Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Goddess Flower

Once again, it is that wonderful time of the year...when we celebrate the Devi Festival - Durag Puja to some, Navratri to other and in my part of the world, Dussera.

So, this is a piece about Her favourite flower

The Goddess Flower
By Ratna Rajaiah

It’s rare that someone so gorgeous is also so easy-gping I mean, it grows just anywhere, needs no mollycoddling other than large splashes of sunshine and water, flowers spectacularly and lavishly throughout the year and because of that, attracts lovely birds and butterflies. And if all that wasn’t enough, it is an ancient and legendary cosmetic, medicine and is currently being researched to possibly become India's first herbal contraceptive! (More on that later.) I speak of course of the hibiscus. Cousin to cotton and lady’s fingers (bhindi), there are around 2200 varieties of this gorgeous flowering plant and the variety that grows in such abundance in our country is the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. Or the hibiscus that is the rose of China, probably because its association with China is a very old one. But no less than it is with India…

The Goddess flower
“Swargapavargada shuddha japapushpa nibhakrutih….”
This is the 147th stotra of the Lalitha Sahasranama which roughly translates as “Who bestows the eternal bliss of Swarga, Who is pure, Whose colour is of the nature of japa flowers…” So, it is but natural that the hibiscus (japapushpa, japakusuma, japaphool or the prayer flower) is the primary flower of worship for the Devi. (In many places like Maharashtra, it is also the flower most offered to Lord Ganesha.) And equally naturally, one so favoured by the Devi is blessed with much goodness and healing, which is why the hibiscus is also called “rogapushpa” is Sanskrit! So, for centuries, in almost every continent, almost all parts of the hibiscus plant has been used as medicine. In Bangladesh, China, Peru, Trinidad and Vietnam the flowers are used to regulate menstruation, in Malaysia the roots to treat venereal diseases, in Fiji and Japan for diarrhea and in Kuwait, it is even used as an aphrodisiac! In Ayurveda, the flowers, roots and leaves is used in pancha karma therapy, the flowers as a blood purifier and according to the ancient Indian lexicons on medicinal herbs (Nighantu Granthas) like Raja Nighantu, Bhava Prakasha Nighantu and Shodala Nighantu, to treat a whole host of ailments from coughs and fevers to insomnia, even hypertension.
But its most popular use, both in Ayurveda and traditional medicine, is in the treatment of gynacelogical problems like excessive and painful menstruation, vaginal and uterine discharges, menstrual irregularities etc. And the hibiscus’ greatest significance and one that has serious long-term implications for women the world over is its potential as the world’s first herbal oral female contraceptive! Research carried out in the last 10 years, initially at the College of Ayurveda and College of Medical Sciences at Varanasi, and later by the ICMR Task Force on Anti-Fertility Plants has given clear indications of this. Not at all surprising because the Yogaratnakar says, "The lady who takes the paste of the Jabakusum in rice water mixed with molasses for three days does not become pregnant” and in traditional medicine, it has been used as a contraceptive for hundreds of years in many places in India like Kerala and Assam.
Actually, the hibiscus’ healing powers may not be all that surprising if you consider the fact the hibiscus flower is good sources of beta-carotene and flavanoids (flagged by its gorgeous colours) and also contains calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C. Which is why, apart from being a medicinal plants, the flowers are made into drinks, salads, teas, curries, pickles and the leaves are even used as a substitute to spinach!

Crowning glory!
The hibiscus flower, seemingly sent by the Devi on a special mission to look after us women, has also quite a reputation for making hair beautiful, black and healthy. So, loaded with all those nutritional goodies and natural emollients which makes the hair soft and promotes hair growth, the hibiscus works its wonders as shampoo, hair oil, hair tonic, hair conditioner, hair dye, as treatment for all kinds of hair problems including premature graying, dandruff – and since we don’t want the men feeling left out - even balding. So, as you can see, there’s not much that the hibiscus can’t do, hair wise. Which is why every grandmother has her own favourite hibiscus hair oil recipe and many Ayurvedic hair oil formulations contain hibiscus including the famous brahmi amla hair oil. Incidentally, the reason why hibiscus flowers are used as hair dye is because when crushed, they yield a dark purplish dye. Which served as not just hair colouring but also as shoe polish (hence the hibiscus’ other name- shoe flower!) and as mascara, darkening the eyelashes of the ladies all over the Far East, where the hibiscus occupies ancient place of honour…..

