brisk business along with a few others like him; apparently an idle trader seeks solace from a cup of tea or coffee on a cool March morning. Ajay Barua, who I was told is the Vice President of the market’s association, even had the time to get his ears cleaned by a professional cleaner. Pointing out to the market, he highlighted the fact that most people present were the traders themselves.
Manoj Bhagra, who seemed to be in the quality end of the business, was whom I chatted longest with. Sharing the unofficial figures of the turnover of the market, he explained a lot about the dynamics of what I was seeing around me. India did have its own growth of orchids from down south, but growers of these exotic flowers went out of business when their production and transportation cost became higher than of the ones imported from Thailand; interestingly, as Bhagra pointed out, the imported orchids are the rejects of Thailand but do well here. Talk about globalization and competitive advantage of nations.
He also spoke of how the cut flowers business, growing at 20 percent annually, can do much better when people start buying to decorate their own homes and not just for gifting and decorations. He also expressed disappointment at the way we all treat flowers; as an example, if we just remove the wrappings, cut the flowers and put them in clean water in a vase, they would stay fresh for 4-7 days and not just 1-2. Bhagra is a founding member of the market in 1995. He added he does not know what he is doing in the market or why he is here, but he just enjoys the business to stick around.
There is a lot more one can talk about, but go and discover it for yourself.
A final take on the market: get up early one of these days, and make a trip to the market. Look at the flowers, absorb their beauty and take some home. It may just be the best good morning you may wished yourself in a long long time.
Quick Facts: The market is located across the road from the ancient Hanuman Temple on Baba Kharak Singh Road, Connaught Place in the central business and shopping district of New Delhi, India. Timings are 4-9 am daily. Anyone who has lived in Delhi can tell you where this place is, even if they do not know of the existence of this market.