Fire in the Forest

As the Indian winter winds to a close, forests in many parts of India burst into flames. Nondescript trees that are hardly conspicuous for most of the year, come ablaze with crimson-orange flowers that lend them the name Flame of the Forest.  It is a forest fire that announces the arrival of spring.

It is the Palash tree that sets the forest on fire. It gets its name from the Sanskrit word Palasha which means both ‘leaf’ and ‘beauty’. The tree was earlier known as Parna tree, which also means ‘leaf’. Another Sanskrit name for it is Kimsuka which means ‘like a parrot’. This is the root of the other common name for it—Parrot tree.

The tree has many popular common names including Bastard teak, Bengal kino, Flame of the forest, Kino tree, and Sacred tree It is also called Battle of Plassey tree.as it is believed that the village near where this battle was fought was called Palash due to the abundance of these trees there. The British mispronounced this as Plassey, and so that is how the battle is remembered in history.

The tree is known by different names in different parts of the country: Palash, Dhak and Tesu in Hindi, Palas in Marathi and Bengali, Kesudo and Khakra in Gujarati, Moduga in Telugu, Purasu Maram in Tamil, and Pangong in Manipuri.

Its botanical name is Butea monosperma. The genus Butea is named after the Earl of Bute, who was a patron of Botany; monosperma, means ‘having one seed’. It is a medium-sized deciduous tree with a crooked trunk and branches. The bark is rough and greyish but the branches are velvety and dark olive green in colour. The large trifoliate, pale bronze green leaves are initially velvety but later turn leathery. The flowers appear when the tree sheds all its leaves. The orange-scarlet flowers grow in stiff clusters of three. Each blossom has five soft petals covered with fine hair. The orange petals curve backwards, with one of them in the form that resembles a parrot’s beak, giving it the name Parrot tree.

The curious formation of the flowers is often referred to in folklore. One riddle in Bihar asks

“What has: An elephant tusk, But not a tusk;

The body of a monk, But not a monk;

The head of a crow, But not a crow;

But a parakeet?”

Curiously, for all their beauty, the blossoms are scentless. This led to the analogy, in some old writings, describing a person with beauty, but without moral or intellectual qualities as a human Palash!

The Palash tree has strong cultural and religious associations. References can be found to this tree in mythology, legends, classical, and popular literature.

According to one legend, a falcon dipped its feathers in Somarasa, the drink of the Gods which was believed to be made on the moon. One of its feathers floated down to Earth and became the Palash tree.

The tree is frequently mentioned in the Vedas and its trifoliate leaves represent the Hindu triad with Brahma on the left, Vishnu in the middle and Shiva on the right. The plant is used in many Hindu religious ceremonies. In earlier days when a Brahmin boy was initiated into monkhood, his head was shaved and he was given a Palash leaf to eat; his staff was made of Palash wood. During the sacred thread ceremony the leaves are used as platters when a particular part of a ceremony is performed; the dry twigs are used for the havan or sacred fire of the Navagraha Pooja to pacify the nine planets on the occasion of Vastu shanti. Many religious songs have mention of the fruits and flowers of Palash being offered to Gods to invoke their blessings. A Buddhist legend has it that the Queen Mahamaya grasped a branch of the Palash tree at the moment of the birth of her son Gautama Buddha.

Poets and writers have been inspired by the form and colour of the Dhak or Tesu flowers. Jayadeva in Gitagovindam compares the flowers with nails of Kamadev or Cupid with which he would wound the hearts of lovers. Rabindranath Tagore in his poems described them as a celebration of life…”the flames of the forest have lit up in smiles”. The forests of Madhya Pradesh where the Palash is found in abundance are the setting of many a Rudyard Kipling tale. 

This decorative tree thrives well on a wide variety of soils including shallow, stony sites, black cotton soil, clay loams, and even in salt lands and water-logged places. The tree is very drought resistant and frost hardy, and is resistant to browsing. It grows back even when it is cut down to ground level; and grows rapidly in full sunlight. The tree attracts birds and squirrels, and can be propagated by seeds

The different parts of the tree have numerous uses. The young leaves are used for fodder, eaten mainly by buffaloes. The fibre obtained from the tree is made into ropes and cordage. The gum from the tree, called Kamarkas in Hindi, is used in certain food dishes. The flowers are used to prepare traditional Holi colour. A bright yellow to deep orange-red dye is also prepared, used especially for dyeing silk and cotton.

The leaves have traditionally been stitched together to make plates and bowls, and even umbrellas. In some tribal communities a prospective son-in-law was tested for his dexterity in making these plates and bowls. He was accepted if his father-in-law approved of the product! Today these leaf dishes are being popularised as eco-friendly alternatives to paper and plastic.

One of the commercially important products yielded by this tree is lac. Palash is an important host for the tiny lac insect whose resinous secretion was traditionally used to make purple-red dyes used to colour silk, leather and for cosmetics. Today this is refined to make shellac. Shellac has high commercial value; it used for many products including wood sealers and finishers; floor polishes, inks, grinding wheels, electrical insulations, and leather dressings.

The Palash has numerous medicinal values in Ayurveda. Different parts of the tree are used to treat a wide range of health issues from eye ailments to liver, urinary and gynaecological disorders.

The sturdy tree also has a valuable role in soil conservation. Farmers frequently use Palash with its binding fibrous roots to stabilize field bunds and for erosion control.

When we were children we used to play a game called ‘Fire in the Forest, Run, Run, Run’. This is one forest fire that invites one to run towards it, intoxicating the viewers with its colourful flamboyance.

–Mamata

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