India Travel Guide

It’s Worth Waking up at 3 a.m. to Experience Chennai’s Flower Markets

PHOTO: Karthika Gupta

Stop and smell the roses at Chennai’s wholesale flower market.

You know the feeling of waking up to the shrill sound of the alarm ringing at 3:30 a.m. and for a brief moment wondering who was mean or dumb enough to set the alarm that early? Moments later, the chagrin that follows when you realized that the person in question was actually you. That alarm is your reminder that an incredible adventure is about to unravel to one of the most off-the-beaten-path experiences you can have in Chennai, India—a visit to a bustling wholesale flower market where all the locals hang out.

Home to some of the most incredible, culturally rich temples and UNESCO sites, Chennai is a mecca for all things culture. A huge part of South Indian culture is the use of florals to decorate temples, homes, and businesses. It’s also used in religious offerings as well as worn as an accessory by women of all ages, and we’re not just talking about any one particular flower. Flowers like marigolds, Indian jasmine, lotus, roses, and countless other local varieties are grown and used every day. Nearly every corner of Chennai has its own ‘pookkari’ or flower lady—a women who sells flowers on a small makeshift stand off the side of the road. And in some residential areas, pookkaris go door to door selling flowers morning and evening just in time for daily prayers.

There are many flower markets all over the city but the bigger wholesale ones are where most of the action take place. These wholesale flower markets start at the wee hours of the morning and are a symphony of scent, sight and sounds as people wheel and deal in all things floral; of course, that means getting up at 3:00 a.m. and hitting the markets by 4:00 a.m. as truckloads of flowers from all over the city and state make their way to the flower merchants. Chances are you’ll feel sleep-deprived but once you arrive at Koyambedu Wholesale Flower Market, one of the most famous flower markets in Chennai, suddenly you’ll be on alert.

Nothing quite prepares you for the almost psychedelic kind of commotion that unfolds in front of your very eyes. Flowers being unloaded by the boxes, wholesalers and middlemen haggling over daily rates, and pookkaris sitting around making flower garlands and gossiping with each other. Roses of all colors on display, the sweet smell of jasmine, and different dialects of the local language make your head giddy with excitement. You quickly realize that this is not your average city adventure; this is something super special—a glimpse into the everyday lives of a people, a culture and a community on their own turf. And as an outsider, being given a chance to be a part of their day to day is worth the early wake-up call.

INSIDER TIPMost public transportation services are not running yet so you might need to hire a car and a driver. That way, your ride can wait for you while you walk around because some of these markets are far from the city center.

Now, before you start researching the market and chalking out your own adventure, you need to know that this is an off-the-beaten-path experience as the market is a hub for local commerce. The best time to see all the action live is really early in the morning. Be prepared to see huge throngs of people who are there solely to earn their daily bread. Jostling, pushing, and yelling might happen too, especially if you’re in the way. People are there to work and while chatting with you and posing for photos might be a fun distraction, not many will be ready to do that. And, always ask before you take their photos. If they agree, it’s a nice gesture to buy some flowers as a ‘Thank You’.

Perhaps the best part of it all is trying the strong filter kapi (coffee) at the market. It comes in a tiny paper cup that almost resembles an Italian cappuccino with a double shot of caffeine. It is the perfect jolt that you need to recover from getting up at 3:30 a.m. for an experience of a lifetime.