Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Rafflesia, a native of rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo in the Indonesian Archipelago, is the largest flower in the world. Interestingly, Rafflesia is a parasitic plant without any leaves, stems and roots (It has only nutrient-absorbing threads to absorb nutrients from the host on which it lives) but for the largest flower. Rafflesia is a huge speckled five-petaled flower with a diameter up to 106 cm, and weighing up to 10 kg. Rafflesia flower has a small life of 5-7 days. Rafflesia has their stamens and pistils fused together in a central column, producing a corona, or crown, in the shape of a ring. The reddish brown colors of the petals are sprinkled with white freckles. The smell attracts the carrion flies and then pollination occurs. After 9 months of maturation, Rafflesia plant opens into a cabbage-sized bud. The sexual organs are located beneath the rim of the disk. 

The genus Rafflesia is named after adventurer and founder of the British colony of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. Dr Arnold is remembered in the species name as Rafflesia arnoldii. It is the official state flower of Sabah in Malaysia, as well as for the Surat Thani Province, Thailand. Rafflesia manillana, the smallest species in the genus Rafflesia is also has 20 cm diameter flowers. Rafflesia arnoldii does not have chlorophyll, as all the green plants have and so it cannot undergo photosynthesis.

Platypus among Plants

Welwitschia Plant

Charles Darwin referred to it as "The plant response to platypus". It is, by many plant collectors considered it as the "Holy Grail" of Botanical world.
Welwitschia plant consists of only two leaves and a sturdy stem with roots. That's all! Two leaves continue to grow until they resemble the shaggy mane of some sci-fi alien. The stem thickens, rather than gains in height, and can grow to be almost 2 meters high and 8 meters wide. The male structures are like cones or thick upright tassels of flowers, with stamens and sterile pistils, while the female structures are cones similar to those on a pine tree. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. It can survive up to five years with no rain. The plant is said to be very tasty either raw or baked in hot ashes, and this is how it got its other name, Onyanga, which means onion of the desert. Welwitschia mirabilis was discovered by Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, and discovers on 3 of September 1859. He was convinced he had seen the finest and most majestic creation, as the tropical, southern Africa could offer. The official description was published in the Gardener's Chronicle & Agricultural Gazette 4: 71 in 1862 by Joseph Dalton Hooker (and years after the Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 24:7, t. 1-14. 1863).m. The plant was named after the explorers who had himself suggested “tumbo” after local people name of the plant, but because they thought it was so great taxonomic significance, it was named after the discoverer. Species name mirabilis mean “remarkable” in Latin.
Specimens have been found that appear to have ages from 500 to 1000 years, and a few accounts claim ages as old as 1500 to 2000 years for individual specimens collected from deserts of Africa.Plants are either male or female, but never both. Both mature male and female plants produce cone like reproductive structures, called strobili (singular, strobilus), but the male ones have stamens producing pollen and the female ones produce the seeds when fertilized (see thumbnail picture above, right, for female plant, picture above, left, for example of male plant). Interestingly, both types of flowers produce nectar to attract pollinators. The most likely pollinator is a wasp, which carries the pollen to the female structures where fertilization takes place. Welwitschia has been classified as a gymnosperm along with the pines and cycads, but scientists have determined that the vascular tissue (xylem) is typical of that found in the flowering plants, or angiosperms. Plus, the structure of the male flowers is very similar to those on some of the flowering plants, adding to the enigma. At this time scientists recognize only one species of this genus, and perhaps two subspecies or varieties of that species. The plants are protected by law in their native habitat.
Young Plant with two leaves

