NEEM TREE

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By M.Amirthalingam

Glossary of names in Indian Languages


Bengali  : NIM, NIMGACHH

Gujarati  : LIMDO

Hindi  : BALNIMB

Kannada  : BEVU, NIMBA

Malayalam  : VEPE

Marathi  : BALANT NIMBA

Sanskrit  : NIMBA, PARIBHADRAKA

Sind  : NIMORI

Singalese  : KOHOMBA

Tamil  : VEMBU, VEPPA

Telugu  : NIMBAMU, VEPA

Botanical Classification


Botanical Name  : AZADIRACHTA INDICA

Family Name : MILICEAE

English  : NEEM TREE, MARGOSA

Contents


DESCRIPTION OF THE LIVING BEING

The Tree Neem tree is a fast growing evergreen tree with an irregularly rounded crown that grows upto a height of 15-20 m. It is one of the very few shade-giving trees that thrive in drought prone areas. It can grow into a big tree to a height of about 20 to 35 m. Its canopy of leaves makes it a useful shade tree. It is planted along roads and avenues in towns and villages of India. Normally it thrives in areas with sub-arid to sub-humid conditions, with an annual rainfall between 400 and 1200 mm. It can tolerate high to very high temperatures and does not tolerate temperature below 4 °C. The Neem is a life giving tree, especially for the dry coastal, southern districts. In Tamil Nadu, it is very common to see Neem trees used for shade, lining streets or in most people's back yards.

Leaves

The leaves of Neem are long, pendent, crowded near the ends of the branches and curiously shaped leaflets. The leaflets are deeply serrated, sharply pointed and curved like a scythe. Their fresh, green colour and shining surface gives the tree a delicate and charming appearance. During the monsoon when the flowers have fallen and the tree is in full foliage; the curved, toothed leaves, massed round the branches, have a distinctive appearance which is easy to recognise. Young leaves are pale, tender green and tinted with rust.

Flowers

The flowers, which appear from March to May, are tiny stars borne in great number on long, drooping stems which spring from the axils of the leaves. The five whitish petals surround a yellow funnel which contains the stamens and the style. The flowers are borne in broad, erect cluster, followed by purplish-black berries about 2.5 cm. long. Bees and other insects are attracted by the pollen, and buzzing swarms can usually be seen hovering round the tree all through the flowering season.

Fruits

Fruits are fleshy and yellowish in colour when ripe with a single-seeded drupe that is elliptic in shape. Birds and bees love their sweet-tasting juice. After the rains, the fruits give off a strong unpleasant smell.

GEOGRAPHICAL SETTING

The tree is native to India and it grows throughout the dry regions of the country and also grows in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran. In India, it occurs throughout the country in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. The Neem tree is resistant to drought and it grows in many different types of soil, but it thrives best on well-drained deep and sandy soils.

Original natural distribution is obscured by widespread cultivation but Neem is believed to be native to at least North East India and Burma. The tree’s adaptation to hot and dry climates has made it one of the most commonly planted species in arid and semi-arid areas, both within its natural range and also in Africa, Central and Southern America, the Caribbean and Philippines (V.P. Tewari and D.K. Mishra, APFORGEN Priority Species Information Sheet, Arid Forest Research Institute, Jodhpur, India).

MYTHS AND FOLKTALES

According to Indian mythology, the origin of the Neem tree is related to the story of Samudramanthana (the churning of the Ocean). Amrita was sprinkled by ‘Indira’ (the celestial king) on the earth, which gave rise to the Neem tree and thereby bestowing upon it numerous properties of more use to humans than those of ‘Kalpa-vriksha’, the wish-fulfilling tree. It is a wonder tree and is mentioned in a number of ancient texts.

In another instance Neem tree is related to ‘Dhanmantri’ (the God of medicine). Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, Kautilya’s Arthashastra (Book II, Chapter 15, 25), Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Brihat Samhita mention the medicinal properties of the Neem tree.

For centuries, Neem has been so closely associated with the life and culture of people in the Indian sub-continent, that it can be called ‘Kalpa Vriksha’, the wish-fulfilling tree. The tree is believed to be a “symbol of truth”. Hence anyone who utters falsehoods beneath a Neem tree is believed to fall ill (India heritage, June 2005). According to Narada Purana, its stick is used to brush teeth and for homa (the sacrificial fire). Its wood is used to make idols of Ganesha and its leaf is used in worship (Nambiar, K.D, 1979, Narada Purana – A critical study, p.301, Varanasi).