Asia’s darling
The hibiscus is truly a flower of the Orient, making its presence felt not just with its glorious colours beautifying every countryside from China to Hawai but also as trusted medicine, cosmetic, even symbol of statehood.
Chengdu is China’s 4th largest city, capital of the Siachun province and an ancient administrative and cultural center, tracing its existence back to at least 3000 years ago. It is also famous for Chinese brocade….and hibiscus! In the 10th century, the then ruler, Mengchang, ordered the planting of hibiscus on the fortress wall surrounding the city. The walls have crumbled but the hibiscus remain and ever since, Chengdu is referred as the City of Hibiscus with the hibiscus still its symbol. The hibiscus appears on famous 14th century Ming dynasty Chinese porcelain dynasty (1368–1644) and on ancient Chinese silk tapestries.
The hibiscus is also is the national flower of Malaysia. Like China, India and many other Asian countries, the flower grows in abundance throughout Malaysia So, in 1960, when Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, looked for a flower to be the appropriate symbol of his newly independent country, the hibiscus was a natural choice. And he chose not just any hibiscus but the scarlet five-petaled Hibiscus rosa sinensis or Bunga Raya (our very own Goddess flower!) because the colour red represented courage and the 5 petals symbolized the 5 principles of nationhood for Malaysia – unity, democracy, justice, progress and secularism. The official crest of Sarawak, one of the states in East Malaysia features 2 beautiful scarlet hibiscus.Two other varieties of the hibiscus are the state flowers of of South Korea (Hibiscus syriacus or "Rose of Sharon") and Hawaii (Hibiscus brackenridgei).
The curry leaf, the neem, turmeric, coconut, amla…..and the hibiscus. In India, we are so blessed by Mother Nature that we often take much her wonderful bounty for granted, often forgetting their fabulous healing powers are just there in our gardens and backyards. The hibiscus is such a common sight in our countryside, growing so easily and eagerly that we almost pay no attention to it. But as you can see, it is no ordinary flower….
I end with the story of Harriet. Last November, she celebrated her birthday, which was a milestone of sorts. You see, though it is rude to tom-tom a lady’s age, especially one of such vinatge, it seems the birthday was Harriet’s 175th! Which even by tortoise standards is a great age to achieve and makes her the oldest living animal in the world. Did I say “tortoise”? Yup, Harriet is a giant Gal├ípagos tortoise and lives in the Australia Zoo in Queensland, Australia. But it’s not just Harriet’s age that makes her famous. In 1835, when Harriet was just 5 years old, Charles Darwin visited Isla Santa Cruz, Harriet’s home in the Galapagos Islands. So fascinated was he by her and her tribe, that when he left to return to England soon after, he took Harriet and two of her friends with him as subjects of scientific research. It is said Darwin’s observations about Harriet and the Gal├ípagos tortoises contibuted significantly in his formulating that his theory of evolution! (Harriet left England for Australia two years later and has lived there ever since.)
Why am I telling you all this? Because as part of her birthday celebrations, the zoo had a giant tortosie shaped cake (naturally!) and Harriet was fed a lavish helping of…….bright pink hibiscus flowers!
"We gave her hibiscus flowers because that's her favourite food," said the zoo's Laura Campbell. "She's in fabulous health and there's no reason to think she can't live to 200." (Apparently, the hibiscus is not just Harriet’s favourite chowder, but all tortoises’!)
Sources: Medicinal Flowers by Gyanendra Pandey, Ayurveda, the Secrets of healing by Maya Tiwari, Wikipedia, the HumanFlower Project and other websites

Hibiscus hair oil
Over low heat, warm 150-200 ml of coconut or gingelly oil and add 10-12 freshly plucked red hibiscus flowers. Simmer until all the water from the flowers evaporates making sure NOT to let the mixture boil or burn the oil, as too much heat will destroy goodness in the hibiscus. Remove from heat - the oil would have turned a dark purply-pink. Cool and store in a clean dry jar.

Hibiscus Cooler

30-40 single red hibiscus blooms
1 litre/2 pints/4 cups boiling water
freshly squeezed lime juice
sugar to taste
Take about 30 freshly picked single red hibiscus flowers, preferably from your own garden so you know they are not contaminated by chemical sprays. Remove the calyx and the centre pistil and put only the petals into a heatproof bowl. Pour 4-6 cups of boiling water over the petals, cover and leave to cool. Strain and discard the petals - the liquid will be a pretty, clear pink. Add strained lime juice and sugar to taste and serve as a refreshing beverage. Said to have blood purifying properties. It may also be served as a hot drink after a shorter steeping time.
From Charmaine Solomon's Encyclopedia of Asian Food.


The red flag of romance!
In ancient Egypt, hibiscus flowers were associated with lust so much so that the Egyptians believed that tea made with red hibiscus flowers and sepals could induce licentious cravings in women. As a result, for many centuries Egyptian women were forbidden to drink hibiscus tea!
In some Caribbean countries Hibiscus flowers are often carried as wedding bouquets because they are believed to ward off bad omens. “The flowers of the brilliant Red Hibiscus native to Hawaii (Hibiscus kokio) were worn by men to send messages to women. Worn behind the right ear, they meant, “I am married”; behind the left ear, “I am single and looking for a lover.” If a flower was worn behind both ears the message was clear: “I am married, but looking for another lover”! (Flowers are for Love by Kathy Lamancusa.)

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