At a bus stop across from the Nashik shrine Sai Baba of Shirdi, a fire tree reminded me of Australia. The deciduous Red Silk Silk cotton tree, bombax ceiba, is commonly called Semal, or the Indian Kapok tree, or shalmali in Sanskrit. Mentioned in the Mahabharata mixed into old myths and traditions, it is also found in Africa.
In Ayurveda it is admired for its healing properties, and for the strength and elasticity of its wood, the Semal is essential for the ecology and Tribal culture. Called Holi-Danda by tribals, it’ is the thorny tree of Yama, and is burned as Wicked aunt Holika during Holika-dahan in numbers that threaten the trees existence in Rajasthan
In Ayurveda almost every part of the plant is used.
However, in medicine mostly the roots and flowers are used as a stimulant, astringent, haemostatic, aphrodisiac, antidiarrheal, cardiotonic, emetic demulcent, anti-dysenteric, alterative, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, analgesic, hepato-protective, antioxidant, and hypoglycaemic.
It is also used in agro-forestry for livestock feed. The wood is strong, elastic and durable for ship building. The Kathodi tribe of Rajasthan uses wood for musical instruments such as the Dholak and Tambura. The Bhil use it to make kitchen spoons.
The edible oil is also a substitute for cottonseed for soap making and illumination. The fibres isolated from the fruits are used to make padded surgical dressings.
In myth bombax ceiba is the tree of the infernal imposition.
With its thorny appearance (kantakdruma), it is the tree of Yama , or Yamadruma. It is believed if the person dreams it, he will become ill and will soon die. In the Dungarpur district bombax ceiba is considered inauspicious because the hooting owl nest in it. The Bhil of Udaipur believe the silk cotton from its fruit is not to be used in bedding because its plumed seeds are said to cause paralysis.
Also the ancient Brahamavaivarta Purana prohibits using it to clean teeth.
From Vedic times it was the Nakshatra tree of people in Jvestha constellation. It has been considered the home of the yakshis and was worshipped by women for the gift of children. For the semilia clan of the Bhil in Rajasthan it is a totem tree. The Garasia tribe in Bosa village near Sirobi district Rajasthan protect a tree in a sacred grove called Maad Bavasi and it is praised in song. They identify the tree with themselves.
Religious ritual and overuse
However, in Rajasthan the tree is under threat because of overuse, especially in tribal religious tradition.
The Kopak tree is popular among Tribals ritual, especially in Holika-dahan has caused a loss of trees loss of trees in Udaipur and Rajasthan.
Many know that during holika –dahan the flowers to develop eco-friendly colour. How ever in north India, especially Rajasthan , Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, there is a tradition – believed essential – of burning the tree.
The ritual of burning is considered as virtuous Prahlad . Poles are planted a month before the festival and an effigy of Prahlad and Holika are tied over the prepared Holi.
The whole silk cotton tree or a large branch is tied with sacred thread, coconut or vermillion and dry grass and fixed to the ground on Magha Purnima (the full moon day preceding the month of Holika-dahan) after the cleansing and worshipping of the land.
Among the Bhils, before cutting a pole, a coconut is tied on a bough. Liquor is trickled and vermillion applied. The tree is cut to have head and two arms and the pole is removed from the burning pile. The traditional two armed Holi is still prepared and planted.
In the Bhil villages of the Banswara district bamboo is also painted with red cloth tied to it representing Prahlad whereas the Bombax ceiba tree considered is the wicked aunt Holika. Amongst the Kathodi tribes five poles of five different species.
Whatever the tradition the focal point is the fall and destruction of the semal tree.
Need for sustainable use
A community in Manipur conserve it and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have conservation strategies to ensure the plant collected for medicine. However, those determined to perform the ritual have used songs to warn of upcoming forest guards.
In Udaipur city 1500-2000 trees were cut in 2007. The gravity of the situation listed 2351 villages in Udaipur district with an average 2300 young semal trees or twigs sacrificed.
Tree population has declined to the extent that other trees have been sold to a younger customer largely ignorant of the correct species.
The loss of the Kopak tree is damaging the environment, ecosystem and potentially loss of a very useful medicine and I wonder if the loss of the tree could have profound social implications. The Garasia tribe identify the tree with themselves in song. The moon and clouds are sung as father and mother, the village chief and his wife, brother and sister as the tree is praised as a relative.
Sadly, this same song is sung to warn the tree cutters of approaching forestry workers. As the Nakshatra tree of people in Jvestha constellation, a plantation of combex ceiba is something people expect. But if the tree is to continue to be honoured, then communities must be involved with in situ and ex situ conservation of the semal tree to preserve both the environment and this ancient tradition for future generations.
For further information:
Vartika Jain, S. K. Vernia, S. S. Katewa, Myths, traditions and fate of the multipurpose Combax ceiba L. – An appraisal in the 2009 Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge Vol 8(4), Oct 2009, pp636-644