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By M.Amirthalingam

Glossary of names in Indian Languages




Marathi  : UNDI, UDI, UNDAGI




Telugu  : PONNA

Botanical Classification

Botanical Classification: CALOPHYLLUM INOPHYLLUM

Kingdom  : PLANTAE








Species  : C. INOPHYLLUM

English  : DILO OIL TREE




The Tree
Alexandrian laurel tree is one of the most familiar trees in India. It is a slow growing beautiful large evergreen tree with a broad and irregular crown which grows up to a height of 8 to 20 m. It has a canopy of glossy and elliptical leaves. It grows in coastal regions as well as nearby lowland forests and it has been cultivated successfully in inland areas at average height. It tolerates varied kinds of soil, coastal sand, clay or even degraded soil. The trunk has light grey, shallow-ridged bark. The tree is resistant to cyclone. Though it is a slow growing, it is commonly planted as roadside and avenue tree.


The leaves are dark green, shiny and hairless with broadly elliptic, opposite pairs. Both the tip and base of the leaves are rounded. Leaf veins run parallel to each other and perpendicular to the mid-nerve. The binomial name `Calophyllum’ comes from the Greek words for `beautiful leaf’.


The flowers, which appears from May to June and sometimes again in November bears clusters of 4 – 15 fragrant white flowers from the sturdy stalks in leaf axils. Flowering is heaviest in late spring or early summer. Only the hermaphroditic flower has an ovary, the petals are dropped while the fruit is appearing.


Fruits are ball-shaped and light green in colour, which turns yellow and then brown and finally wrinkled when the fruit is ripe with a single-seed.


The generic name comes from the Greek words ‘kalos’-beautiful and ‘phullon’-leaf, meaning beautiful-leafed and the specific epithet  is derived from the Greek words ‘is’-fibre and ‘phullon’-leaf, alluding to the pronounced veins on the underside of the leaves.

It is native to Australia, Cambodia, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Laos, Madagascar, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Myanmar, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Reunion, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Province of China, Thailand, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Vietnam and exotic to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and United States of America.

Origin and geographic distribution

Calophyllum inophyllum is widespread along the coasts of eastern Africa (from Kenya to northern Mozambique), Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands, tropical Asia, northern Australia and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Although it is considered wild in these areas, it is often unclear where it is truly wild. In Reunion and Mauritius it has possibly been introduced. In Guinea, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon, this plant is locally planted outside the naturally distributed area. In Uganda it has been established near Lake Victoria and it is also planted in tropical America.


The Alexandrian Laurel tree belongs to the Guttiferae. It belongs to the dicot order. The genus Calophyllum is composed of about 180 to 200 different species confined to the warm humid tropics of the world (Stevens P. F. (1980), a revision of the old world species of Calophyllum (Guttiferae). J. Arnold. Arbor. 61, 117-699).

Alexandrian laurel occurs wild on rocky and sandy sea shores with moderate temperature and proximity. The habitat is often pronouncedly xerophytic due to the exposed situation, brackish groundwater and salt-laden winds. It is sensitive to frost and fire. It is sometimes found inland on sandy soils up to 200 m altitude, especially on islands. It is planted inland, up to 1200 m altitude.

Alexandrian laurel tree belongs to the family Clusiaceae. It belongs to the dicot order. Members of the family usually have resinous, sticky sap, flowers with numerous stamens often united in bundles. Male and female organs often occur in separate flowers. There are about 37 genera and 1610 species of trees and shrubs have been described in this family (Gustafsson, Mats H. G. (2002), “Phylogeny of Clusiaceae based on rbcL sequences”, Int. J. Plant Sciences, Vol. 163: 1045).



Alexandrian Laurel has been associated with Lord Shiva. The flower of this tree is one of the eight flowers offered to Lord Shiva during early morning worship.

According to the Sthala Purana (History of the place) of the Suyambarakasar temple at Tirunaaraiyur, this place was named as Punnaga vanam and was predominantly covered by the Punnai tree. According to mythology, the Punnai tree is known to react to certain actions of women. If the Punnai tree passes its flowering stage without flowering, the women dance around and kick the base of the tree, after which it blooms (Agrawala, 1970).

