The kingdom of water lilies

Last Thursday, while waiting in an auto rickshaw for the Bisleri Factory (Andheri) signal to turn green, a bunch of women appeared with baskets of colourful water lilies and all the vehicles were abuzz with excitement. I am a fan of this local ritual and have regularly purchased handful of lilies for R30-40 to put in my flower vase.

There were white, light purple, yellow and the commonest, pink lilies. While they bring joy and brightness to my household, I get pleasant smiles from passersby who see me carry them home. At the signal, the buyers raised a common doubt, "Are these lotuses?" and the ladies innocently replied in Marathi, "Kamal ahet, paan ti mothi kamla astat tyahun vegli ahet hi (These are not large lotuses, these are the smaller water lilies)".

They were spot on as lotus — a distantly related group — has very different physical characteristics than water lilies. Simplistically, Lotus (Nelumbo) flowers have loosely attached petals and a central disc which has seeds (locally called kamal kakdi) — both are consumed by Kashmiris, Sindhis and Maharashtrians. Lotus leaves rise way above the water and are light green and waxy. Water droplets slide down them easily. Most lotuses are cultivated and are home to many water birds, such as whistling ducks and jacanas.

Water lilies (Nymphaeas), on the other hand, are believed to be derived from the most primitive and simplest flowering herbs. They have a rhizome (tuber) which lies rooted underwater in the soil and the notched leaves float on the surface of the water. The V-shaped cut and the wavy margin with partially submerged leaves and profuse flowering makes the village and suburban lakes photogenic and attractive subjects. Just take a walk around the Masunda Lake in Thane and you will be privileged to see scores of pond skaters, white throated kingfishers, little egrets and checkered keelback snakes hunting, foraging, displaying around the water lilies.

Water lilies are highly scented and full of pollen, suitable for beetle pollination and great habitats for honey bees, dragonflies and frogs
Water lilies are highly scented and full of pollen, suitable for beetle pollination and great habitats for honey bees, dragonflies and frogs 

Globally, the water lily market runs into multiple crores of rupees and yet most of the flowers are sourced from the wild. On enquiring with the ladies selling the water lilies at Andheri, I learnt that those flowers are sourced from the ponds of Vasai, Saphale and Palghar. In Maharashtra, it's a common sight for village girls to even wear these lilies in their hair.

Water lilies are also a common offering in many temples, such as at Bheemashankar, the ISCKON temple at Juhu and even small structures near the Karnala Fort! It is now a popular fashion to grow water lilies in metal urns in five-star hotels, resorts, in small pools and even building lobbies. Water lilies are highly scented and full of pollen, suitable for beetle pollination and great habitats for honey bees, dragonflies and skittering frogs.

Many young fish tend to hide among their fibrous roots to escape predators — the water birds. If you are amazed by water lilies, it will be highly advisable to install a fountain and release loads of guppy fish and in a thin layer of soil, plant some lovely water lilies. If you are an amateur artist or a connoisseur of contemporary art, you should check up the art work by the French impressionist painter Monet, which has over 40 paintings of water lilies. One of the canvases sold for a whooping sum of £41million and several others have been auctioned for amounts varying between $18-50 million.

There is marked symbolism related with water lilies. The white water lily is the National Flower of Bangladesh and state flower of Andhra Pradesh. The blue water lily is the National Flower of Sri Lanka and the Birth Flower of July. Many Tamil poets wax eloquent about the beauty of water lilies and many sculptures and paintings in the Ajantha Caves are depicted with kings and queens holding water lilies.

Personally for me the dead and aseptic water parks and flowerless lakes hold no charm. But boating on lakes filled with lilies, such as those at Ballaleshwar or at the foothills of Saragad Fort, transport me to the romantic waters of the Dal, Nagin or Nainital. This monsoon, make it your ambition to install a small water body in your society and introduce a few water lilies.

Anand Pendharkar is an ecologist, who is the founder of SPROUTS, an outdoors and eco-tourism company and SPROUTS Environment Trust, an NGO which works with youth and underprivileged groups and aims to provide a sustainable environment for all

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