Friday, January 27, 2012


The tree our gods loved

Neem (Azadirachta indica A. Juss)  is a fast growing evergreen tree found in almost all parts of the country. Since ages different parts of neem have been used in agriculture, health care, cosmetics industry, preservation of stored grains and many other applications. The Vedas detail the use of neem as a medicinal herb.  Brihat Samhita, the ancient text written by Varahamihira (505 AD) includes a chapter on medicinal herbs that highly recommends neem. In Sanskrit, neem is translated as nimba and becomes the basis of an ancient saying nimbati ivasthyamdadati -neem, to give good health. From almost the very beginning of human history, inhabitants of India and Southeast Asia recognized the incredible curative and protective powers of Neem. Neem plays an important role in the region’s religious traditions as well as in the Ayurveda healing system.
According to ancient myths, Indra – the king of Celestials – bestowed neem with its incredible power while returning to heaven on a sacred white elephant after retrieving a golden pot of ambrosia from the demons. He spilled the ambrosia on a neem, making it a tree blessed with virtuous qualities that could remove all diseases. In another story, insects are said to be the creation of evil demons, and neem protects people from them by weakening the insect’s life patterns. In yet another myth, the Sun God Surya is said to have been sought refuge from demons in a neem tree. That tradition is reflected in a belief among some Hindus that anyone who plants three neem trees lives after death in Suryalok (Sun World) for three epochs and never goes to hell.
Ancient Indian astrologists also placed neem in a prominent position, associated with the constellation ‘Uttara Bhadrapada’, whose presiding deity is Abibudhanya.
Some of the earliest writings known to man focus on medicinal herbs and the healing properties of plants. The Vedas, the oldest of the Hindu sacred texts and the basis of the Ayurvedic tradition, detail the use of neem as a medicinal herb.  Brihat Samhita, the ancient text written by Varahamihira (505 AD) and sometimes called “the encyclopedia of Indian Culture,” includes a chapter on medicinal herbs that highly recommends neem.
The names given to neem also reflect its value in ancient society. In Sanskrit, neem is translated as “nimba” and becomes the basis of an ancient saying “nimbati ivasthyamdadati,” or “Neem, to give good health.” Another ancient name is “Sarvo Roga Nivarins” – or “the curer of all ailments.”
Thousands of years later, neem still plays an important role in healthcare and religion in many Indian households to such a degree that it’s almost “cradle-to-grave” healthcare insurance. For instance, families often bathe new-born babies in water that has been boiled with neem leaves because of its medicinal and refreshing qualities. In South India, when a mother leaves a baby unattended, she often leaves a small twig of neem leaves near the baby for protection. Thousands of Indians use neem twigs to brush their teeth every day (a tradition recognized by the Indian subsidiary of international giant Unlived that created a neem-based toothpaste).
Another ritual called the “Ashwatta Narayana Puja” is used by couples who want to conceive a child. They perform a “marriage” of neem and the banyan tree and go around these seven times every morning for seven days.
Other ventures may start by propitiating Lord Vigneshwara to remove obstacles and for the smooth completion of the event. For the Siddhi Vinayaka Puja twenty types of flower are offered at the feet of the Lord, including neem flowers.
At funerals, the Puranas urge that family and friends chew neem leaves to protect against lingering infections, and spread more leaves at the threshold of the house where the death occurred – a tradition based on neem’s healing powers and dating back to the days when many people died in epidemics.
Rural residents of India have a festival called “ghatashapana” in which neem leaves are used to sanctify the water-pot. The Gamits of Gujarat offer neem juice to God, and then cattle and lastly take it themselves.
Many Hindus around the world still celebrate the New Year or ugadhi or Chaitra Vishnu, which comes in March/ April when the Sun enters the sign of Aries, by eating the bitter leaves of neem with a little jaggery to symbolize acceptance of the good with the bad. The tradition also signals the beginning of a season when neem is to be used regularly, since the period after the onset of the New Year is the season when Pitta dosha is aggravated. As per the Ayurvedic tradition, Neem helps to keep Pitta in check.
Even Mahatma Gandhi was a believer in neem. Prayer meetings he conducted at the Sabarmati Ashram were held under a neem tree and a neem leaf chutney was a part of his everyday diet.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sacred Plants of Sacred Land

Sacred Plants

It is mentioned of the Kalpavriksha and Chaityavriksha in the ancient scriptures indicating that the worship of the tree is indeed an ancient Indian practice. The Ancient Aryans worshiped nature. Plants, Trees and the other elements were always revered and several rituals were connected to them. Tree worship continues to be an element of modern Indian traditions. There are many trees which are considered Sacred. Some of the Sacred trees are as follows :

Ashoka Tree
Flower of Ashoka Tree

Ashoka is one of the ma It belongs to Caesalpaeniaceae family. It is a very handsome, small, erect evergreen tree, with deep green foliage and very fragrant, bright orange-yellow flowers, which later turn red. The flowering season is around April and May. It is found in central and eastern Himalayas as well as on the west coast of Bombay.Ashoka is a Sanskrit word meaning without grief or that which gives no grief. Of course, the tree has many other names in local languages as well. One such name means the tree of love blossoms. The Hindus regard it as sacred, being dedicated to Kama Deva, God of Love. The tree is a symbol of love. Its beautiful, delicately perfumed flowers are used in temple decoration. There are also festivals associated with this flower. Lord Buddha was born under the Ashoka tree, so it is planted in Buddhist monasteries. 