There is a legend concerning the powerful medicinal attributes of the Neem. A woman, whose husband was about to set out on a voyage, wished to ensure that he returned soon. She consulted a medical man who told her that she must advise her husband to sleep under a tamarind tree every night of the onward journey and under a Neem tree every night of the return journey. He agreed to do so. The tamarind is reputed to exude unhealthy, acid vapors so, before many days, the unfortunate man found himself too sick to continue his travels. He returned back and the healing power of the Neem trees under which he then slept each night, worked to such effect that by the time he reached home his sickness was cured (Cowen D.V., 1984, Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India, Thacker and Co. Ltd., Bombay).

RITUALS AND BELIEFS

There are many folk beliefs centred on the Neem tree. Sitala -the Goddess of smallpox is said to inhabit it. Being the seat of Sitala-the presiding deity of this disease, its leaves are believed to possess a curative effect. Neem leaves are laid on the floor of the room particularly under the bed of a person affected by measles, mumps or chicken pox. Neem leaves are hung on the doorway to announce goddess Sitala’s presence in the house. Incidence of small pox is never mentioned derogatorily lest the victim is struck dead by Sithala, but referred to as maidaya or Mother’s kindness, or as maikhela that is Mother’s play.

It is one of the trees held sacred by the Hindus all over the country (Ramji Lal, 1993). The Neem tree is associated with goddess Sitala (W.Crooke, 1993). Sometimes there is no temple, but a Neem tree in which the deity is supposed to dwell is worshipped (Oudh Gazetteer, I, 355, 517 and Tod, Annals-II 75).

The Doms of Uttar Pradesh believe that Kali-the Divine mother-dwells on this tree.

There are many folksongs in Hindi in which a stirring appeal is made to the Goddess to free the patient from the torment. In the bright half of the month of Chaira (March-April), which is known as Namarari, special importance is attached to it. Women worship it with offerings of flowers, vermillion and other fragrant objects at its base. The oil extracted from the fruit of the Neem possesses much medicinal value. If a man is thought to have been bitten by a snake, he is asked to chew the leaves of Neem in order to find out for sure. If he finds its taste to be bitter then he is regarded as free from the venomous bite.

It is believed that the Neem leaves are used to drive away evil spirits. If a man is possessed of any spirit he is made to experience the bitter smell of the smoke of burning Neem leaves. In order to ward off the malicious spirits, small pieces of Neem are burnt in the fire pot placed near the door of the confinement rooms. In northern India, its leaves are used to protect people from the spirits of the dead while returning from the cremation ground.

There is a common belief in Maharashtra and Gujarat that when a woman is blessed with a child, an earthen pot filled with the urine of the cow and Neem leaves are placed before the door of the confinement room. This custom is prevalent even today among the Chitpavan Brahmanas of Maharashtra. It is understood that when a person enters the confinement room, he has to sprinkle cow's urine on his feet with a twig of this tree.

In Ahmednagar, if a man is bitten by a snake, he is immediately taken to the temple of Bhairav and is administered Neem leaves mixed with black pepper. The priest tries to remove the effect of the bite by uttering mantras (charms) and touching the body of the patient with a tuft of leaves. The Kanphata Yogis (pierced ears) of Kachcha (Saurashtra) get their ears pierced and then use small pieces of Neem in their ear lobes. They apply its oil to cure the wounds.

Several primitive tribes of Madras worship the Neem tree. They mark the symbol of this tree on the body of their dogs.

The Banajaras of Maharashtra, test the chastity of their wives by means of this tree. Husbands throw a stick of Neem on the ground and challenge them, "If you are a chaste wife, please lift up the staff in your hand”.

According to a legend in the Ramayana, it was Rama’s day of returning home; the people of Ayodhya were so happy that they celebrated the day by displaying gudi at the entrance of their houses. A gudi is a long pole. At the top, a coloured silk cloth is pleated and fixed with a silver or brass pot. It is then decorated with a small garland of flowers and twigs of the Neem tree (Valmiki Ramayana, 6-22-57; Organiser, Vol. LVI, No. 48, Pp. 34/39, June 12, 2005, New Delhi).

