A flower that withers and dies in the house or office is no big deal. But let's try to imagine what might happen if the withered flowers are not just a lovely little bunch sitting in the middle of a room, but several tens of tonnes, religiously scattered on the surface of a slow moving river that flows in front of a temple. Let's try to imagine, just so that we have a concrete example, what happens every year, between 6 and 14 April, on the occasion of the Chaitra Navratri in Ujjain, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, when the Shirpa River is literally covered with millions of flowers that have been votively set afloat before the Mahakaleshwar temple. Actually, let's try to imagine what happens when the ceremonies are over. The flowers decompose, obviously. And, once they are floating on the river's surface, they start to pose a number of threats to the environment, firstly due to the fact that they contain phytochemicals, albeit in limited quantities, and secondly because of the organic matter that is produced by their decomposition, which contributes to the proliferation of algae which, in turn, leads to a reduction in the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, with potentially grave consequences for aquatic animals.
They were flowers: now they can be perfume and energy
Decaying flowers are a serious problem for many of the rivers that flow across India. They are a breeding ground for microorganisms and putrid smells and they contribute to the spread of many infectious diseases. Yet, these flowers could represent an incredible opportunity from an economic perspective. The essential oils from flowers such as the rose, champak or jasmine are highly sought after for the production of perfumes, cosmetics or incense sticks. And that's not all: the withered flowers can be used to create pigments and dyes, syrups and organic acids, as well as biogas and biofuels. They can be turned into high quality composites for fertilising farmland for high value crops or to fertilise the temple's gardens. The decomposition processes can be harnessed to produce fuels to generate electricity for the country's remotest regions. Anyhow: there are a myriad of ways to utilise the resources hidden in a river of withered flowers. And it seems that something is now happening: some of the country's regions have launched a variety of activities aimed at recycling these resources.
The Indian experiments
Some temples are already way ahead of the game in this respect. For example, at the Siddhivinayak Ganapati temple they have started collecting the carnations that are used during the ceremonies, the pigments are extracted to colour some of the local traditional cakes as well as to colour women's faces in line with local tradition. In another example, the flowers that are laid every day by worshippers at the Ajmer Sharif shrine in Rajastan, one of India's most famous places of worship, are collected and used to produce compost: two machines, donated by the Hindustan Zinc mining company, which operates in the region, enable the production of 25 kg of compost from every quintal of withered flowers.
Similarly, Coal India LTD has established two facilities at the Dakshineswar Kali and Babadham temples in Deogar, Jharkhand, to produce organic fertilisers. In Delhi, eight places of worship are equipped with machines for recycling the flowers and turning them into compost, whilst, to alleviate the problems of pollution in the Ganges, the HelpUsGreen organisation has convinced many temples in Kanpur and the neighbouring regions to collect the withered flowers and take them to a small new company that produces incense sticks.
For now these are just a few examples, but a number of non-governmental organisations and companies are now moving in this direction and, with the involvement of the regional authorities and also support from the Ministry of the Environment, their ultimate aim is to make the reuse of flowers much more widespread.
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