According to the sthala purana of the Kapaleeswarar temple has it that once Goddess Parvati paid scant attention to what Lord Shiva was saying because the goddess was distracted by the beauty of a wandering peacock. An irritated Shiva banished Her to earth where the Goddess took the form of a peahen to worship a lingam under a Punnai maram. The tree and the tiny shrine with a black stone sculpture of a peahen with a flower in its beak praying to a lingam can be found in the prahara or outer courtyard of the temple.

According to the Sthala Purana of the Sathyavageeswarar temple which belongs to the later Pandya period (13th Century AD), Sita was kidnaped from the Kalakkad forest and hence the place is known as Chorakadavi. Lord Rama and Lakshmana prayed to Lord Shiva who was seated under a Punnai tree here. He assured them that he will be with them when they proceed to rescue Sita. After successfully rescuing Sita, they returned to thank Lord Shiva. Before leaving they named the lord Sathyavageeswarar (Lord of Truth). Tamil Saivite Saint Appar has recited songs in praise of the deity. King Veeramarthanda Varma brought this temple to the present shape in the 12th century.


Alexandrian laurel flower is used in worship of Lord Vishnu.
There are many references to the Punnaga flower in the lyrics of Karnatic Music, as a flower for worship and as adornment of various Gods. A raaga by the name punnaagavaraali is named after this tree!

In the verses of Lalitaa Sahasranam, there are mentions about this tree. This flower is sacred to Lord Vishnu, forming his garland.
Om Campakasoka punnaga saugandhika lasat kacayai Namah
Our salutations to Sree Lalithambika who’s shining locks of hair impart their fragrance to flowers like Punnaga adorning them.
There are references found in the Tiruvacagam, a Tamil Sacred Utterance, part I - Hymns 1 -10)

“O, Punnai tree (Calophyllum inophyllum) hast thou blossomed
for strangers? Couldst thou not have waited and blossomed
at the arrival of my dear husband? “

A man went out into the world to make his fortune; before leaving his wife and home, he planted a punnai tree in front of his house, and told his wife that he would come, when the tree had its first flowers. The day for the blossoming of the tree came, and the husband also came, but his wife did not recognize him, so she says these words in despair (Trivacagam or Sacred Utterances of the saint and sage Manikkavacagar translated by G.U. Pope, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1900).

In the fifty-seventh of the Tiruvilayadal – the sacred sports of Lord Shiva, Parvathi was one day dreaming while Shiva was expounding to her the Vedic mysteries, for which she was condemned by her angry husband and preceptor to be born on earth as a wife of a fisherman. Accordingly one day she was discovered lying as a tender infant under a Pinnai tree or Punnai by the headman of the Paravar, a great clan of fisherman found everywhere along the coasts of the Tamil lands. The god now assumed his ancient form, and restored Parvathi to hers, and with many gracious words took the foster father with Him to Kailacham, the paradise of Silver Hill.

According to Krishna Sastry, Chola inscriptions, 47 and 226 mentioned the Punnaitturamangai, a village deity. The goddess Pidari is known from the records of Rajaraja I of the first quarter of the 11th century A.D., as Punnaitturainangai, that is "the goddess, who living on a river bank, in a grove of punnai trees”. Processional vehicle used in Vishnu temples are made with the woods of Punnai tree.


A folklore on punnai tree, which was collected by Alf Hiltebeitel (The Cult of Draupadi, Volume 1: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukshetra by Alf Hiltebeital, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd, London, 1988), the main Terukkuthu informants, in Jalakkiritai Krishna will either take the sarees into an appropriate tree near the stage, usually a punnai tree just big enough for him to climb into, will be cut and temporarily set up near the stage in performance. But the punnai, being a rare tree, is seldom available, and substitutes are thus normally used. The reason for this particular tree used in these folk dramas is a mystery. Could it be a distant echo of Punnai, Krishna’s oft-forgotten favourite (she receives no mentioned in Jalakiritas) among the early Tamil Gopis, who in the Cilapathikaram is the foremost of those to whom Krishna returns garments? Fabricius (followed by Winslow but not by the Tamil lexicon) gives punnai, “a flower tree, pinnaimaram”, as a variant of the more proper punnai, a tree that all the dictionaries identify as Alexandrian laurel or Mastwood. Meanwhile, entirely different trees are mentioned in Alwar poetry and in the Bhagata Purana (Hardy 1983, 195-96, 514 and in 94; Hawley 1983, 29; 1981, 34-36).