According to Ramayya (1985), in a large number of villages, the local deities have no temples and they are lodged in the open air under the shadow of a big tree. The shadow of a tree is regarded as the embodiment of the deity and it receives all acts of worship that are meant for the deity. The tree that is usually considered sacred to the local deity is Neem (Azadirachta indica). In forests, trees can be found stained and garlanded with beads, representing Vana (forest) Durga and shrines of forest Kali can be found under pairs of trees. The trees are given a similar reverence and some offerings as those given to the gods.

In Tamil Nadu, Peepal and Neem trees are planted so close to each other that they entwine as they grow. A naga idol is placed under them and worshipped. Women desiring children erect snake stones under these sacred trees and these stones have stylised cobras carved on them representing goddess Nagammal (snake goddess). They are erected under Neem or Peepal trees to the accompaniment of prayer and ritual. Women take an early morning bath and circumambulate these trees” (Ayyar, 1982). There is a belief that an infertile woman can conceive if she offers prayers to the goddess, Nagathamman. Vows are sometimes made at a snake shrine with the object of conception, and if a child is born, it is named Nagappa or Nagamma (Thurston, 1975). Neem is used in the worship of Goddess Mariyamma in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Buchanan's travelogues report five leaf branches of Neem being used in the Mariyamma pooja in Mysore. Neem is deeply imbued with spiritual meaning.

It is considered as one of the most sacred trees in India from time immemorial. It is the symbol or the abode of Goddess Mariamman. To say in exact terms of the devotees ‘Neem tree’ is considered as the ‘Thala Virutcham’ (a favourite tree of Goddess Mariamman). People, who go to the temples worship the ‘Neem’ tree, as well as apply sacred tilak to it. To cap it all, recently a Neem tree, whose trunk has been bulging for the last several weeks, was considered as pregnant, for the bulging of the trunk exactly resembled the belly of a woman in her third trimester. So the Neem tree was adorned with bangles and flowers on Tuesday by residents of Reddypettai village in Kanchipuram district as part of the ‘Valaikappu’ celebrations for the tree.

The residents of Reddypettai village performed the same Valaikappu ceremony to the Neem tree, with all reverence. A variety of dishes were also offered as oblations considering the Neem tree as a real pregnant woman (http://www.merinews.com/article/the-mystic-Neem-tree-myth-and-fact/131690.shtml).

Tamil women, who worship goddess Kali, dress in red, carry branches of the Neem tree and dance in public places swishing the branches as an act of exorcism to purify the world. Throughout southern India Neem trees are grown near goddess temples and Mahakali receives offerings of Neem leaves, or water to which turmeric and Neem have been added.

The Bengalese Pat Gosain festival focuses extravagantly on the worship of Neem. Throughout Bengal, Neem is the tree wherein Sitala dwells. She is the great Pox-mother who can cause or cure disease. Sitala is beseeched and given offerings underneath Neem trees. The customary treatment of diseases is to rub the body with Neem leaves while making prayers to Sitala. In the heat of summer, fans are made from Neem leaves, to fan away Sitala's fever-demons that might otherwise bring about heat prostration. Neem leaves are chewed with some jaggery on Telugu New Year’s Day or Ugadhi, to symbolise acceptance of the good with the bad.

Leaves of this tree are among the twenty one varieties of leaves offered during Siddivinayaka pooja.

To sanctify the water pot, Neem leaves are used in Ghatasthapana.

Neem leaf chutney is consumed for health and resistance on the occasion of Shardha Kama in the state of Tamilnadu and Karnataka in South India.

The literature gives information about dedication of plants to Navagrahas (Nine Planets), 27 Nakshatras (Constellations) and 12 Rashis (Zodiac Signs). Similarly, each god and festival is associated with at least one plant. Hence, may be out of fear, plants were protected and biodiversity was conserved. Neem tree is associated with Uttara Bhadrapada, 3rd pada of Mirugasridam, 4th pada of Kettai, nakshtras (constellation).

TOTEMS AND TABOOS

According to Khole women of Banda, women are like a tamarind or Neem tree – she can thrive on her own, without much care. (Shodhini, 1997, “Touch Me, Touch-me-not: Women, Plants, and Healing”, p. 70, Published by Zubaan, New Delhi).

