If a flower is used in worship, it sure has medicinal value, says the author, and shares the amazing healing properties of three flowers.
India is home to an estimated 18,000 species of flowering plants, at least. And according to Wikipedia “more than 3,000 Indian plant species (have been) officially documented as possessing great medicinal potential.”
We know that now because we have access to a huge battery of sophisticated technologies to detect the ‘micro-est’ of micro phytochemicals. But the ancient practitioners of Ayurveda had just their fingers, nose, eyes, perhaps mouth, and a mortar and pestle to identify these chemical compounds.
It couldn’t have been anything more than that because Ayurveda is said to date back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Ayurveda’s ancientness is also indicated by the mention of Sushruta the Mahabharata, the son of sage Vishwamitra, and for those who didn’t know, was considered the father of Indian surgery and a pioneer in dentistry, plastic surgery, gynaecology and obstetrics. Besides, he is the author of one of the two main foundational texts of Ayurveda, the Sushruta Samhita, which catalogues 1,120 diseases, 120 surgical instruments, 300 surgical procedures and at least 700 medicinal plants, including the lotus and the champak as water purifiers.
So, how did he know these facts? Or for that matter, how did Charaka the court physician of King Kanishka of the 2nd century, BCE, know that “sugarcane juice that is eaten through the mouth increases semen”. He is the author or rather the reviver and editor of an earlier text by Agnivesa (1000 BCE), the Charaka Samhita, the other Ayurvedic ‘Bible’.
These questions remain unanswered. Perhaps, the theory that Sushruta’s preceptor was an incarnation or descendant of Dhanvantri, the physicians of the gods, can be thus attributed to the divine source. We don’t know.
But there is one other way, sure fire way that I stumbled upon of knowing if a flower has medicinal properties. If it is an offering to a god or a goddess, you can bet your last phtyochemical on it to declare that it does contain medicinal properties. And that holds good for any other offering like fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices etc (think banana, coconut, turmeric, sugarcane juice...)
To make my point, I present just three flowers....
Swargapavargada shuddha japapushpa nibhakrutih…
The 147th stotra of the Lalitha Sahasranama roughly translates as:
“She who bestows the eternal bliss of heaven
She who is pure,
She whose colour is of the nature of japa flowers…”
Japa meaning prayer, and so, it is but natural that the japapushpa (japakusuma, japaphool) is one of the primary flowers of worship for the Devi (especially in her avatars as Durga and Kali) so much so that it is also called deviphool. The flower is also mentioned in the Navagraha Stotra to Suryadeva, where he is described in the first line as “Japakusuma sankasham” or “as radiant as the colour of the japa flower” and is a favourite offering to Lord Ganesh in Maharashtra)
Us ordinary, Sanskrit-challenged folk know it as the hibiscus, the botanical name being Hibiscus Rosa Sinesis.
And amongst all the healing powers that the Devi has blessed her favourite flower with, there is a host of other special ones that makes the hibiscus a woman’s best friend. So, for centuries, not just in India, but many other parts of the world, the hibiscus flower is used to treat gynaecological problems. In China, Peru, Malaysia and Indonesia it is used as an emmenagogue (a substance that stimulates or increases menstrual flow); in Bangladesh, Trinidad and Vietnam to regulate the menstrual cycle and in India, to treat all of these problems and more. But, perhaps, one of the most important quality of the flower is its use for centuries as a female contraceptive. It is now being researched if there is a possibility to use it as a female herbal oral contraceptive!
Of course, in Ayurveda, the flower’s pharmacopeia (a book of medicinal drugs, its effect and directions for their use) extends much beyond because it is also used to treat hypertension, fevers, urinary problems, bronchitis and venereal diseases.
Even in the absence of any of these problems, just sipping a cup of hibiscus tea is a great source of nutrition, as it contains beta-carotene, flavanoids as well as calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C.
But before you make hibiscus tea your daily cuppa, beware. Because in ancient Egypt, hibiscus flowers were associated with lust and it was believed that tea made with red hibiscus flowers could induce “licentious cravings” in women. As a result, for centuries, Egyptian women were forbidden to drink hibiscus tea! And in Kuwait, it is still considered as an aphrodisiac...
The tiny, tubular orange stalks of this gorgeous little bloom have been traditionally used as a dye to colour silk, the sari adorning Goddess Saraswati during Saraswati Puja in Bengal, and to colour the robes of Buddhist monks – an ancient practice.
But that’s just a few of the divine associations this flower has. Of the many stories of origin related in the puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the most popular one is that it was one of the ‘kalpavrikshas’ (a wish-fulfilling divine tree) that emerged in the Sagar Manthan. But Lord Indra – and more importantly, Indrani, his wife – were both so smitten by this tree and its flowers that the Lord of the Devas immediately sent it back to heaven.
But he hadn’t accounted for that celestial mischief-maker, Narada, who immediately went to Dwarka with the flowers and gave them to Lord Krishna, to see which of his wives he’d give them to. Rukmini was the lucky one but only for a short while because Narada immediately rushed to Satyabhama with the story. The marital discord that followed drove the hapless Krishna to rush to Swarga with Satyabhama, steal the tree back to earth. But the problem of keeping two wives happy remained. However, Krishna came up with the ingenious solution of planting the tree in Satyabhama’s garden in such a way that many of the flowering branches leaned over into Rukmini’s adjoining garden.
