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Monday, November 22, 2010

Protection of plant biodiversity through traditional rituals in India

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Plant biodiversity has gained immense importance in traditional rituals in India since Vedic period. Sacrifice, in fact has immense importance not only in Hindu religion but in many other religions also. “Hawana” for example, is a Hindu ritual which symbolizes sacrifice in different forms like offerings and “Samidha”. Breaking of coconut to please a God is the form of sacrifice. Similarly many different forms of sacrifice are popular in Hindu religion that belong to some or the other plant and its parts including flowers and fruits. Sacrifice of animals form ritualistic practice rarely in Hindu religion but dominantly in other religions followed in this country. Many animal- organizations across the world oppose sacrifice of animals across the world and Countries like India has strict legislation against killing of animals, basically wild animals. Sacrifice in any form sends an indirect message for the propagation of particular species of animals or plants. Here, we are basically concerned with plant biodiversity propagated and promoted by using different parts of plants in ritual practice.

Flowers, leaves and fruits of many different plants have also been regarded as sacred and beloved of Gods and Goddesses, and are hence used in various types of worships or poojas and Yagyas.

Negligence of traditional knowledge
Since early people used different parts of a number of plants in traditional ritualistic practices, it is evident that they had a deep knowledge of importance of harmony in nature and the importance of its protection. But, as time passed human activities of economic development corroded our ritualistic beliefs and accelerated the destruction of habitats. It led to the decimation of many of our sacred groves also. The modern day agriculture too, has driven away a number of plants grown as crops few decades ago. Barley, millet, and many species of paddy have already been disappeared.
 Image 1: millets, no longer cultivated now in many parts of India

Indian rituals protecting plant diversity
India is famous for its rich heritage and rituals. Some rituals like hawanas (offering something to fire or Agni), poojas, distribution of prasads, dravya dan (donation of something as matter like grains etc.) etc. are performed during different religious practices as per the rules defined and described in religious texts. Vedas, Upnishads, Dharmasindhu, Nirnaya- sindhu, Vishwamitra Karika, and Brahma- karma- samuchchaya are some of the famous Hindu religious texts that describe methods of different rituals. These texts describe the methodologies to promote good human health and keep up the ecological balance. A number of rituals are popularly known to societies since the Vedic period and some of these are Ganapati Hawana, Agnihotra, Graha Shanti Yagyas, Maha- Mrityunjai Japas and related activities, Sandhi Shanti, Vastu- raksha Hawana, Tila Hawana, Putra- kamesti Hawana etc.

Hawana and Poojas are done while chanting of different mantras for particular God or Goddess and these are followed by distribution of Prasad among people and offering of Dravya or the Dravya –dan. Dravya include something other than currency like seeds, fruits and grains of particular plants. Prasads are usually made by mixing different plant product and using cow milk of its product.

 Image 2: Flowers and leaves of mango used in many rituals

Image 3: Solanum sp. used in Annakoot ritual

Important Researches
Hawanas, Agnihotras, and Yagyas are gaining popularity across the world as these are being considered to have immense therapeutic values. Various researchers have reported that fumes emitted during Agnihotras while different mantras are chanted have capacity of reducing aerial microbial populations that are potentially harmful to the human communities residing on the earth. The Ash of Hawana or that of Agnihotras has been reported by various scientific researchers to have the capacity of healing of wounds and scabies. Mondkar (1982) has reported that the Bhasm of Agnihotras can heal wounds and can cure even scabies. Tung Ming Lai (1982) has reported that the ash of agnihora remains rich in soluble phosphate which is important for plants. Bhujbal (19810 has reported that the treatment of grape seeds with the ash of agnihora helps in its germination more than the normal ash. Subrahmanya (2006) has worked on the social relevance of plants associated with Homas … and their immediate impact on microbial flora. He has reported that the ritualistic experiment that is conducted with the Graha- Shanti Homa show gradual decrease in the microbial populations with the progress of the activity.

Patra Pooja
Different types of rituals are in practice in different states of India. Some of the rituals popular in Maharashtra and other states of India are – Patra pooja or the worship of leaves in Maharashtra, Gobardhan Pooja and Annakoot in Mathura and many other states, Pinda- dan and Yagyas in different states of India.

Vinaya S. Ghate (1998) has reported that a number of plants are involved in the Patra –Pooja in Maharashtra and some of these are –Mangifera indica L., Achyranthes aspera L., Calotropis gigantea, Ficus religiosa, F. racemosa, F. benghalensis, Aegl marmelos, Solanum indicum, Michelia champaca, Phyllanthus emblica, Cynodon dactylon L. Pers., Jasminum grandiflorum, Nerium oleander, Piper betle, and Butea monosperma.