Great Banyan Tree of Hawrah, West Bengal
Banyan Tree
Like Peepal Tree, the Banyan Tree also symbolizes the Trimurti-Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma. The tree also symbolizes life and fertility in many Hindu cultures. That is the reason, banyan tree is worshiped by those who are childless and this tree should never be cut. The tree can grow into a giant tree covering several hectares. The Great Banyan in the Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah, is considered to be the largest tree in the world. Lord Dakshinamurthy, who is worshiped as the "ultimate guru", is usually depicted beneath a banyan tree. He symbolizes Lord Shiva and is seen as the the destroyer of ignorance and embodiment of knowledge. 

Fruit is called Stone Apple

Bael Tree
In India, Bael tree is considered to be very sacred because it is associated with Lord Shiva. It is said that Lord Shiva is pleased by offerings of leaves from the Bael Tree, also known as bilva or bel tree. Thus, the Brahmanas worshiped Lord Shiva by for a period of one fortnight by offering bel leaves and that way satisfied Lord Shiva greatly. The fruit, flowers and leaves of the tree are all sacred to Shiva. Planting these trees around home or temple is sanctifying and is equivalent to worshiping a Linga with bilva leaves and water. The trifoliate leaf or tripatra of the bael tree is believed to symbolize the three functions of the Lord-the creation, preservation and destruction as well as his three eyes. The offering of the leaves is a compulsory ritual while worshipping Lord Shiva all over India. The Beal tree is also sacred to the Jains. It is said the 23rd Tirthankara, Bhagwan Parasnathji attained "Nirvana" enlightenment under a Bael tree. Besides religious significane, almost all parts of the tree have medicinal qualities Bael is an ingredient in many Ayurvedic and Siddha formulations. 
Sacred Bamboo groves

Bamboo Tree
The common names of Lord Krishna-Venugopal, Bansilal, Murali and Muralidhar reflect His association with Bansuri or Venu, His constant companion. Bansuri is actually a flute made of bamboo. That is the reason, bamboo is revered in India because it is associated with Lord Krishna.

Banana Tree
Though banana is not a tree but it is considered a tree because of its structure and size. It is a very sacred tree and all parts of the tree are used for some purpose or the other. For example, the trunk of banana is used to erect welcoming gates. The leaves are used to make the ceremonial pavilion. In some pooja, the leaves are used to serve "prashad". Just as leaves of bel tree are customarily offered to Lord Siva, it is believed that offering of the leaves of banana pleases Lord Ganesa. Banana as a fruit is offered to Lord Vishnu and Laksmi. Infact, the eleventh day of the bright half of Pausa (December-January) is considered to be very auspicious to offer banana to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Laxmi and sixth day of the bright fortnight of Kartika (October-November) is considered auspicious to offer banana to the Sun god. In some regions, banana tree is worshipped while performing Kadali Vrata or fast. According to tradition, during Vaisakha, Magha or Kartika sukla caturdasi, a banana tree is planted and nurtured till it bears fruit. It is said that worshiping the tree with flowers, fruit, etc. will help in the welfare of one's family. 

