Couple of weeks back, I saw a sudden flash of bright orange amidst a heat scorched patch of thicket near my Ayurveda institute in Bangalore. I felt overjoyed to see one of my favorite trees in full bloom and at the peak of its glory. It was Palaash– Butea monosperma tree. Its slender frame loaded with thick bunches of fiery, red-orange flowers, shaped like a parrot’s beak!
Palaash is also called as Palas in Marathi, Kesuda in Gujarati and Dhak in Hindi. This flowering Palaash was indicating towards the fast approaching Vasant Ritu or spring season; a season of the festival of colors- Holi!
Palaash is a state flower of Madhya Pradesh. I remember my first visit to Banaras, UP and seeing an entire forest of Palaash trees in full bloom, while our train passed through the infamous Chambal valley of Madhya Pradesh. It was then I realized why this tree is called the flame of the forest! Its bright red-orange blossoms were indeed setting these forests on fire!
Palaash tree has been integrated into Hindu culture since time immemorial. Vedas refer to this tree as sacred and have mentioned it in sacrifices offered to Lord Soma or the Moon. Palaash tree is believed to be imbibed with the qualities of Soma– the divine immortalizing beverage of the Gods. The twigs of Palaash are collected as Samidha (offerings) and offered in the sacred fire or Homa during Hindu rituals. The leaves of Palaash are trifoliate i.e. with three leaflets and are considered as a symbolic of the divine balance the three energies that are responsible for maintaining the balance of the universe. The middle leaflet is believed to represent Lord Vishnu- the protector, the left is for Lord Brahma- the creator and right for Lord Shiva-the destroyer.
Mythology goes that Agni Dev the God of Fire was punished by Goddess Parvati when he disturbed her privacy with Lord Shiva. Hence, Palaash flowers are offered to Lord Shiva during Shiva Ratri celebrations in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is the Rashi Vriksha/ deity tree of Cancer or Karka rashi.
Palaash flowers mesmerized the great poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who captured their beauty in his timeless works of poetry. He immortalized the grace of these flowers by comparing them to blazing fire. Palaash is synonymous with celebration of ‘Dol Utsav’ spring season festival at Shantiniketan in Kolkata and all over West Bengal. Although these flowers lack fragrance, they make up for it with their bright colors and elegant shape. Women and children adorning ornaments made from Palaash flowers, singing melodious Rabindra Sangeet, are indeed a site to behold during the Dol festival.
It is believed that Lord Krishna played Vasant Panchami with colors made from Palaash flowers marking the beginning of the Holi festival. Not only is this bright orange color a safe option to toxic synthetic colors; it also comes with plenty of medicinal properties and health benefits. Bark, gum, seeds, flowers and leaves of Palaash all possess unique healing qualities.
People from the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan shade dry the flowers of Palaash during this season. A handful of dried Palaash flowers are soaked in water overnight. The Natural dyes in the flowers give a bright saffron color to the water. This water is then added to regular bath water the next day. Bathing with the water of Palaash flowers helps to keep the skin healthy during summers. It also keeps the body cool, reduces sweating, reduces sun-tan and helps in keeping heat stroke away. Also, this bright orange water can be used for playing Holi!
According to Ayurveda, the flowers help in facilitating urination, wound healing and are aphrodisiac in nature. Powdered Palaash flowers are an excellent supplement for relieving excessive menstrual bleeding and white discharge. Some Ayurveda practitioners also recommend regular intake of powdered Palaash flowers for bone health, especially to prevent age related degeneration like osteoporosis in women. However, there is no scientific evidence of their protective effects against osteoporosis.
Palaash tree bears fruit pods containing disc like seeds. Seeds of Palaash have been used in Ayurveda for curing various types of intestinal worm infestations especially in children. Also, seeds are made into a paste and applied externally with lemon juice to cure ringworm and for cooling effect. The bark of Palaash tree has been used in Ayurveda for setting fractured bones, for treatment of piles, tumors, ulcers, hydrocele, dysentery and diseases of anus. Decoction of bark is used for dressing cuts, piles and in vaginal douches to treat white discharge.
Leaves applied externally, help in relieving pain and swelling. Leaves and flowers are tied below the umbilicus to relieve retention of urine. The leaves are thick and leathery and often used to serve street food, chaats and sweets especially in North India. I remember having the yummiest Rabdi- a semi-solid pudding like dessert made from slow cooked condensed milk and cream, with nuts and flavored with cardamom and saffron, at Udaipur in a bowl of Palaash leaves. Traditional Paan or betel leaf with condiments is often packed in Palaash leaves to keep its flavor and freshness intact. Several leaves are sometimes thatched to make round plates, to serve meals especially in temples and large family gatherings in North India. These leaves are believed to add taste to the food and even detoxify the food naturally.
This Holi, try to enjoy the goodness of the festival by using the non-toxic and medicinal colors made with Palaash flowers. If you ever spot a Palaash flowering, make a stop and behold its beauty! If you are as lucky as I am, you might as well collect your own flowers and create lasting memories of spending time with this flame of the forest!