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DateLine Sunday, 17 August 2008

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Nature Trail

The sacred lotus

Olli, nelum, manel, who hasn’t heard of these beautiful fragrant blossoms? They are three of the most spectacular plants in the aquatic environments and today we thought of bringing you some interesting facts about one of these blossoms which you are no doubt familiar with, especially if you are a Buddhist, because its closely associated with Buddhism.

The lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), an aquatic perennial (a plant lasting through the years) is also known as the Indian lotus, sacred lotus, bean of India, and the sacred water lily. It is sometimes classified scientifically as Nymphaea nelumbo. In vernacular (commonly spoken language in a country or place), it is popularly called the nelum mala.

The lotus plant is naturalised in southern Asia and Australia. It was introduced to Egypt at the time of the Persian invasion. Ancient Egyptians venerated the blue water lily (Nymphaea caerulea). The nelumbo lotus is native to a huge area from modern Vietnam to Afghanistan.

Even though lotus blossoms are called water lilies, they are not true water lilies and neither do they belong to the genus Nymphaea lotus (in the family of Nymphaeaceae) which has two species in our country namely manel and olu as they are called in Sinhala.

Originating in ancient Egypt, the lotus blossom has been featured in many legends and also played an important part in Egyptian religion. It is just as much as significant to Buddhism and Hinduism today.

The Chinese also revere the lotus as a symbol of purity and elegance while in Hindu mythology the lotus (padma) is associated with creation. It is also associated with gods such as Vishnu, Brahmana and goddesses Sarasvati and Lakshmi. God Vishnu is often described as the Lotus Eyed One. The unfolding petals of the blossom are said to signify the expressions of the soul.


The seeds within the pod are edible

Borrowing from Hinduism, the Buddhists too believe that the lotus blossoms represent purity of body, speech and mind. The flowers which rise above the muddy water are believed to symbolise one’s ability to rise above the muddy waters of attachment and desires in life.

The Buddha is often depicted seated on a lotus. He is also believed to have been born with the ability to walk and is often depicted with lotus flowers blossoming with every step He took.

The legend of the lotus is as old as civilization; may be even older with stories of lotus eaters and lotus worshippers from prehistoric times still floating around as oral tales and also as crude drawings.

The lotus plant which is believed to have originated in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley of the Indian subcontinent is a plant which grows abundantly in our land.


The cone-shaped seed head.

Rising from the depths of muddy swamps and rivers, this aquatic plant attracts the attention of many mostly due to its spectacular blossom with 15 or more oval-shaped petals and a peculiar looking seedcase at the centre.

While the roots are in the soil at the bottom of the pond, river or swamp it’s growing in, the leaves float on the top. The leaves are as large as 60 cm in diameter. Normally the plant grows to a height of about 150 cm and spread horizontally up to three metres.

The exquisite flower which grows on thick stems rises about seven centimetres above the water. Separate, long tubular stalks each support a showy flower which is about 20 cm in diameter, and a large leaf.

These beautiful, fragrant flowers bloom only for three days and that too in the early mornings. Then the petals fade and fall, one by one into the water. However, the cone-shaped seed head or pod stay for a long time. The seeds within the pod have very hard and impermeable (water or liquid proof) coats. Would you believe that these seeds can germinate (cause to sprout or grow) even after 400 years?

These aquatic beauties vary in colour with pink and white being the most popular. But some water lilies native to Egypt have blue flowers while those native to North America are said to be yellow in colour.

The different colours are said to have different meanings. For instance white lotus flowers are said to represent a state of spiritual perfection and total mental purification while the red lotus signifies the original nature and purity of heart.

It is known as the lotus of love, compassion, passion and all the other qualities of the heart. The blue lotus is said to signify wisdom and symbolise victory of the spirit over the senses.

The pink lotus is called the supreme lotus and is generally reserved for the highest deity. In fact it is associated with the Buddha himself. Next time you pick a nelumbo lotus or offer it at the temple or kovil, remember how special this flower is.

Fact file

* Water lilies or lotuses listed under the genus Nymphaea have round leaves with a notch at one side, where the leaf is attached to the stalk.

* Buddhist Sutras say the lotus, especially (of the Nelumbo genus) has four virtues; scent, purity, softness and loveliness.

* Plants can be propagated from seeds or roots.

* The padma (Sanskrit and Tibetan name for lotus or nelum) is the best recognised motif in Buddhism.

* All other aquatic plants float above water, but the lotus is the only one to rise above water due to the strength of its stalks.


 Large leaves float in the water.

* Even though the lotus plant grows in muddy waters, its leaves are believed to have a self-cleaning property in them. This natural ‘self’ cleaning mechanism which is now known as the ‘lotus effect’ was discovered by a botanist named Wilhelm Barthlott in 1982. He holds the patent rights.

* Even before the advent of Buddhism in China, the lotus was honoured as the ‘plant of summer.’ It was an emblem of purity, fruitfulness (due to its numerous seeds) and creative power.

* Lotus blossoms are used as religious symbols, decoration or funery (funeral) offerings, making the flower a symbolic part of man’s life and philosophy.

* The flowers, seeds, young leaves and roots (rhizomes) are all edible (fit to be eaten).

* Petals of the lotus flowers are used as garnish while the stamens are dried and used as a fragrant herbal tea. Rhizomes are used in soups or stir-fried and eaten. Lotus roots are said to be rich in dietary fibres, Vitamin C, copper and phosphorus but low in saturated fat. Seeds are sometimes boiled and made into a paste or eaten like pop-corn.

* The huge leaves are used to wrap food by some.

* The distinctive seed heads are dried and used for decorative purposes - like in flower arrangements.

* The plant has the ability to regulate the temperature of its flowers to within a normal range like humans and other warm-blooded animals.

* A lotus plant has been germinated from a 1,300 year old seed obtained from a lotus fruit recovered from a lakebed in northern China.

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