One can find Neem in almost every part of India. It is said that planting Neem tree at home is an assured passage to heaven. Its leaves are hung on the main entrance to ward off evil spirits. Brides take bath in water filled with Neem leaves. Newly born babies are laid upon Neem leaves to provide them with protective aura. Neem gives out more oxygen than most trees (www.Neemfoundation.org/Neem-articles/about-Neem-tree). The Neem tree is also connected with the Sun, in the story of Neem bark, 'The sun in the Neem tree'. The Sun-God invited to dinner a bairagi whose vows prevented him from eating except by daylight. Dinner was late, and as darkness fell, the bairagi feared he would have to go hungry, but Surajnarayan, the Sun-God, descended from the Neem tree and continued to shine till dinner was over (http://www.4to40.com/geography/index.asp?id=46). The Neem tree is considered to be male. Since women in purdah do not show their face to strange men, women in Rajasthan cover their face with a veil on passing a Neem tree. The leaves are used in the feast connected with the last rites by certain tribes of Orissa (Gupta, 1991).

Among the Govardhan Brahmin women of Pune, when a child is born, Neem leaves are hung at the front and back door of the house. The Jogis, a criminal tribe in Madras, revere it and brand their dogs with a representation of the tree (Mullaly, Notes on Madras Criminal Tribes, 20).

SACRED AND PROFANE LOCALES OF IMPORTANCE

In Orissa, the popular deities are the Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra; carved out of Neem wood, a pillar–like form with the face and body delineated, but arms left out of the carvings. The powerful goddess Kali is said to dwell on the tree and sometimes stones representing her are placed before the tree and worshipped.

PROVERBS, RHYMES, RIDDLES AND OTHER VERBAL ARTS

Varaha Purana, 12-2-39 mentioned that those who plant one Neem never go to hell.

Proverbs

  • karumbahu virumba adhu vembaayitru
If willed, the bitter vembu (Neem / Azadirachta indica) can become sugarcane; that is “where there is a will there’s a way”.
  • Avanukku veedu vembaayitru
His house has become bitter. This proverb is used by married women.
  • Beku embadu bella ; beda embadu bevu
Wanted saying crude sugar; unwanted saying Indian lilac
  • Abhijaatyam hi te manye yathaa maatustathaiva cha |
na hi nimbaatsravetkshaudram loke nigaditam vachah||
-Valmiki Ramayana - 2-35-17
Meaning: By birth your nature is as exactly as that of your mother. A proverb is quoted in the world saying that “honey does not ooze from a Neem tree”.
  • An old Indian proverb says:

"The land where the Neem trees abound; can death, disease there be found?" The Neem tree was considered to be a gift of god and sarva roga nivarini (the panacea for all diseases).

PERFORMANCES AND ARTISTIC EXPRESSIONS

The bark is used in preparing a dye for colouring fine textured fabrics. Gum (amber coloured) is extracted from the bark. The wood is used for carving images of the gods, toys and also used for making agricultural implements, carts, boards and panels. In South India its wood is used to make furniture. The fibre of the bark of the yields is woven into ropes. Traditionally, dried leaves have been used as insecticides and the twig as tooth brush.

POPULAR PAN-INDIAN EXPRESSIONS

Vembu’ is a popular name in South India

Veppa urundai - Neem leaves paste - for de-worming

Veppa Maram - Mari is the Mother Goddess of Fertility usually also found under this tree.
There are places named after the vepa maram (Neem tree). For example, Vepery was named in view of the large number of Neem (vepa) trees on the banks of a lake (eri) in the area. According to an inscription (239 of 1903) of Parthasarathy temple, Tiruvallikeni, this place is mentioned as “Veper”. Similarly, there places named the vepamarm (Neem tree) are Veppampattu, Veppangkadu, Veppanampalli, Veppanthattai, Veppur, Veppathur and so on.

EXERCISES FOR COLLECTION, ANALYSIS, AND CLASS ROOM PRESENTATIONS

  1. Learn about the uses of different parts of the tree in different parts of India.
  2. Collect newspaper clippings / pictures of Neem tree and the sanctity attached to it in our country.

GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS WITH BIBLIOGRAPHIES AND FURTHER REFERENCES

  • Gupta, S.M., Plants myths and traditions in India, Munshi Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2001.
  • 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.
  • Santapau, H., Common Trees, National Book Trust., Delhi, 1966.
  • Thurston, E., 1975. Ethnographic Notes in South India, Part II., p. 424, Madras: Government Press 1906 [G] Reprinted Delhi: Cosmo.
  • Jagadisa Ayyar, P.V. 1982. South Indian Custom,. pp. 89 – 91. Asian Education Service, Delhi.
  • Ramanayya, N.V. 1985. An essay on the origin of the South Indian Temple. pp. 4 – 5. Asian Education Services, New Delhi.
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