Flowers- their importance in temple worship
The word puja meaning worship signifies fulfillment of the prescribed rituals (puryante sarva karmani) and realization of the divine (jayate jnanam atmani). Puja is described in several ways in the Sanskrit lexicon Amara kosha. It says puja is synonymous with saparya, archa, varivasya, parichaya and upasana. All the terms meaning worship. The methods of worship involve certain rituals called Upacharas or services. Offering flowers to the deity during the upachara is an integral and an important part of worship. It signifies submission of self to the Lord.
There is also an opinion that suggests , Puja representing submission of flowers to the deity with devotion and reverence is mainly a practice derived from Southern India. According to them, the term puja is derived from Pu meaning flower in southern languages.
Flowers constitute an important article of worship. The image in the sanctum is decorated with garlands flowers and with unstrung flowers. The flowers are offered to the deity at several stages in worship. Flowers gladden the heart and mind; and confer prosperity. Flowers offered with devotion gratify the Lord. The devotees who visit the temple also offer flowers as token of love and devotion.
Mahabharata (Anushasana parva- Section-xcviii) describes the flowers fit for offering to deities:” Flowers are of diverse kinds. Some are wild; some grow in the midst of humans and even among them, some do not grow well unless nurtured with great care. Some flowers are from plants grown on mountains; some are from trees that are not prickly; and some from trees that are prickly. Fragrance, beauty of form and taste are also the reasons for their classification. The scent that flowers yield is of two kinds, agreeable and not agreeable. The flowers that emit agreeable scent should be offered to deities. Flowers of plants that are not prickly are generally white in color. Such flowers are acceptable to deities. One desirous of wisdom should offer garlands of aquatic flowers like lotus.
Flowers of plants born on mountains and in vales and of sweet scent and aspect sprinkled with sandal paste should be duly offered to Gods. Such offerings gratify the Gods.
The flowers of the following nature are not fit for worship of deities: Flowers of disagreeable scent and aspect; blood -red or black flowers; flowers painful to touch; flowers grown on plants full of thorns; and flowers grown on plants of burial and cremation grounds “
Agama texts classify flowers fit for worship according to their colour, fragrance, shape and origin. They prescribe the type of flowers that may be used in worship. They also mention about flowers that may not be used in worship. In general, flowers that carry a strong odor or that are odorless; flowers un-blossomed or too old; flowers bitten by insects or otherwise mutilated; and flowers picked and kept unused for a day or more are to be avoided. Flowers grown in a garden ( aarama) are considered best; flowers collected from forest (vana) rank next; and flowers bought (vikrita) are inferior.
Flowers are also classified according to the gunas they represent. For instance the sattvika (superior) type of flowers have mild colors and mild and sweet fragrance. These include svetarka (white calotropis), nandyavartha, and drona (leucas linifolia), sveta-padma (white lotus), jati (jasmine), mandaara (coral tree, erythrina Indica), maalathi (jasminum grandiflorum), punnaga (rottleria tinctoria), kurava , sara-patrika ( anethum sowa , a kind of rose), etc.
The rajasa-(middling) flowers are of slightly stronger color and fragrance. These include flowers such as brhati (solanum), dhattura (white thorn apple, datura Alba), raktotpala (red lotus), palasa (butea frondosa), patala (trumpet flowers) etc.
The tamasa (inferior) variety of flowers may not be used in daily worship (varjita) in temple but may be used on festival occasions say for decorating the temple car or the image carried in procession in public. This class of flowers include blossoms of the cotton plant (karpasa), ketaki (pandanua odoratissimus), kasa grass (saccharum spontaneum), japa (China rose), sripran (a variety of lotus, gmelina arborea), vibhuthika (terminalia bellerica) and bandhuka (phoeniciea) etc.
Along with the flowers, certain leaves such as tulasi (basil), bilva (bel) and the dhruva grass are used in daily worship.
While decorating the image , one part of it must be covered with flowers, one part with cotton or silk apparel , one part with ornaments and jewels and one part must be left clear for worship (puja_bhaga).The colorful garlands are hung around the neck of the deity , reaching ankles. Unstrung flowers are placed at the feet of the deity; the ritual being called pushpa_nyasa.
Reference: Agama kosha by Prof. SKR Rao