Folklore on the Punnai tree is believed that before waging a war with the demon Tanja of Thanjavur, Lord Shiva placed the Ashta Shaktis (eight powers) one at each of the eight directions, and the one stationed at the eastern direction is now the presiding deity of this temple.

Venkoji Maharaja Chatrapati (1676 - 1688), the Maratta rulers following the Cholas used to worship Goddess Mariamman. Once, a Maratta ruler went to pilgrimage to Samayapuram Mariamman temple near Tiruchirappalli. After he returned to Thanjavur, Goddess Mariamman appeared on his dream and told that the Goddess is residing at the “Punnai forest” on the eastern side of the Thanjavur. The King went and saw a white-ant hill (putthu) and started building a temple around it. The Maratta rulers Thulaja, Serfoji also worshipped and constructed the temple. The original putthu for amman was shaped into a form of Mariamman and also installed a powerful Chakra by the Great saint Sadhasiva Brammendra swamy. Therefore the place is known as “Punnai nallur” and the temple got the name “Punnainallur Mariamman temple”.

Punnai (Alexandrian laurel) tree is sacred tree (sthala vriksham) in many temples. For example, the Danvatri Temple at Walajapet in Vellore district, Mylapore Kapaleeswara Temple, Tirunaaraiyur Suyambarakasar temple, Subramaniaswami temple at Mayilam, Ulagalandhaperumal temple at Tirukoilur, Brahmapureeswarar temple at Ambarperuntirukoil, Vedapureeswarar temple at Vedaranyam, Palampathinathar temple at Tirupunavasal, Dhayanideeswarar temple at Pullamboothangudi, Sri Ranganathar temple at Srirangam and many more.


The Paravas used to gather together under the punnai (laurel) trees and make merry with arrack and toddy (Srinivasa Iyengar). Under this tree the local business used to be was conducted. The Paravas believed that such trees possessed divine spirits. The fishermen performed rituals for a good catch.

The Punnai tree is associated with the star Ayilyam. It is also believed that the tree is an incarnation of Adi Shesha.


Once in a punnai forest, there was a Cobra coiling on Shiva linga. One day Manikreevan, one of the king’s watchmen rushed to the King and informed about a Siva lingam and a Cobra coiling on it in Punnai forest. Later the King constructed the temple and it is called Sankaranainarkoil, commonly called as Sankarankoil, which is today well-connected with Tirunelveli. Sri Gomathi Ambal did Thapas at Punnai kshetra and Lord Shiva gave her darshan as Sankaranarayanaswamy on the Uthirada day in the month of Adi (June-August).


Punnaikayal is a place named after the punnai tree situated in Tiruchendur taluk of Thoothukkudi district.
There is a Mandapam dedicated to a vahana (vehicle), named after the Punnai tree and thus it is called Punnai Vahana Mandapam at Mannargudi Temple. During the Panguni – Peruvizha (Big festival on 9th March), the God come on the Punnai Vahanam.
According to Tirunaraiyur sthala purana, once a sage named Dhurvasa worshipped the Swayambu linga under the punnai tree.


Tamil proverb (2374), mentioned about the flowering time of this tree:

Kaakkanukkum pookkanukkum poothaayo punnai kannaalar; varundhanaiyum porukkalayo punnai?”
“O punnai tree, Alexandrian laurel, hast thou blossomed for Kakan and Pookan, couldst not thou have waited till the arrival of my husband?

