Description of the Tree
This slow-growing tree is erect, with a few upward-reaching branches bending outward near the summit where they are subdivided into slender branch lets drooping at the tips. The bark is ridged, fissured and scaly and there are sharp spines 2-5 cm long on some of the zigzag twigs. The deciduous, alternate leaves are 7-12 cm long, dark-green, leathery, often minutely toothed, blunt or notched at the apex, and are dotted with oil glands and slightly lemon-scented when crushed. Dull-red or greenish flowers are borne in small, loose, terminal or lateral pantiles. The fruit is round to oval, with a hard, woody, grayish-white, scurfy rind. The pulp is brown, mealy, odorous, resinous, astringent, acid or sweetish, with numerous small, white seeds scattered through it.(Morton 1997: 190)
The flowers bloom during March-May and the tree fruits from April-August. It is found both in tropical dry evergreen and dry deciduous forests in India.
The pulp of the fruit is aromatic and cooling, used to make sherbet. Gummy substance found around the seeds serves as an adhesive and is more abundant in young fruits. It is also used as varnish for pictures and adds brilliancy to water color paints. Dried fruit, freed from the pulp are used as pill boxes. (Ambasta 2000:17) The unripe fruits when ground yields a yellow dye. Amritalingam explains how the transpiration of its leaves help in maintaining the humidity of the immediate surroundings. Along with other trees its root system helps in retention of water in the soil.
- 'A hot poultice of the leaves is applied for eye diseases, fever, swelling of the respiratory tract and on the injured parts of the body. The fresh leaf juice is taken with honey to loosen bowels during fever, cold and asthma. The leaf juice mixed with black pepper is used to treat jaundice. The leaf juice is used as an expectorant for asthmatic complaints. Tender leaves are roasted and applied on sore eyes and also to cure venereal diseases. The juice of the roasted leaves if consumed twice a day for 21 days cures bilious disorders. The flowers are used to treat diarrhea, thirst and vomiting... A paste of the ripe fruit mixed with milk and applied to the body before bath cools the body and refreshes the eyes. The fruit mixed with ginger and fennel seeds and made into a concoction is taken to cure piles. A drug balac fructose extracted from the fruits with a mucilage and pectin content is useful for treating diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids and swellings. The roots are used in treating intermittent fevers and mind disorders marked by depression and mental sluggishness.'(Amritalingam 2005:66)
Wood apple in the form of chutney or sherbet is useful in treating hiccups. It is made with salt and tamarind. A mixture of the ripe pulp of the fruit, cardamom, honey and cumin seeds, taken regularly in the morning is useful in preventing cancer of the breast and uterus and helps cure sterility due to a deficiency of the hormone progesterone.
Myths and Folktales
There is a myth about why the Bel tree is considered sacred to Shiva. In the Siva Purana when Shiva learned of his wife Sati's death, he was inconsolable. He wandered the earth and heaven in grief. He finally rested under a Bel tree and found peace. When he sat under its shade he looked up, he saw the round fruit of the tree which resembled Sati's breasts and believed that her spirit had become embodied in the tree.
There is another myth linking the Bel tree to Shiva. The daughter of the Himalaya, Parvathi wished to marry Lord Shiva. For this she performed many austerities. After many eons, she had almost reached her objective, when Narad-muni, the mischief-maker among the gods, visited Himalaya, her father and urged him to unite Parvathi and Vishnu. Himalaya agreed but Parvathi fled with a waiting maid into the desert. There she drew a linga on the sand, placed it on Bel leaves, and abandoning all food and water, gave herself up to the worship of Lord Shiva. At last conquered by her devotion, Shiva appeared and married her. (Kincaid 1994:20)
The Brihatdharma Purana describes how the Bel came to earth. Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu was a worshiper of Lord Shiva and used to offer a thousand lotus flowers to him. One day when she was going to worship Shiva she found the lotus buds short by two and it was too late to get more flowers. Suddenly she remembered that her husband Vishnu had once compared her breasts to lotus buds and she decided to cut off her breasts and offer them in place of the missing buds. As she cut off one of her breasts and placed it with the flowers, Shiva satisfied with her worship of him and at her sacrifice appeared before her and asked her to stop. He turned her cut breast into the round Bel fruit and sent it to Earth to flourish near his temples. (Gupta 2001:2)
According to the Banihi Purana, Goddess Lakshmi was born on Earth as a cow and the Bel tree grew from her dung. The fruit is also called Shriphala as it is believed to have been produced from the milk of Goddess Lakshmi.
Another legend says that Lakshmi and Saraswati were both wives of Vishnu but he loved Saraswati more. Enraged Lakshmi started worshiping Siva. Although she performed austerities for a long time, Siva did not appear before her. After a long time Lakshmi became the Bilva tree and Siva dwells inside the tree.