And they all lived happily ever after...
And, now Parijata. English names: night jasmine, coral jasmine, Indian coral. Botanical name : Nyctanthes Arbortristis. This is called the night-flowering tree of sorrow because the flowers bloom during the night and by the morning, the tree has shed them all like so many cream-and-orange tears. (The puranic story of these ‘tears’ is related to a princess named Parijataka, who is rejected in love by the Sun God, but I’ll save that bit for the book).
In Hindi, it is called Harsingar – har meaning Shiva or Vishnu and singar meaning decoration or make-up. So the flower is a staple among puja flowers and considered so sacred that it is the only flower that may be picked off the ground and offered to the gods!
And once again, my theory holds - a flower so blessed has to be a powerful healer, which it is.
Every part of the parijata tree has some medicinal use. In Sushruta Samhita, a preparation of the bark is recommended for various eye diseases. The leaves are used to treat a host of ailments including fevers, urinary disorders, sciatica, arthritis, and as a laxative or purgative to expel intestinal worms in children.
And the flowers? I suppose it has to be told that it is a cardiac tonic, blood purifier, to treat bleeding piles and as a stomachic and appetiser. (Perhaps that is why the Bengalis make pakoras (bora) out of it and the Assamese flavour everything from pulao and curries to just plain boiled rice with it!) But what must have enchanted the gods and continues to bewitch humans for thousands of years is the fragrance of this flower. We have two trees in our garden and when in bloom and I step out into the garden after darkness, I am suddenly enveloped by a delicate cloud of its fragrance. I stand still in and within seconds so does my mind, filled only with the cool night air, laden with the fragrant breath of a thousand parijata flowers. Both Ayurveda (like the Charaka Samhita)and modern science recognise the positive effects of such fragrances – longevity, mental rejuvenation, improved concentration, enhanced memory and restoration of immunity suppressed by stress.
I mean so much goodness in such a tiny flower....
Would a flower that has been banned from use in worship be called sacred?
Judge for yourself. This flower, mentioned in the puranas, is offered in worship to Lord Ganesh and the Devi, and in the Lalitha Sahasranama Phala Sruti, it is said that if this flower is offered while chanting it, “the results of such a worship are indescribable even by Mahesvara.” In fact, some say that Lord Shiva himself wore it on his head until the battle of supremacy between Lord Braham and Lord Vishnu, where Lord Shiva played the mediator. When, on Brahma’s behest, the flower bore false witness for him, Shiva was so enraged that he cursed that it will never be used in worship again. But, perhaps, even the mighty Maheshwara could not forget its glorious fragrance because he relented a little and allowed the flower to be offered to him only on Maha Shivaratri. So much so that just before that day, the flower, already a rarity, sells for more than Rs 350, a bloom in some parts of Orissa! (Incidentally, the Ganjam district in Orissa grows 85-90 per cent of this flower.)
So, I say “sacred”. Sanskrit name: Ketaki. Botanical name: Pandanus odoratissimus.
In Hindi, it is called kewra or kewda and if that sounds familiar, it is because it goes into the making of the world-renowned kewra fragrance, kewra water, which in turn is used both in perfumery. It is also used to flavour a variety of food (especially in Mughlai cuisine) and sherbets and as an alternative to rose water. The popular English name, however, is both unbefitting and rude - screw pine.
It is a curious flower because it doesn’t look like a flower and that’s because it isn’t. Instead, like the bougainvillea, the prominent - and fragrant - parts of the ketaki flower are long, elegantly pointed, delicately cream-coloured, but with rather unfriendly leaves (they have rows of tiny thorns all along their edges), the ‘true’ flowers being much smaller and hidden inside them.
And like its other sacred kin, the ketaki is also a star performer in the Ayurveda medicine chest. Almost every part of the plant has some medicinal use. The essential oil of the kewra is used as a pain balm, particularly for headaches and rheumatoid arthritis. The ash made from dried ketaki flowers treats colic stomach ache and cramps, gastritis, diarrhoea etc. The roots and leaves have been used to treat leprosy and scabies. (As the story goes, the Ketaki Sangameshwara Shiva temple in Telangana is so named because it was built by a king who was cured of his till-then incurable skin disease by bathing in a river in a nearby forest filled with ketaki plants. That night, Lord Sanghameshwara appeared in a dream and asked the king to build a temple over the Shivlingam in the forest. Since the Lingam had been established by Lord Brahma, it is worshipped with ketaki flowers). The roots are also used to treat wounds, fever and sterility. And most interestingly, kewra water is apparently used as a remedy for hangovers by the workers who harvest the flowers.
So which came first? Was a flower first a sacred offering and then some wise man wondered if it could be use as medicine as well? Or was a medicinal flower rewarded for its healing powers and offered to the gods in gratitude? The answers have vanished with the sages thousands of years ago. But the next time you see a flower at the feet of an idol, around its neck or in a puja thali, you are almost definitely looking at some powerful medicine.