Meaning: A man went out into the world to make his fortune; before leaving wife and home, he planted a Calophyllum tree at the front of his house, and told his wife that he would come, when the tree had its first flowers. The day for the blossoming of the tree came, and the husband also came, but his wife did not recognize him, so she says these words in despair.

Narrinai (63), mentioned about this tree, “a laurel tree blossoms; all at once in bright clusters; fragrant as a festival,but this unfair town; is noisy with gossip”, Meaning that the “coastal village- (with) smell of fish -(where) punnai tree(with) festival(like)-fragrance- renowned-cluster of flowers- opens(blossoms)- emits fragrance loud noisy – village”.

The tree has been frequently mentioned in the Ramayana (II.94). In Bala Kanda (37- 40) and Kishkindha Kanda (IV. 42-6b, 7, 8a) of the Valmiki Ramayana, mentioned the Punnaga tree (Alexandrian laurel) tree. Rama entered the area of that beautiful lake which is beaming forth with lotuses hemming in from inside, and trees like Tilaka, Ashoka, Punnaga, Bakula, and Uddala, are hemming it from outside [3-75-16].

Kushtha punnaaga tagara bhuurja patra uttarac chadaan |
kaaminaam svaastaraan pashya kusheshaya dala aayutaan || 2-94-24

According to Matshya Purana, a house with “punnaga tree” is very auspicious.

In the Srimad Bhagavatam (3.15.19), while describing the Kingdom of God, there is a reference that the punnaga tree is one among the many fragrance trees. Although flowering plants like the mandara, kunda, kurabaka, utpala, campaka, In Canto 8.1.14-19, in the garden and the lake used to have this tree with other different types of trees.


The timber of the Punnai tree is fairly hard, and is used in ship and boat-building, making railway sleepers and ply woods. It is an excellent wood for making cabinets (Cowen, 1982). The fruit yields a valuable gum. The dark green viscous oil extracted from the seed kernel has an unpleasant odour and taste, and its constituents are toxic. The oil is used for soap making and illumination purposes (Krishnamurthy, 1993).
It is a good shade plant and used for reforestation and afforestation. The tree looks like handsome ornamental and the young foliage being crimson and the flowers scented. In India it is a popular tree for roadside and avenue planting although very slow-growing.

The Punnai tree has an anti-microbial effect. It also acts as an efficient shore protector in most places.


  • Try to learn the vernacular name of the Punnai tree in different Indian languages.


  • Gustafsson, Mats H. G. (2002), “Phylogeny of Clusiaceae based on rbcL sequences”, Int. J. Plant Sciences, Vol. 163: 1045.
  • Stevens P. F. (1980), a revision of the old world species of Calophyllum (Guttiferae). J. Arnold. Arbor. 61, 117-699.
  • Ramayana (II.94); Bala Kanda (37- 40) and Kishkindha Kanda (IV. 42-6b, 7, 8a)
  • Tiruvacagam, a Tamil Sacred Utterance, part I - Hymns 1 -10.
  • Trivacagam or Sacred Utterances of the saint and sage Manikkavacagar translated by G.U. Pope, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1900.
  • Chola inscriptions, 47 and 226.
  • Hardy 1983, 195-96, 514 and in 94; Hawley 1983, 29; 1981, 34-36.
  • Agrawala, 1970, “Ancient Indian Folk Cults”, Prithivi Prakashan, Varanasi.
  • The Cult of Draupadi, Volume 1: Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukshetra by Alf Hiltebeital, the University of Chicago Press, Ltd, London, 1988.
  • Sthala Puranas of Punnainallur Mariamman temple, Tirunaaraiyur and Sankarankoil
  • Amirthalingam, M., `Sacred Trees of Tamilnadu’, C.P.R.Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, 1998.
  • Cowen, D.V., “Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India”, Thacker and Co. Ltd., Bombay, 1984.
  • Srinivasa Iyengar, P.T., “History of the Tamils from the Earliest Times to 600 A.D”, p. 215, New Delhi, 1982.
  • Krishnamurthy T., 1993, Minor Forest Products of India, Oxford & IBH Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., Delhi.
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