Before the start of the battle between Rama and Ravana, Brahma took Rama to a Bel tree growing on the sea shore to invoke Devi on the Krishnanavami tithi. Rama prayed to Devi and she assured him with a voice from heaven that he would be victorious. (Gupta 2001:5)
Kathasaritsagara tells a story about the sacredness of the Bel tree. Once a hunter was in a deep forest. He was suddenly chased by a tiger. To save himself he climbed a Bel tree. The tiger waited for him below the tree. Soon it was night and the hunter knew that if he fell asleep, he would fall off the tree and the tiger would devour him. So to keep himself awake, he kept breaking off the leaves of the Bel tree and throwing it down. By morning, the tiger had gone ad the hunter climbed down. He was surprised to see a Shiva linga beneath the tree. The leaves that he had plucked had fallen on that Shiva linga. He then recalled that the previous night had been Sivarathri. So although unknowingly, the hunter had performed the most auspicious worship of Shiva. Therefore, in spite of not leading a virtuous life, the hunter was redeemed of all his sins and he went to heaven after his death.
In Palampur in Himachal Pradesh there is a deity called the Kunjeshar Mahadev, which is believed to be a manifestation of Lord Shiva. This deity is said to have come to being in a nest of a crane in a grove of Bel trees. The king Raja Dilawar Chand of Kangra dreamed of this deity and later built a temple there. This Deity came to be known as the Kunjeshar Mahadev after the crane which was locally called kunj. ( Thakur 1997:78)
The King and the Brahman
- 'There is an interesting tale about the Bel tree. Once in the city of Pataliputra ruled a king called Vikramatunga. He had the reputation of never turning his back on a suppliant or in fighting an enemy. The king one day entered the forest to hunt and saw a Brahman offering a Bilva fruit to the Siva linga. The king did not disturb him and went ahead with the chase. Hours later, on his return from the chase, he found the Brahman still continuing the sacrifice as before. The king got curious and going up to the Brahman, asked him what merit he was going to gain by offering the Bilva fruit.
- The Brahman named Nagasarman answered: “When the God of Fire is pleased with this Bilva fruit as a sacrifice in the yajna, then Bilva fruits of gold will come out of the fire. The God of Fire will appear in bodily form and grant me a boon. That is why I have spent so much time offering Bilva fruits. But so little is my merit that even now the God of Fire has not listened to my prayers or accepted my sacrifices.”
- The king then said: “Give me a Bilva fruit so that I may offer and I will today, O Brahman, render the God of Fire propitious to you.”
- The Brahman answered,: “Never mind. Give me a Bilva fruit and in a moment you will see a wonder.”
- The Brahman full of wonder and curiosity, gave a Bilva fruit to the king. The king mediated for a while and offering the Bilva fruit to the sacrificial fire, and said: 'If thou art not satisfied with this Bilva fruit, O God of Fire, then i will offer you my own head.”
- Arising from the sacrificial fire, a seven ray-ed god appeared before the king, bringing a golden Bilva fruit , as a reward for his valor and addressing the king said: “I am pleased with your valor so please receive this boon, O king.”
- The king bowed before the God of Fire and said: “ Grant this Brahman his wish. What other boon do I require.”
- The God of Fire answered, “O king, this Brahman will become a lord of wealth and by my favor your treasury will always remain full.”
- The Brahman addressed the God of Fire and said: “Thou has appeared swiftly to a king who acts according to his own will, but not to me who am under vows. Why is this, O revered one?”
- The God of Fire, the giver of boons answered: “If I had not granted him what he desired, then this king of fierce courage would have offered his head in sacrifice. In this world success quickly comes to those of fierce spirit but comes slowly. O Brahman, to those of dull spirit like yours.” Saying this the God of Fire vanished. Brahman, Nagasarman took leave of the king and because of the boon given to him by the God of Fire became rich.' (Gupta 2001:5)
- 'The Bel tree is supposed to be the abode of Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and consort of Vishnu. In fact, Bilvapatrika, she who lives in the leaves of the Bilva tree, is another name for Lakshmi.
Why Brahmans Remain Poor
- Lakshmi enters mortal homes and those whom she blesses prosper and are happy. But Lakshmi is supposed never to have entered a Brahmin’s house.
- “Why?” asked Vishnu of his consort. “Brahmans keep the temples. They are holy and pious and worship all of us. Why are you so adamant about not blessing them with your luck?”
- Lakshmi answered petulantly, “All Brahmans are my natural enemies. I cannot even rest peacefully in my house, the Bel tree, for every day they pluck leaves of it and offer them to Shankara (Shiva).