Peace Plant
Bhang Tree
To all Hindus, the Bhang Tree is a very Holy Tree. There are many beliefs associated with the Bhang Tree. It is believed that a guardian lives in the Bhang leaf. To see in a dream the plant or water or leaves of Bhang is considered lucky as it brings wealth and prosperity into the dreamer's power. To meet someone carrying Bhang is a sure sign of success. Bhang is a popular drink made of the leaves and flowers of the Bhang tree and considered to be a "prashad". It is must for every devotees to have bhang on Mahashivratri. It is also said that nothing good can come to the man who treads underfoot the holy Bhang leaf. A longing for Bhang is a sign of happiness. Since ancient times, Yogis take deep draughts of Bhang so that they can center their thoughts on the Eternal without any disturbance because bhang has that intoxicating power in it. Infact, the students of ancient scriptures at Benares are given Bhang before they sit to study. Bhang has also many medicinal virtues. It is also believed that no god or man is as good as the religious drinker of Bhang. It is also said that to restrict the use of such a holy and gracious herb as the hemp or Bhang would cause widespread suffering and annoyance. 
Sacred groves of Coconut trees, Kerela, India
Coconut Tree
In Sanskrit, the name for the coconut palm "Kalpa vriksha", which means "the tree which provides all the necessities of life" or "wish-fulfilling tree". The coconut tree is given a special place in most Hindu households and great care is taken to nature the tree. In the southern part of India, it is a must for every household to plant coconut trees. There is a popular saying, "Water the plant for five years, reap coconuts for life" . The coconut is used for all religious purposes. Infact, it represents the main "sthapana" of any pooja. The whole pot filled with water, mango leaves and coconut, also known as "Purnakumbha" is a symbol of Goddess Laksmi or Fortune and the coconut represents divine consciousness. To break a coconut in the beginning of any event is considered to be very auspicious. Coconuts are offered in Temples to worship to various Gods and Goddesses. The fruit is also believed to represent Lord Shiva and the three black marks on the coconut shell, symbolizes his eyes.

The Lotus is always considered as an evocative symbol of beauty, purity and divinity and a highly revered flower by all Hindus. In Hinduism many of the deities are pictured sitting upon a lotus or holding a lotus flower. Rising up pure and unsullied from the depths of the muddy swamp, the lotus represents the manifestation of God. The pure white lotus flower is the only plant to fruit and flower simultaneously. The flower is a symbol of Goddess Laxmi. One of the incarnations of the Mother-Goddess or Devi and wife of the Hindu god Vishnu, Laxmi is the goddess of fortune and prosperity as well as the epitome of feminine beauty. According to Hindu mythology she was born radiant and fully grown from the churning of the sea. Lakshmi is always portrayed as sitting on a lotus flower which is her traditional symbol. That is why this flower held in high esteem. The Lotus flower has also symbolized spiritual enlightenment. It is said that the Lotus in Eastern Culture has a similar symbolism to the Rose in Christianity.
Mango Tree
The mango tree is another sacred tree of the Hindus. The significance of this finds mention in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. The mango as a fruit is a symbol of love and fertility. The leaf of the tree is used during most religious and social ceremonies of the Hindus. A "Purnakumbha" is a pot filled with water and topped with fresh mango leaves and a coconut and considered to be the "staphna" of the puja. The pot symbolizes Mother Earth, water is the life giver, coconut the divine consciousness and the mango leaves symbolizes life. The whole "Purnakumbha" is symbolizes Goddess Lakshmi and good fortune. On various auspicious occasions, mango leaves are used to adorn entrances at home to signify good fortune. Mango blossoms are used on Basant Panchami day in the worship of Goddess Saraswasti. The tree is also sacred to the Buddhists because it is believed that Lord Buddha performed during his lifetime the instantaneous creation of a large mango tree from the seed at a place called Shravasti.
Free Tree of India-Neem
Neem Tree
It is said that on the first day of Chaitra, after Amavasya, it is very essential to worship the neem and eat its leaves, mixed with pepper and sugar, as a safeguard from fever. The neem tree besides having various medicinal benefits is a highly revered tree among the Hindus because it is a manifestation of "Goddess Durga" or "Maa Kali". That is why the tree is sometimes referred to as Neemari Devi. The Tree is worshiped very intensely. Tamil Ladies, while worshiping Maa kali dress in red, carry branches of the Neem tree, and dance in public places swishing the branches as an act of exorcism and to purify the world. The multi-headed occult goddess Yellamma (a highly revered goddess in south Indiai) sometimes assumes the appearance of a young neem tree. Young maidens worship this Goddess by cladding themselves all over in neem branches. In Bengal, neem is considered to be the tree which is the abode of "Sitala" (the great Pox-mother who can cause or cure disease). The customary treatment of pox is therefore to rub the body with neem leaves while making prayers to Sitala. It is also said that the smoke of burning neem protects both the living and the dead from evil spirits.
Most revered tree of India-Peepal
Peepal Tree
Peepal Tree also known as "Ashvattha" in Sanskrit, is a very large tree and the first-known depicted tree in India. A seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation depicts the peepal being worshiped. According to the Brahma Purana and the Padma Purana, when the demons defeated the gods, Lord Vishnu hid himself in the Peepal Tree and that is why it is believed that the Peepal Tree is a symbol of Vishnu and is worshiped since a long period of time. There is another belief that the tree represents the Trimurti-the roots being Brahma, the trunk Vishnu and the leaves Shiva. Some says that Lord Krishna is believed to have died under this tree, after which the present Kali Yuga started. According to another belief, Goddess Lakshmi also inhabited the tree, specially on Saturday and hence it is considered auspicious to worship it. Infact women worship the tree to bless them with a son tying red thread or red cloth around its trunk or on its branches. According to the Skanda Purana, to cut down a peepal tree is considered a sin. Even Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment under the peepal tree and the peepal is also sacred to Buddhist. Hence it is also called the Bodhi tree or "tree of enlightenment". 

