Certainly, when thinking of a tropical country such as Burma and its wonderful flowers it is one of the many species and varieties of the beautiful orchid that immediately springs to mind rather than the comparatively unpretentious white Jasmine. What exactly is Jasmine? Jasmine is a name applied to two genera of the realm of flowers, the true jasmine and the false jasmine; which are locally called e.g. ‘Sabai Nwai’, ‘Ein Sabai’, ‘Sabai Ei’, ‘Taw Sabai’, and so forth.
The so-called ‘false’ jasmine makes up the genus ‘Gelsemium’ of the family ‘Logamiaceae’, such as the yellow jasmine, classified as ‘Gelsum Sempevireus’, a North American species that – like all the other ‘true’ and ‘false’ jasmine – grow and are cultivated almost worldwide. There is also jasmine that belongs to the family ‘Rubiaceae’ such as the rose-like ‘Cape Jasmine’, ‘Gardenia,’ (scientific name ‘Gardenia Jasminoides’), which is native to China. But whether they are ‘true’ or ‘false’ Sabai, truly they are all real Jasmine.
Here are some quick information for those who want to know it in even more detail. Jasmine occurs in many species as wild as well as garden varieties and is, although native of warmer climate regions, of almost global distribution for which reason it is not unique to Burma. Sabai comprises shrubs, trees, bushes, climbers and flowers of various sizes, looks and fragrances, is an evergreen that grows in almost any climate (some varieties tolerate even winter temperatures below freezing point) without asking for much, are less vulnerable to diseases and insects than e.g. orchids and roses and blooms profusely (under ideal conditions year round). In Burma predominantly from May/June (Zun or Waso, the Burmese month June/July) to October (the Burmese month Thadinyut, September/October) especially however in May/June when after the first rainfalls the whole country is suddenly awash with pristine white Jasmine blossoms; Sabai is now omnipresent and very much loved by everybody.
So, what is it that makes not, for example, the wonderful orchid but the Jasmine or Sabai as it is locally called so irresistible to and the favourite flower of the Burmese although one should think that Sabai would rather not be the one carrying off the prize as beauty queen in a beauty contest? Well, let us take a closer look at this flower before getting to the answer. You will be surprised. I can promise you that. You may even fall in love with Sabai yourself.
True, what first comes to mind when the term ‘Jasmine’ or ‘Jasmine blossom’ comes up is the common, white jasmine, classified as ‘Jasminum officinale’, a native of India and of Persia, which is the ordinary variety, rather modest in looks and locally called ‘Sabai Kyet Yon’. But do not be mistaken, this jasmine has many true ‘sisters’, with the exception of one, all of them having pristine white blossoms and many false ‘sisters’, so to say ‘half sisters’, again with the exception of one, all having pristine white blossoms. Many of Sabai’s sisters and half sisters are definitely good-lookers.
As for Jasminum officinale’s ‘true’ sisters these are the Spanish Jasmine, with white blossoms flecked with pink, locally called ‘Myat Lay’and the double Arabian Jasmine, locally known as ‘Sabai Oboke’. Another one is called by locals ‘Zun’, which is ‘Jasminum Auruculatum’, a variety growing in the Mandalay region. This one has smaller blossoms. There is also the winter jasmine, ‘Jasminum Nudiflorum’, native to China. As for Jasmine’s ‘half-sisters’ there is e.g. the previously mentioned ‘Cape Jasmine’ who with her relatively big, rose-like, white and glossy blossoms is a real knock-out.
Back to our love affair. Fine, you may now say, it is all nice and well what our short excursion into the realm of botany has so far taught us about ‘Sabai’, but does it answer the question for why Sabai is the Burmese people’s flower of choice? Is this the secret of the love affair? The answer is no, of course not, because there are some more of Jasmine’s pleasant characteristics that have as yet not been mentioned and it is high time to immediately bring two of them into the picture. These are Jasmine’s alluring, strong and sweet fragrance and flavour. What, flavour? Yes, you got it right, flavour.
The Chinese, for instance, value Jasmine, more precisely ‘Jasminum Paniculatum’, for its flavour. They mix it in proportion 1:3 with Jasminum Sambac and allow black or green tea to absorb the strong flavour of this favourite flower; the result is ‘Jasmine Tea’, which they call Jasmine-Flavour tea. But of course it is first and foremost the exquisite fragrance that is Sabai’s most outstanding and loved feature.
Sabai’s odour is so wonderful that perfumers extract/distil it from the jasmine blossom. The extract is thereupon used as basic compound for or ingredient of perfume. It is also used in air freshener and to scent e.g. soap, shampoo and like products.
Not all varieties of Sabai may be queens of flowers judged by their looks only but the Sabai definitely is a queen when the element of fragrance is added; a queen of fragrance.
However, Jasmine does not only serve the purpose of decoration and enhancing beauty but also has medical properties. For instance, jasmine leave juice can – when mixed with various other ingredients – cure fever, coughs and common colds and the roots of the yellow jasmine contain gelsemine, a crystalline alkaloid used as an antispasmodic and to induce perspiration. Also, the ground leaves are an effective remedy in case of swollen joints.
All of these so far summarised positive characteristics of Sabai, its pristine white blossoms, some of them looking very charming at least and others being of great beauty, its captivating fragrance and its healing power are no doubt sufficient enough reason to admire and maybe even love this flower. Yet, this is still not enough of an explanation for the special bond between Sabai and the Burmese people.
