Monday, 10 September 2012

The majestic legends of a Sacred & Sad Tree

Had fell in love, couldn’t avoid the pain for this love wasn’t reciprocal, becoming sorrowful for the whole eternity.

In short, this is the legend I heard about a tree native to the Indian sub-continent – the Parijat or sad tree. The reason for such a name is something that always made me curious – why was this plant condemned to have such a dreadful and miserable destiny? Of course it had to have love involved at some level. After all, isn’t love the mother of all emotions? Love or the absence of love is the root of all feelings and such a pain that lasts the whole eternity had to be linked with this. 

Let’s start by dissecting the scientific name of the plant, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis means literally “night-blooming sad tree”, so it does give us already a clue about the behaviour of the plant – flowers bloom at night. Taking a look at the flower and blooming patterns, the candidate pollinator can be guessed. The flowers are definitely designed to attract night-pollinators – the colour, the night-blooming condition and the characteristic sweet fragrance that Oleaceae is well-known to exude is also very strong at night. Linked with the size and shape of the flowers, I can only think of a moth to do this kind of job!

One of the legends say that the heavenly Parijat tree was brought to this world by Lord Krishna as a gift for one of his wives, Rukmini. [Source: www.indianminiaturepaintings.co.uk]


As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the first legend I heard is about an Indian princess, Parijat who fell in love with Surya-deva (the Sun-god), which deserted her. Heart-broken and in despair, the princess committed suicide, was cremated and brought back to life from the ashes in the form of a tree. Incapable to bear the sight of the one that lead her to kill herself, the flowers only bloom at night, and it is said that the flowers are shed like tear-drops in the first shade of dawn. It is a romantic but cruel story from which Linnaeus was probably based to name the tree. But apart from this one, there is a much important story that puts this plant into a sacred level in several Asian religions as Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism. The Parijat tree is linked with a very famous episode from the sacred texts Puranas that describes a wish-fulfilling divine tree formed during the Churning of the Milky Ocean. Other legends were made around this incredible tree, but it would be an endless post if I start telling them all!

Sagar Manthan by Raja Ravi Varma representing the Churning of the Milky Ocean, and the Parijat tree represented as one of the treasures churned by the gods


No wonder though that this tree, known to be sorrowful, is full of stories and legends around it. It has a special behaviour, and descriptions say that the fragrance produced take us to drawn into its sweetness – it perfumes the entire universe it is said and so its essential oil is used in perfume-making. Also, it is popular for medicinal purposes in Asia, including Ayurvedic medicine.

The flower of Nyctanthes arbor-tristis. [Source: Saroj Kumar Kasaju]

Botanically it might be a bit boring – or is it?! This is Oleaceae, we are in the realm of Lamiales, the land of merism hodgepodge. But in Oleaceae things seem to be more pacific and there is a pattern we can rely on: usually flowers are hanged in the tips of branches forming wonderful cymoses of rather small flowers. These usually have four petals and two stamens, so it seems to be quite easy to spot a member of the Oleaceae family. But because this lovely one has to be special in every field, the merism is higher here than in the rest of the family (along with some Jasminum) and the number of petals can go from 5 to 8. 

I am only sorry that we cannot feel fragrances through internet yet! :)

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