- If they destroy my house why should I enter theirs?” And Vishnu had no answer to this.' (Gandhi and Singh 1998:24)
- 'Once long ago there stood a palm grove studded with Bel trees lying close by the western sea. There a rabbit lived all alone under a small palm shrub at the foot of one of the towering Bel trees. One day after bringing his dinner back underneath the palm shrub the rabbit thought, “If the earthquake came right now and swallowed up the earth, if the earth should shake and rumble and fall to pieces, then what would become of me?”
- At that very moment, a ripe Bel fruit fell onto the little palm shrub rattling and shaking its wide palm leaves. Terrified, the rabbit sprang straight into the air, convinced that an earthquake had struck and that the earth was falling to pieces. He fled wildly away, whimpering in fright without ever glancing back.
- Another rabbit saw him racing along, scared to death and asked, “Why are you running away, looking so terrified?”
- The first rabbit pointed back over his shoulder and cried, “Earthquake! The earth is falling to pieces there!”
- So the second rabbit fled with him. In the same way they saw third and a fourth until there were hundreds of rabbits all scampering for their lives in a tight bunch down the path.
- Then a deer saw them and asked why they ran in fright. At the cry “Earthquake!” the deer joined the stampede. Then came a boar and a buffalo and a gazelle and a rhinoceros and a tiger and a pair of elephants.
- Each animal asked and was told the same thing. “Earthquake! The Earth is falling to pieces back there!”And suddenly, as terrified as all the others, each new animal bellowed its fright and joined the stampede.
- A mighty lion saw the thundering herd and asked, “What is this? Why do you run?”
- When he was told the story by one of the elephants, the lion thought, “I did not feel any earth quake. I have not seen or heard the earth falling to pieces. Surely any earthquake big enough to be worth running from would want to be felt by a lion above all other beasts.”
- He almost laughed out his scorn. But he thought, “They are truly terrified. If I say there is no Earthquake, they will not believe me. I must invent a story they will accept if I am to save their lives.
- And the lion said, “I can stop the earth from falling to pieces if I see the exact place where it started.”
- The elephant shrugged, “We only heard of it from the tiger.”
- The Tiger said, “I heard about it from the rhinoceros.”
- The rhinoceros said, “ Ask the gazelle.”
- The gazelle: “Ask the buffalo.”
- The buffalo: “The boar”
- The boar; “The deer.”
- The deer pointed at the rabbits. “They told me.”
- All the rabbits pointed at the one lone rabbit. “He is the one who started it.”
- The one lone rabbit nervously nodded. “Its all true! We must run! I was sitting all alone under a small palm shrub at the foot of one of the towering Bel trees in the palm grove lying close by the western sea about to eat my dinner when there was a great crash and the leaves began to shake and that was when I knew that a mighty earthquake was ripping the Earth apart.”
- The lion thought, “No doubt a ripe Bel fruit fell on to the palm bush leaves.” But knowing that the crowd of frightened animals needed more, he said, “This sounds serious. Show me the place and I will stop the earthquake and save the Earth.”
- Trembling with fright the rabbit led the lion back to the palm grove lying close by the western sea and pointed to his palm bush. “There,” the rabbit whispered.
- The lion nodded, “Now run and rejoin the others. I will stop the earthquake and tell you when it is safe to return."
- As soon as the rabbit was out of sight, the lion used his long claws to rip and rent the ground, leaving long ragged gashes across the earth. He pushed over the trees and threw giant boulders into the stream to alter its flow.
- Then he chuckled to himself and went back to the other animals. “I have fought with the earthquake and made it stop. Come and see for yourself.”
- All the animals marched back to the palm grove studded with tall Bel trees lying close by the western sea and shuddered to see the earthquake's terrible destruction. Gazing at this devastated landscape each was convinced that the Earth had been about to rip itself apart. Then they turned and gazed in awe at the mighty lion who had stopped an earthquake and saved the Earth. They chanted praises and bowed down, and from that day to this, every animal in the jungle and on the plains has acknowledged that the lion is king.'( Haven 2006:170-2)
Rituals and Beliefs
From ancient times the Bel is associated with Shiva. It is also called Shiva's Tree. Its tri-foliate leaves represents the three eyes eyes of Shiva. It also signifies the three functions of Shiva: creation, preservation and destruction. The leaves are therefore believed to remove the sins of three births. In fact Shiva is often referred to as Bilvadanda or he with the Bilva staff.
It is said that offerings of water sprinkled with these leaves at any shrine will always remain fresh.
The nut of the fruit is large, with a pyramidal or conical shape with a rugged surface. This nut is worshiped by saivites as a linga. Milk and flowers are often offered at the foot of the Bel tree. In Shiva temples the leaves offered to the deity are given to the devotees as prasadam or divine gift. (Amritalingam 2005:66)
The Siva Purana mentions the fruit and leaves of the Bel tree as being the best offerings to Lord Shiva. Devotees are believed to gain immense merit by watering the Bel tree, offering Bel leaves or even accidentally throwing Bel leaves on a Siva- linga. Linga worship under a Bel tree is considered highly auspicious. “He who worships Mahadeva under a Bilva tree becomes a purified soul.” (Gupta 1996:11)
Gupta mentions how on the Shivarathri day the linga is bathed in milk decorated with leaves of the Bilva tree. Sati is believed to have worshiped Shiva on this day with Bilva leaves and fruit.
