The Tulip, the Turban Flower of Spring

It’s the time for tulips, diplomacy, and colours of hope. Tracing a recent history of the birth of the bulb, how it got transported into Netherlands, and in more recent times, to the valley in Srinagar, and now into New Delhi.

In recent times, the alluring beauty of tulips has entranced Indians, and Delhi, the powerhouse of India has taken the lead to celebrate this Spring with Tulips. Not only has India invested in projects to grow the bulb and indigenize the flower, but it has also gone ahead and organized a magnificent Tulip festival in the capital city!

The onset of Spring in India is marked by the “Vasant Panchami” festival, and this year, Delhi took on a kaleidoscopic background in the form of the second Delhi Tulip Festival. With over 2,00,000 tulip flowers blooming at over sixty locations, the central diplomatic road of Shantipath saw rows of vibrant tulips lined up, creating a mesmerizing sight. This initiative, which has spanned for some years now, is a part of the flora diplomacy between India and the Netherlands. While the initial flower bulbs came from the Netherlands, this year, the city’s Lieutenant Governor declared that the bulbs were nurtured and procured from Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh, who have now invested in the Tulip economy.

The Tulip Festival, with its holistic approach, aimed at showcasing the heritage of a flower that has a history of power, religion, economics, and beauty amidst conflict zones. Tulip walks amidst banners on the Shantipath road illustrated the history of the Tulips and their significance. There were other interactive activities such as photography competitions and musical renditions, adding an extra layer of charm to the festival.

As summer dawns, The Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden in Srinagar, Kashmir, the largest Tulip Garden in Asia, welcomes visitors to fields of colourful flowers.

Surrounded by a fascinating history, the Tulip stands amidst the Himalayan conflict zones of Afghanistan and Kashmir. It is a symbol of human resilience and human dignity. The Tulip carries an intriguing economic heritage from the Ottoman Empire to the Dutch Renaissance, illustrating the first major financial bubble. Presently, it is a visual phenomenon for flora tourism, which is placed as a lucrative commodity. Most of all, for the man in the seams of turbulent existence, the Tulip symbolizes hope and fuel to the human spirit.

The Persian tragic romance of Farhad and Shireen has Tulips emerging from the drops of Farhad’s blood that appear after he commits suicide on learning of his beloved’s death. The flower stands for martyrdom and selfless love. The tragic story is retold by Georgians, Parsis, Afghans, Kurds and many other communities.

Tulip in Conflict Zones

The etymology of the three-petaled flower is ‘’Turban’. It is the national flower of Afghanistan, where the Black Tulip has gained contemporary relevance.

Says Afghan Sonia Nassery Cole, maker of the film ‘Black Tulip’ Afghanistan’s entry at the Best Foreign Language Film (2011) Academy Award, “North Afghanistan in the Hindukush Mountains is the only place in the world where fields of the true black Tulips found. Many people have taken the bulbs to other countries, but no other soil has given truly Black Tulips. They represent the persona of an Afghan who is, despite everything, filled with pride, hope, and resilience.” There are two stories linked to the Afghan Black Tulip. Cole narrates, “ A young Afghan boy bravely fought the Soviets. He was killed. His family found a Black Tulip tattooed on his chest. The flower is delicate and resilient, and the petal colour forms a permanent stain. It has become a ritual among Afghans to mark the body of martyrs with the Black Tulip flower. In the 1970s, during the Soviet occupation, the helicopters called Black Tulips were in charge of picking the corpses of the Soviet soldiers lying in the fields.”


For all the politics in Kashmir, the Spring has arrived, and the Tulips are set to bloom. In 2012, while Samina walked the brilliant flower fields of the Srinagar Garden, her father back home was bent embroidering shawls. “He will get 1500 rupees for the entire shawl. I get more by taking some women tourists around the Tulip garden,” said young Samina. The garden provides an avenue of growth in the conflict-ridden region where jobs and shrinking agricultural land are critical socio-economic issues. Cultivation of flowers offers more significant profits than traditional farming. They require far less land and add to an early season of tourism in the state. Yes, even between the socio-political uncertainty in Afghanistan and Kashmir, the Tulip could provide the potential for unique soft diplomacy of floral trade and cultural skills.

