Mali also known as malakar, is a professional group engaged in taking care of gardens. Mala means garland and kar is the person who makes or wreaths it. Originally, mali was a shudra caste employed in collecting flowers and making garlands to provide them for the service of Hindu temples as well as for use in Hindu festivals. Flower garlands are draped round necks of idols of kali, krishna, and ganesh. The nearest caste ranking below the malis in the Hindu social hierarchy is Bhuimali, a group of scavengers regarded as the most unclean among the untouchables. Malis are divided into two main groups: the phulkata mali, who specialises in making ornaments, toys, crafts etc from flowers and flower plants and the dokani mali, who sells flower through their own shops. In addition to their regular service, the mali people are occasionally found to work as vendors, coolies, fish sellers, vaccinators and service providers in temples.
The profession of malakars requires considerable knowledge of flowers, especially of the religious norms since some flowers are forbidden for use in religious services, and some others can only be exhibited before the shrines of deities to whom they belong. Thus the dhutura flower is sacred to shiva, the aparajita (clitoria ternatea) to Kali, the basak (adhatoda vasika) to saraswati and the ashoka (saraca asoka) to Sasthi. The Jaba (hibiscus rosa-sinensis) or China rose is an omen and can not be used in weddings. It can be presented to Kali only and not to any other idols. Malis are often asked to provide strong scented blossoms for religious offerings and for this they need to make sure that varieties like champa (michelia champaca), beli (jasmimum sambac), gandharaj (gardenea jasminoides) and the harsinger (nyctonthes arbortrists) are available on time.
With the passage of time there have been certain changes in the profession of mali and his nature of work. The profession lost its original caste character. Many malis even do not belong to the Hindu community. The growth of urbanisation and the establishment of offices, parks and educational institutions brought many malis into modern urban centres where they take care of gardens in the premises of these institutions. Some places in Bangladesh, however, still have concentrations of the mali community and these are Chittagong, Naogaon, Jessore, Shalikha, Court Chandpur and Narail. [Gofran Faroqi]