In different parts of India tree marriages are a custom. In this women marry trees, either to avert an astrologically bad match, or to retain certain liberties that maidens do not have, or to avoid the consequences of eventual widowhood. Marrying a Bel tree is a way of avoiding the social sanctions that are imposed in traditional Hindu society whenever a woman's husband dies.In this way, she becomes free to leave her husband, or to divorce him, and also to remarry. In Nepal, Newars who comprise the predominant cultural group of the Kathmandu Valley, ritually marry pre-pubescent daughters to a fruit of the Bel tree. (Khandro, 16 Aug 2009)
Since the tree is also considered sacred to Goddess Durga, in Bengal during the Durga Puja, on ashtami or the eighth day Goddess Durga is invoked in a twig of the Bel tree.
The Karwar tribe wears leaves of the Bel tree along with cloves and flowers chosen by a Brahman to cure illness. (Crooke 1994:209)
It is believed that a friendly ghost by the name Brahmadaitya resides in the Bel tree. For this reason people refrain from climbing the tree and if a Brahman is forced to climb the tree to collect tree foil used in the worship of Lord Shiva, he will do it so only after offering prayers to Brahmadaitya. (Crooke 2004:77)
In north India there is a custom know as Bel Bandhar or the oath of the Bel which is one of the most sacred pledges a Hindu can take. When this oath is taken, some Bel leaves are filled with turmeric and exchanged between parties with solemn pledges. (Garg 1992:186)
Totems and Taboos
The Bel fruit is considered a taboo in Kerala and is not eaten as it is believed to be the head of Shiva.
The Bel tree is totemic to many tribes in India. Some Dravidian tribes that consider the tree as a clan totem are the Chandars, the Darjis and the Halbas. The Bel clan of the Khangars of Bundlekhand in central India revere the Bel tree and never cut or injure it. (Frazer 2000:230)
Proverbs, Rhymes, Riddles and Other Verbal Art
- Phir mundlo Bel tar
Translation: The bald head will not venture under the Bel tree again. (The Bel fruit is said to be attracted to shaven heads and will never resist a chance to fall on one. The English equivalent would be ‘once bitten twice shy’)
- Bel pakal, kaua ke baap la ka
Translation: What difference does it make to the crow if the Bel fruit is ripe. (The crow, which pecks at all ripe fruit cannot penetrate the hard shell of the Bel so it is immaterial to the bird when the fruit ripens.)
- Bel, babul, khak aur dhul
Translation: From the Bel tree to the Babul tree is dust to ashes. (Worse and worse. Both trees are very thorny, the babul being more so than the Bel)
- Bel ke mare babul tale, babul ke mare Bel tale.
Translation: Hurt by the Bel he runs to the Babul, hurt by the Babul he runs to the Bel(Refers to an unlucky person whom bad luck follows wherever he goes) (Fallon and Temple 1998:37)
Exercises for Collection, Analysis and Classroom Presentation
- Ambasata, S. P. (2000) The Useful Plants of India, New Delhi: National Institute of Science Communication
- Crooke, W. (2004) The Popular Religion and Folklore of Northern India. Montana:Kessinger Publishing
- Fallon, S.W., and Temple, Richard (1998) A dictionary of Hindustani proverbs: including many Marwari, Panjabi, Maggah, Bhojpuri, and Tirhuti proverbs, sayings, emblems, aphorisms, maxims, and similes, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services
- Frazer, James, Sir.(2000) Totemism and Exogamy.London :Routledge
- Garg, Ganga Ram. Ed. (1992) Encyclopaedia of the Hindu world. Vol1. New Delhi:Concept Publishing Company
- Gupta, Shakti (2001) Plant Myths and Traditions in India, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers
- Haven, Kendall. (2006) Wonders of the land: merging earth myth with earth science.West port:Libraries Unlimited
- Khandro.Net (2009) Trees:Khandro.net. Online. Available Http<<http://www.khandro.net/nature_trees.htm>> (Accessed 7 Sep 2009)
- Kincaid, C.A. (1994) The Tale of the Tulsi Plant and Other Studies, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services
- Morton, J. (1997) Fruits of Warm Climate, Miami: Julia. F. Morton. Online. Available Http<<http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/wood-apple.html>> (Accessed 7 Sep 2009)
- Thakur, Ram, Molu (1997) Myths, rituals, and beliefs in Himachal Pradesh, New Delhi:Indus Publishing Company