Historical Journey


The Tulip is representative of the historical consumerist commodity culture. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Tulips were part of the interregional trade and growth of commerce both in the non-western Ottoman Empire and the phase of the European Renaissance heralding modernity. Tulips in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) included floral – market channels comprising shops, footpath sellers, pushcarts, bazaars, and gardens. The players in this network had merchant guilds, governments, and research institutes. The Tulip phenomenon impacted popular culture; it integrated into fashion and decorative arts and depicted an elite status.

Indigenously grown in Central and West Asia, Tulip fever gained momentum in the 16th century. At the Ottoman Empire, an Austrian ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, observed the energetic markets related to the interregional floral trade and vibrant living consumption culture. Tulips were traded to Europe as exotic plants. Alongside the Ottoman’s introduction, several legislative decrees were introduced to augment new flower markets.

Tulipmania- The First Financial Bubble

The Turkish Sultan, Suleman the Magnificent, presented De Busbecq with Tulip bulbs to take to Vienna. The latter, in turn, gave them to Charles de l’Écluse or Clussious. In the 1590s, Clussious was invited to teach at Leiden University in the Netherlands. There, he planted the bulbs and conducted several experiments as director of the botanical gardens.

The 17th-century Dutch History called the Tulip Mania represents an expeditious rise in demand and prices against the low supply of Tulips. Anne Goldgar argues in her book ‘Tulipmania’ that the economics around the flower is illustrative of the first major financial bubble. The Tulip became famous for several reasons. For example, it has a rare spontaneity to change colours. After the bulb remains in the ground and emerges only in the spring, people cannot comprehend why no one flower remains the same. The Tulip became more and more exotic and a symbol of upward mobility and higher social rank. People even poured red wine to get Red Tulips. Investors began to madly purchase Tulips, pushing their prices to unprecedented highs. The average price of a single flower exceeded the annual income of a skilled worker and cost more than some houses at the time. And soon, there was a crash.

The Tulip period, the first quarter of the 18th century in Turkish History, was one where the oriental empire reached out to connect with the West. There was an inter-regional Tulip trade and culture representative of the initial modern consumer culture.

Flora – Popular Culture, Arts and Religious Symbolism

Turkish History

Illustrates the flora culture of Tulips and other flowers. Flowers came to be part of the vocabulary of Turkish decorative arts. Floral and vegetal motifs, styles and designs were used by courtly artists. Ranging from Tulips, there were carnations, lilies, roses, and hyacinths, among others, seen in ceramics, carpets, fabrics, wall tiles and other decorative and textile arts for everyday consumption. Literary and religious energies captured flowers in poetry and symbolism.

Spiritual Symbol

The Turks called Tulips Laleh, derived from the Persian word Lale. The sound has an aural and orthographic essence of the word Allah. The Tulip gained importance as a spiritual symbol. Linked with the doctrine of Monotheism, the seed of the Tulip blossom emerges from only one branch. The Ottoman Sultan used the flower as a talisman against evil.

Intriguing Historical Vignettes

Tulips are edible and are used in salads. During the Second World War, the nutritious but bland Tulip bulb saved many lives in the Dutch famine called “Hongerwinter”.

The flower has both cosmetic and medicinal uses. In 1980, the Red Tulip became the symbol of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Van der Wereld was a Dutch horticulturalist with Parkinson’s disease. He developed a red and white Tulip called the ‘Dr. James Parkinson’s Tulip was in honour of the English surgeon who originally described Parkinson’s in 1812.

The Tulip Gardens of Kashmir, the Netherlands and other countries present an idiom of coloured hope. Even in an environment of conflict, one recalls the famed romantic Bollywood song- “Dekha Toh yeh khwab toh yeh sislsile hue (The view of the blooming fields becomes the dream of elusive affairs). Tulips bloom in Spring as windows to paradise; standing upright, the single flower will not bend until the last leaf blows away. It is perfection, pride, and metaphorically inspired human dignity.

“As then the Tulip for her morning sup
Of Heavenly Vintage from the soil looks up
Do you devoutly do the like till Heaven
To Earth, invert you – like an empty Cup!”
Rubaiyat – Omar Khayyam


Navina Jafa is a renowned curator and scholar on Cultural Heritage & Tourism, and a most accomplished classical dancer. She is a prolific writer and regular contributor to art discussions.



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