As mentioned previously, the individual Sabai Kyet Yon (Jasminum officinale) blossom may not create an overly exciting impression. But this impression changes very dramatically when the blossom appears in mass. That in numbers there is strengths once again proves to be very true. When in posies or thousands of blossoms threaded together in cylindrical strands and/or garlands or simply heaped on a small table (Burmese use a small, three-legged stand called ‘Kalat’) the dazzling white Sabai blossoms’ appearance is indeed an overwhelming sight, which combined with the captivating fragrance makes for a wonderful event, letting Sabai appear in a completely different light.
Many Burmese people buy Sabai every day from sellers of both gender and all ages who are, come hell and high water, every morning (usually between 00:07 AM and 00:09 AM) and late afternoon or early evening (usually between 00:05 PM and 06:30 PM) walking through the streets. They are shouting, for instance: “Sabai, Sabai, Sabai Kyet Yon, fresh, most beautiful and fragrant”, and sell the strands of Sabai blossoms. Other sellers stay at cross-roads and dart about between cars stopping at red lights and sell Sabai to their drivers who loop them around their cars’ rear view-mirrors as offerings to Buddha and for good fortune.
You also see many young girls and women of all ages on the streets having embellished their hair with strands or posies of Sabai. They are fully aware of how effectively they have therewith enhanced their grace; a sight for sore eyes, which everyone with a sense of beauty who has already had the pleasure of seeing it will readily admit.
Yet other sellers sell the strands of glaring white Sabai blossoms to Buddhist worshippers in front of and on the stairs that lead up to pagodas. And it is first and foremost the latter, in combination with the former, that brings us very, very close to the secret of the love affair as the secret, which we are now about to reveal, is in fact a fourfold one.
It is in the first place the spiritual aspect that is at the heart of this love affair. Nothing short of something that is capable of satisfying a deeply felt psychological need could explain the special relationship between Sabai and the Burmese. Sabai is the flower of choice for offerings to the Gautama Buddha because of its white colour that symbolises purity and nobility, because of its lovely fragrance, because it is growing in abundance and year round availability and, last but not least, because of the reasonable price it is to be had at what, in turn, gives Sabai the power that allows the people to discharge in a healthy way the psychic energy that builds up in them due to the spiritual need.
Burmese, predominantly those who are Buddhists (who make up approximately 85 per cent of Burma’s total population) from all walks of life, women and men – of course mainly the former – young and old, poor and reach, all are deeply in love with Sabai.
Sabai is offered to the Gautama Buddha in pagodas and on the household altars (almost every family in Burma has one) to earn merit and/or to court a guardian spirit’s favour for which reason the car drivers loop a strand or two of Sabai on the rear-view mirror of their cars. The welcome side-effect is that the air inside the car is refreshed and filled with the sweet fragrance of Sabai.
The typical offering comprises at least water and flowers and is usually accompanied by the worshippers wish: “May we be as cool as water and fresh as flowers,” the latter referring more to Sabai than any other flower as Sabai is the choicest flower of offering because of the reasons mentioned above. But, of course, that is not all.
Sabai is also considered an auspicious flower for what reason e.g. a wedding reception and ceremony is not a wedding ceremony and, subsequently, the bond of marriage not properly sealed if not with – well, what? – Sabai, of course. So, when and while entering into married state the wedding couples are festooned with Sabai garlands, traditionally by a long-married couple that is held in high esteem by the relevant family so that the newlyweds have best prospects of sharing a long, happy and successful life. Whatever future may hold in store for them and you, I wish them and you all the very best here from my desk where I am just writing this article.
In the language of flowers Sabai says a lot of things as it is of high symbolic value. If, for instance, a young Burmese sets his cap at a young woman wearing Sabai in her hair he should be cautious and proceed with care because she may well have already promised herself to someone else. As an old wonderful Burmese folksong puts it: “The white and fragrant Sabai in my hair is meant for the adornment of another”, what the unfortunate would-be lover who was about to make a pass at her sadly comments with: “The spray of Sabai turns away and opportunity is gone.”
Burmese poets and song writer (some of whom may slightly overdo it have overdone it, respectively, in their praise of Sabai) were and still are much inspired by the lines that the princely warrior Nat Shin Naing wrote. Nat Shin Naing, who was deeply in love with the much older queen Datu Kalya wrote while being on duty. “The fragrant Sabai of tiny, white and dainty blossoms is much cherished and desired. Regretfully, I am unable to choose each delicate blossom and adorn your hair with my own loving hands.” And the renowned Burmese poet at the court of Ava, U Ponnya, wrote: “All lesser flowers have to make way once Sabai is in full bloom.”
So, now you know the secret(s) of the love affair: Sabai’s religious expressiveness, Sabai’s pristine white colour that signifies nobility and purity, Sabai’s alluring fragrance, Sabai’s great significance in matters of grace and love, Sabai’s positive effects in terms of health and all of this combined with Jasminum officinale’s certainly pleasant appearance to Jasminum Grandiflorum’s and Jasminum Sambac Plenum’s good looks and Gardenia Jasminoides’s definite beauty makes Sabai from Sabai Kyat Yon to Kyat Lat to Sabai-Oboke a in more than one way exceptional flower.