Neeta Singh and Chowhan (2002) have studied the use of plants in Gobardhan Pooja and Annakoot in Brij Mandal of Maharashtra. They have reported that Lablab purpureus and Beincasa hispida are extensively used in Gobardhan Pooja and Annakoot in the state. Anil Kumar and Yadav(2004) have reported that Hordeum vulgare, Piper betel, Ficus benghalensis, Cocos nucifera, Cynodon dactylon L. Pers., Desmotachya bipinnata, Oryza sativa, Areca catechu, Santalum album, Sesamum orientale, and Ocimum sanctum are used in Pinda- dan. Heisnan et. al. (2004) who has worked on the effect of Agnihotra on germination of rice seeds have reported the use of five plants -Ficus racemosa, F. religiosa, Butea monosperma, and Aegel marmelos are used as Yagya Trees and their ash is helpful in accelerating the germination of paddy seeds.

Plants and Plant parts used in Samidha
  1. Twigs of Acacia sp.
  2. Twigs of Achyranthus aspera (or “apmarga’ in Hindi), family Amaranthaceae
  3. Whole plant of Cynodon dactylon L. Pers. Family Gramineae
  4. Leaves of Desmostachya bipinnata, family Poaceae
  5. Twigs of Shami (Dichrostachys cineraria or Prosopis cineraria, family Mimosaceae
  6. Twigs and bark of Ficus microspora, family Moraceae
  7. Twigs of Tinospora cardifolia syn. Guruchi, family Merispermacea
Plants, Flowers and Fruits used in Poojas
  1. Fruits and inflorescence of Areca catechu, family Arecaceae
  2. Leaves and wood of Aegel marmelos, family Rutaceae
  3. Flowers of Bouhinia varigeta syn. Kachanar, family Caesalpiniaceae
  4. Fruits of Benincas hispida, Kushmanda, family Cucurbitaceae
  5. Whole plant of Cynodon dactylon L. Pers.,Hindi- doob Ghas, family Gramineae
  6. Flowers of Ficus benghalensis, family Apocynaceae
  7. Flowers of Hordeum vulgare, family Malvaceae
  8. Flowers and leaves of Jasminum sambac, family Rubiaceae

  1. Flowers of Lablab purpureus , family Oleaceae
  2. Flowers of Leucas aspera, family Lamiaceae
  3.  Flowers of Michelia champaca, family Magnoliaceae
  4. Flowers and leaves of Nerium oleander, family Apocynaceae
  5. Flowers of Nyctanthus arbor(Hindi- Parijat), family Oleaceae
  6. Leaves of Ocimum sanctum (Hindi- Tulsi), family Lamiaceae
  7. Leaves of Vitex nigunde (Hindi- nirgundi), family Verbinaceae
From the foregoing account it is evident that Indian rituals have been contributing a lot in the protection and propagation of plant biodiversity in India since Vedic period. Hence it is the need of the hour to go for these rituals and traditions in order to keep up the balance of nature. Since   plants used in rituals and traditions are numerous, their protection and propagation to avoid their scarcity in performing various ritual can help a lot in keeping up the plant biodiversity and hence the animal biodiversity too. Thus, by following our age-long traditions and performing our rituals can help us in maintaining the balance of nature.

o    Anil Kumar and Yadav, D.K. 2004. Significance of sacred plants in shraddha ritual(Pinddan) in Gaya, Bihar, Ethnobotany, 16: 103 -107
o    Bhujbal B.G. 1981. Agnihotra and grapes, US Satsang, 8(17)
o    Heisnam Jina Devi, Swamy, N.V.C. and Nagendra, H.R. 2004. Effect of Agnihotra in germination of rice seeds, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 3(3):231-139
o    Mondkar, A.G. 1982a. Agnihotra effect on bacterial population, US Satsang,9(20)
o    Neeta Singh and Chouhan, S.V.S. 2002. Studies on plants used in Gobardhan Pooja and “Annakoot” in Brij Mandal of Mathura, Ethnobotany, 14:73-77
o    Subramanya Prasad, K. 2006. A peep into the social relevance of plants associated with Homas- the traditional Indian rituals and their immediate impact on microbial flora. M.Sc. thesis, University of Kunnur, Kerala
o    Tung Ming Lai 1982. Agnihotra ash and water soluble phosphates, U.S. Satsang, 9(20)
o    Vinay S. Ghate 1998. Plants in Patra Pooja: Notes on their identity and utilization, Ethnobotany, 10:6-15
Key Words: plant biodiversity, ritual, traditions, Maharashtra

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