Of coconut offerings and plant names


Ever wondered why coconuts are placed as offerings in temples? Or why people prefer not to sleep under a tamarind tree? Or how the teak tree got its name?

Our ancestors struggled to find explanations for nature’s largesse. Naturally, most of the tales attribute trees to some heavenly origin. But there are some bizarre and gruesome explanations to these questions about the myriad beliefs about trees.

A coconut, for instance, is offered to Goddess Bhadrakali instead of a human sacrifice because it resembles a head. According to a folk tale, the coconut tree came to earth when sage Vishwamitra sent King Trishanku to heaven through a yagya — a spiritual bonfire. The angry King of Gods, Indra Dev, pushed Trishanku down to earth. Vishwamitra stopped his fall mid-air, but being aware that his magic chant would wear off, held him up with a long pole. In time this pole became the coconut tree’s trunk and Trishanku’s head became the fruit.

However, far-fetched the tale may seem, many of the myths persist to this day. Many people still avoid sleeping under a tamarind tree as it is believed to house spirits. A story in the Swasthani Brata Katha says, Bhasmasur, the chief of the demon’s army, Danawa-Daitya-Asura, hid himself in a tamarind tree to escape Shiva’s wrath. Lord Shiva spotted Bhasmasur only when he opened his third eye.

The rays from the radiation caused the leaves to disintegrate and thus Bhasmasur was burnt to ashes. Since then the tamarind leaves have remained small.

Many plants take their names from the shape of their leaves or flowers. A dandelion, from the French dent-de-lion literally means ‘a lion’s tooth’. The word tulip goes back to the Turkish pronunciation of the Persian word for a turban.

Other plants taking their names from their shape include — from the Greek, aspidistra (shield), dolphinium (dolphin) and hepatica (liver). From Latin comes aster (star), gladioulus (small sword) and palm (the palm of the hand). The Latin name, Tectona grandis, for the teak tree comes from the Malayalam word tekka.

Plants also derive their names from people — the dahlia is named in honour of Andreas Dahl, an 18th century Swedish botanist; the loganberry after Judge James Logan, an American horticulturist who bred it in the late 19th century; and the greengage after Sir William Gage, an English botanist who took the fruit to England from France.

Meanwhile try your hand at this old riddle — what has an elephant tusk but is not a tusk? The body of a monk but is not a monk? The head of a crow, but is not a crow, but a parakeet. The answer — the flame-of-the-forest flower. To know how, perhaps you can ask your grandmother. She might be a treasure of tales that you never knew.