Remember PK Dubey in Monsoon Wedding chewing meditatively on marigolds while stringing garlands for the marriage pandal? Today he or the actor playing him, Vijay Raaz, would perhaps be apprehended for the desecration.

The marigold has been elevated in the pantheon of Indian floral icons by the Indian government. It now occupies the pedestal of Symbol of Remembrance, replacing the red poppy as the flower used to commemorate martyred soldiers.

As though to underline this transition, the wreath placed last week at India Gate by the British royal visitors, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was made of marigolds.

This is a great, vivid departure from the past.

Red has been the colour of remembrance since the time of the First World War when a young Canadian doctor and Lieutenant Colonel, John McCrae, went back to the battlefield at Flanders, now in Belgium, to mourn the loss of a fellow soldier. The field where so many young men had died was covered in red poppies. His poem In Flanders Field carries the plangent cry never to forget their sacrifice.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Field became the torch song for the dead soldier. Though the war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the guns ceased at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. That is why November 11 is still observed as Remembrance Day throughout the Commonwealth and also some other nations who lost their soldiers.

The red poppy symbolised that loss and that day. Since a real poppy, with its fine petals and thin green stem and fine hairs, does not last as a cut plant, artificial ones are used. These resemble two red half moons, slightly crinkled along the medians that overlap with a black circle at the middle, a leaf at the top end, and a stem. They are somewhat suggestive of a human heart.

Look back in time

There has lately been a wealth of material and interest in resurrecting the stories of the Indians who fought in the two World Wars. There is simultaneously a move towards renegotiating a Remembrance Day for the Indian soldier outside of the Commonwealth context. Our new date with our past will be the Armed Forces Flag Day (December 7). It will mark the end of the India Remembers project, an initiative starting on July 14 that aims to raise awareness of the contribution of India’s servicemen since 1914.

This July 14 marks the 100th anniversary of Indian cavalry’s daring charge at the Battle of the Somme during the First World War in 1916. This July 14 will also be the official signal for the yellow and orange marigold to be declared the official Remembrance Day Flower.

“Perfect selection of Flowers,” said an anonymous enthusiast on the internet. “Marigold is traditionally used in occasions of festivals, weddings and in temples. It’s a perfect choice. Bharath Mata Ki Jay!”

When Indian hearts bleed today, they bleed in orange.

It’s not just the orange brigade that is cheering the idea of our own Remembrance Day flower in shades of orange. Even Raghu Karnad, a young writer and chronicler of the forgotten Indian heroes on the battlefield, tweeted: “Looking forward to a dialogue tomorrow about introducing a Remembrance Day for Indian troops of a marigold flower in place of the poppy.”

Marigolds, as Khushwant Singh had reminded us, are the common man’s flower. They line the streets during marriages and popular festivals and become the fodder for cows after they are thrown away. He wrote in his Delhi Through the Seasons:

“It is the poor Delhiwala’s offering to his gods, and is strung into garlands to welcome visitors. On Christmas Day small bands of players consisting of a couple of trumpeters and drummers, wearing marigold garlands around their necks, go around the Christian homes collection donations. Flower-sellers set up stalls outside churches. All they have to offer are marigolds. Christmas in Delhi is usually as bright with sunshine as this golden flower.”

What he did not mention is that it’s not an indigenous flower. The marigold was native to the Aztecs in South America, and Mexicans called it the “Flower of the Dead”. The Spanish gave it a more familiar name by which we know it today – Mary’s Gold. It’s best known quality is that it flourishes easily. It also has large variations in size, colour and gradations, in the way its petals ram into the fat green cups.

It was the Portuguese who brought it to India, where it flourished, growing almost like a weed. Though it is now a cash crop in three southern states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – it is even more popular in Bengal and in the temples of Nepal. While some claim that it was sacred to Shiva, purists say it’s an outsider in rituals. Sacred flowers are not only supposed to be more fragrant, but also single-petalled and imbued with medicinal or hyper sensory qualities that are specific to certain deities.

If the matter of the Symbol of Remembrance is still open to debate, as Karnad suggests, why not insist on choosing the red Hibiscus? It’s both sacred and popular. It’s as delicate as the poppy, flowers for just a day and suggests the red for remembrance theme. In the words of the Emperor Babur, who extolled the Hibiscus in his Baburnama (1525):

“The [Hibiscus] flower is fuller in color than of a pomegranate, and may be the size of the red rose... but the red rose opens simply, whereas when this opens it is seen like a heart among its expanded petals… This is not a common matter.”  

The Hibiscus is also a red-blooded native of India.