Sandalwood Forests,South India
Sandalwood Tree
Sandal wood, its paste and oil are important in worship of gods. The Sandal tree is highly regarded in the Vedic texts, and the heartwood is considered to be sacred. It is said that chandana, or Indra's Sandalwood tree, scents the whole of paradise with its fragrance. Sandalwood is considered the epitome of excellence, imparting fragrance even to the axe that cuts it. For this reason anything that is excellent is referred to as chandana. It is used in sacred ceremonies and to purify holy places.
Sacred Tulsi Plant
Tulsi is always associated with purity and a highly revered and used for all religious purposes among the Hindus. It is considered very auspicious to have a Tulsi plant in the front courtyard of many Hindu households. Tulsi beads can always be seen around the necks of serious yogis and mystics in India, worn to purifying the mind, emotions and body. Dispelling the unwanted influences of others, gross and subtle, is one of the many benefits bestowed by Tulsi plant and hence worshipped by all. Tulsi plants are also prized in Ayurveda, where they are considered an integral part of that sophisticated healing system. In practically every temple in India, no puja can be started without few Tulsi leaves. There is always a special place reserved for this sacred plant. The qualities and amazing powers of this plant are found throughout the oldest writings on Earth, the Sanskrit Vedas of ancient India, where it is stated that simply touching the wood is purifying at many levels. Tulsi plant is most loved by Lord Vishnu and Vrinda Devi, the Goddess ruling Tulsi is known as the personification of bhakti or devotion to the Supreme Being.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Soil Theory
Why soil from sex workers’ doorstep is necessary for making Durga idols:
  • To make otherwise ostracised members of society feel included
  • Clients visiting ‘houses of vice’ leave their virtues outside the door, making the soil here virtuous
  • To purge prostitutes of their “sins”
  • As a fertility ritual
  • To honour ‘courtesans’, traditionally famed for their proficiency in the arts
Long before it became politically incorrect to call sex workers by any other name, it was considered inauspicious to worship the goddess Durga without seeking out the
blessing of courtesans, even if they were otherwise stigmatised and ostracised by society. Thus originated the little-known, age-old custom of collecting a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis of Calcutta, literally ‘forbidden territories’, where sex workers live, and adding it to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga idol.
“It is an integral ingredient of the holy mix, which also includes mud from the banks of the Ganga, cow dung and cow urine,” says veteran potter and idol-maker, Ramesh Chandra Pal of Kumartuli, home to Calcutta’s biggest clay idol manufacturing community for over 300 years. “It is a vital part of the ritual of Durga Puja,” agrees pujari Haru Bhattacharya. The 30-year-old, fourth-generation pujari goes personally to Sonagachi, Calcutta’s biggest red light area, “on an auspicious day” about a month before the onset of the festive season, around the time when potters begin to start work on idols, to collect what he calls the “virtuous dust from the doorstep of beshhas (prostitutes)”.
This process is so sacred, explains Bhattacharya, that on the morning of the visit he takes a holy dip in the Ganga and chants mantras from the scriptures all through the soil-collection process. He says, “The most auspicious method of collection is to beg it from a prostitute and have her hand it to you as a gift or blessing. If it is taken from the ground, the pujari must know the correct way of doing it, including knowing which mantras to chant and how to position the fingers in a yogic mudra while scooping up the soil.”