June 13, 2013

Tamarind Tree

The name Tamarind is derived from the Arabic word, Tamar-Hind meaning Indian Date. The Indian Tamarind Tree (Tamarindus Indica) known as “Puli” in Tamil is a member of the Leguminosae family. It grows throughout India and can live to be 200 years or even more. It can be seen in great numbers around Tiruvannamalai, lining the thoroughfares and roadways leading into the town. 

The Tamarind tolerates a great diversity of soil types, from deep alluvial soil to rocky land and porous, limestone. It also withstands salt spray and can be planted close to the seashore. This tree can be grown just about anywhere and also because of its deep root system, can withstand the hot summer days of South India very effectively. 

Gathering Tamarind Fruit

It is a large, handsome, evergreen tree with symmetrically spreading branches. The trunk is thick and short and the bark rough, almost black, and covered with long cracks. The leaves are separated into green fringed stems and pale yellow three-petalled flowers cluster in small bunches around the leaves. Flowers appear in May and the seeds are encased in sweet-sour tasting pulp covered with a scaly rind. The fruit of the Tamarind which hang from the branches begin as a pale green and as the fruit matures turns into a dark, shiny brown. 

In South India, the tree is grown in the precincts of temples to the Mother Goddess who battles evil spirits at night. People avoid walking near Tamarind trees in the dark and locals believe that the neighbourhood in which the Tamarind tree grows becomes unwholesome, and that it is unsafe to sleep under it owing to the acid the tree emits during the moisture of the night. Another superstition about the Tamarind is that few plants will survive beneath it and that it is harmful to both people and animals to sleep under it, because of the belief of the corrosive effect that fallen leaves from the tree have in damp weather. 

Roadway entering Tiruvannamalai

Maybe because of the supposed health dangers attributed to the tree, there also exists the common village superstition that the Tamarind attracts ghosts. For this reason it is uncommon to see this tree planted on private land. It is more often seen on the sides of public roads, where it provides effective, cooling shade to travellers. In Hindu lore the tree symbolizes the wife of Brahma, the creator. One of the most famous Tamarind tree in India is in Gwalior, where it stands over the tomb of Emperor Akbar’s musician Tansen. The legend goes that all classical singers should eat some leaves of this tree to make their voices as sweet as his.

One popular legend connected to this Tree concerns Rama from the Ramayana epic and is believed to date from the 4th Century B.C., goes like this. While in exile Rama, Sita and Laxman were camping under the tree and Sita was cooking food. In those days the Tamarind tree had large leaves but still could not keep raindrops from disturbing Sita and putting out the fire. In anger Rama ordered Laxman to shoot an arrow of protest to Lord Indra, the rain god. The arrow pierced the leaves and they were divided into tiny parts that exist to this day.

There is another story as to why the leaves are divided. Orissa tribal legend states that Bhima had a plantain tree with large leaves and Rama planted a Tamarind tree also with large leaves. In a jealous fit of rage Bhima sent a parrot to break up the Tamarind leaves into tiny parts and so they are to this day. Yet another legend associates the Tamarind tree with Shiva, Parvati and Usha. Usha was so busy playing with Lord Ganesha that she ignored the presence of Lord Shiva who became enraged and cut of his son, Lord Ganesha’s head. The frightened Usha hid in a barrel of salt where she was discovered by Parvati and accused of neglecting Lord Shiva and was cursed to be born on Earth as the daughter of Banasura. Usha begged for forgiveness but the curse could not be revoked. Parvati granted a boon that in her honour, instead of taking salt during the month of Chaitra, people would drink the juice of the fruit of the Tamarind tree and so it came to be. 

Tamarind Tree, Arunachala background

In northern parts of India, the Tamarind tree is associated with Lord Krishna. ‘Imli-tala’ is a sacred Tamarind tree located in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. It is believed to date back to Lord Krishna’s time. Legend has it that the tree was cursed by Radhrani. One day when she was walking to meet Krishna, she stepped on the thick bark of a ripe Tamarind fruit and it cut her foot. This made her late for her meeting with Lord Krishna. She therefore cursed the tree that its fruits would never ripen. Even today, the fruits of this tree fall down before getting fully ripened.

Village Tamarind Tree

The acidic pulp of the fruit of the Tamarind is used extensively in cooking and food preparation in South India. Leaves, flowers, wood, fruity pulp and seeds are all useful and the tree is utilised in myriad ways throughout India. Tamarind has been used in India from the most remote times against scurvy and is known for its effectiveness against mouth and throat infections. The seeds have industrial as well as medicinal uses. The leaves also yield a yellow dye to colour fabrics. The wood is strong and is used to make wheels for carts and for furniture. 

Tamarind Pods on Tree

Valued as an antidote to heat stroke, tamarind pods are often preserved in salt and sold by weight. The whole plant has medicinal virtues. Its leaves are cooling while bark and seeds are astringent, a tonic and reduces fever. Poultice made from the bark heals open sores. Paste of powdered seeds is applied on boils and in chronic diarrhea and dysentery. Decoction of the leaf is useful in jaundice. Leaf paste helps reduce swelling and pain on inflamed joints. The fruit pulp is digestive, cooling and laxative. In modern, mainstream medicine it is used in the manufacture of a variety of drugs with uses ranging from treating intestinal worms to antiseptics, antiviral and antibacterial agents. 

Various parts of the Tamarind

To learn more about this remarkable tree go to this post here:

No comments: