Queen of the night
DR. V. RAMAKANTHA is a former Indian Forest Service officer and member of the Green Initiative at the Heartfulness Center at Kanha Shanti Vanam in India. Having spent most of his working life living in forests and jungles, in tune with the natural world, he shares his knowledge about some of the amazing medicinal plants of India, starting with Parijata, the Queen of the Night.
Botanical Name: Nyctanthes arbor-tristis L.
Common Names: Night Jasmine, Coral Jasmine
Parijata is known as Coral Jasmine owing to its snow-white flowers with coral-red tubes. This small ornamental tree, with its heavenly-scented flowers and drooping branches, is found all over the Indian subcontinent, with a special name in every language. It flowers almost the whole year round, and is known as Night Jasmine because the delicate blooms open by evening and falling off soon after, leaving a carpet of flowers in the morning. This gives it the epithet “Queen of the Night.”
Rajanī-hāsa, “the one who forms the night’s smile,” is one of the Sanskrit names for Parijata, and there is a story behind this name. Parijata was a beautiful princess who fell in love with Surya Deva, the Sun God. Initially, Surya Deva, who rode the fiery chariot in the sky from east to west, did not take a fancy to the princess, but over time, he was won over by the single-minded devotion of Parijata, and he left the sky and came down to Earth to spend some loving time with her.
Now, the Earth was not a conducive environment for Surya Deva so, after spending a few seasons, he left for his original abode, albeit reluctantly. Heartbroken, princess Parijata tried to follow her lover, but the intensity of the heat from the Sun God burnt her to ashes.
Moved by sorrow and pity, Surya Deva granted Parijata another life in the form of a tree with the purest of white flowers with blazing orange hearts, and Surya Deva visits her every night. The Parijata flowers are very fragrant as they are kissed by the Sun God. Even now the flowers can’t bear the rays of the sun, and with the first rays at dawn, they are shed.
In India, the Parijata tree has a close association with Lord Krishna. The Vishnu Purana, an ancient text of the Hindus, gives a graphic description of the sequence of events that led to the descent of this ambrosial tree to Earth. The story goes that Indra, king of the gods, had a serious confrontation with the noble-born but despicable Naraka. Naraka was the son of Bhumi, the Earth, and he possessed some of the powers of Lord Vishnu. He was not happy to confine himself to his home on Earth and took frequent forays to the heavens, from where he would steal whatever took his fancy before he returned home. He was so powerful that no god dared stop him, not even when he snatched the nectar-dropping earrings of Aditi, the mother of Indra.
Indra realized that he was no match for Naraka, and needed help. After much reflection, he decided that it had to be Lord Krishna, who was happily residing in his newly-built city of Dwaraka. So, Indra descended to Earth and beseeched Lord Krishna to put an end to Naraka’s atrocities.
Krishna agreed and, accompanied by his wife Satyabhama, he set off to vanquish Naraka. With the help of the Sudarshan Chakra, Krishna killed the demon, cutting him in two. Krishna returned the nectar-dropping earrings to Aditi, who was very happy. She blessed him, saying, “So long as you live in the world of mortals, you shall be invincible, and no harm shall come to you either from celestials or demons.”
Indra extended all courtesies to Krishna and Satyabhama during their stay in the heavens, including showing them their celestial garden. Satyabhama caught sight of the Parijata tree and at once fell in love with its beauty and the sweet-smelling flowers. She declared that she would not return to Earth without the Parijata tree, thus obliging Krishna to request Indra to gift them the tree.
Indra was polite but firm in refusing Krishna’s request. He told Krishna that the Parijata had materialized during the churning of the Milky Ocean by the gods and demons, and was a prized possession of the gods. Krishna explained to his host the delicate situation of how enamored his wife was of the tree, and how unwise it was to displease her, especially as she had been a great support in fighting the demon Naraka. But Indra’s wife, Sachi, was also clearly fond of the Parijata tree, and had refused to offer even a few flowers to Satyabhama.
“Impossible,” said Indra with finality. “That low vibratory planet of yours does not deserve this ambrosial tree!” Finally, Krishna was forced to tell Indra that he would take the Parijata tree, whether the king of the gods liked it or not.
Indra forgot that he had just recently used Krishna’s help in putting an end to the life of Naraka. He was also oblivious of his mother’s blessings on Krishna. Incited by his wife, he readied for an all-out war with Krishna. Indra had in his possession a terrible weapon called the Vajrayudha, which in utter desperation he hurled at Krishna using all his might. Krishna arrested the weapon and held it in his hands, unaffected. In the end, Indra had to concede defeat and begged Krishna’s pardon. So the happy Satyabhama took away the Parijata tree to Earth and planted it in her garden.
The sacred Parijata tree is often planted near Hindu temples in India and Sri Lanka, and also in Malaysia and Indonesia. It is believed that if you approach the Parijata tree respectfully, you may get a glimpse of events of your previous births!
Wonderful as a medicinal plant
Parijata is also known as Amrita, a tree yielding immortal food. It is a wonder among medicinal plants, extensively used in the Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani systems of medicine from time immemorial. The fresh leaves are also used for the preparation of homoeopathic medicines. Moreover, every part of the tree has been used in household remedies against a host of ailments since ancient times.
The leaf juice of Parijata and a couple of spoonfuls of honey makes a wonderful remedy for dry cough. It is also used for curing enlargement of the spleen, and as a safe purgative for infants. A decoction of the leaves is recommended specifically for obstinate sciatica, caused by the compression of a spinal nerve root in the lower back.
Ayurveda gives therapeutic predominance to Parijata for certain diseases like chronic fever and worm infestations. In cases of chronic fever, Parijata leaves are used in combination with other herbs like ginger, tulsi and pippali, the Indian long pepper.
The leaf juice of Parijata with honey, jaggery and salt, is an effective means for getting rid of roundworms and threadworms. It is an age-old practice in India to administer this orally for expelling intestinal worms in children. The leaf decoction is helpful in cases of malaria and dysentery. The leaf juice is applied externally on ringworm and other skin diseases. Three fresh leaves of Parijata with five pepper grains are traditionally taken orally to overcome several gynecological problems.
The flat, compressed, heart-shaped fruits of Parijata have two compartments, each having a seed. A decoction of seeds is useful as a hair tonic and also to get rid of dandruff and lice. A paste of the seeds is used in the treatment of piles. A decoction of the roots helps to deal with enlargement of the spleen. In case of gout, a flower decoction (which has a yellow color and mild fragrance) is taken as a remedy.
It is used in the following Ayurvedic medicines:
Manasa Mitra Vatakam: Treatment of epilepsy, autism, psychiatric conditions, and to improve intelligence and speech problems.
Bala Taila: Treatment of bloating wounds, spleen diseases, epilepsy and asthma.
Arthrella Ointment: Treatment of rheumatic disorders.
Ashwagandharishta: General debility, piles, low digestive power, loss of memory.
What does science know about Parijata?
Chemical and phyto-chemical analyses reveal that Parijata, with its many active principles and different bio-markers, is recognized as one of the most versatile medicinal plants, having a wide spectrum of biological activities.
A paper published in the International Journal of Herbal Medicine in 2016 throws light on anti-pyretic, antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, antihistaminic, anti-filarial, anti-oxidant, immune-protective activities of phyto-chemicals found in the Parijata tree. According to a study published in Phytopharmacology in 2012, the bark has bronchodilation and mast cell stabilizing properties and, hence, can be used in the treatment of asthma.
A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 1984 confirms anti-inflammatory property of the leaves. Another paper published in the same journal in 2013 provide some evidence for its effectiveness in the treatment of fevers related to malaria and protozoan diseases.
A research work published in the Brazilian Journal of Botany in 2016 says that the ethanolic extract of the flower was most potent in antioxidant activity, and recommends that the same can be used as an inexpensive natural source of antioxidants.
A paper published in Applied Biology & Biotechnology in 2020 makes a comprehensive review on Parijata’s pharmacological, antioxidant, and anti-cancer activities and maintains that each part of Parijata may have some medicinal value, noting that the pharmacological studies done so far are preliminary.
In the ancient literature of India, Parijata is also described as an ecstatic drink of the gods. Incidentally, science could throw some light on various hypnotic, anesthetic, and tranquillizing activities of this tree.
The flower tubes contain an orange coloring matter, nyctathin, used for dyeing silk, sometimes in conjunction with safflower (Carthamus tinctoria), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and indigo (Indigofera spp.). The corolla tubes are also used in dyeing cotton cloth. The essential oil extracted from the flowers is similar to jasmine oil, and is used in perfume. The flower tubes are a preferred natural coloring for food.
While the large and attractive leaves of the Parijata are rough and hairy, dipping them in a batter of chickpea flour and spices, and deep frying them transforms them into a delicious snack called bajji.
How does your Parijata grew?
This hardy plant grows in a large range of climatic conditions from Pakistan to South-east Asia, and also in other parts of the world. It grows well under partial shade, and the trees need pruning to ensure a good yield of flowers. As it is not eaten by cattle, it is useful in afforesting denuded forests. Seeds easily germinate, and Parijata coppices readily. The only disadvantage is that it is short-lived (5 to 10 years).
The story of the descent of the Parijata tree has a twist at the end. When Satyabhama grew the Parijat tree in her garden, to her great dismay all the flowers fell at night in the adjoining compound of Rukmini, the wisest, gentlest and most spiritual wife of Lord Krishna.
Parijata’s Latin name, Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, literally means “night-blooming sad tree.” Why sad? We have no clue.
Article & Photographs by DR. V. RAMAKANTHA
Illustrations by KANIKA SINGH
September 30, 2020
September 29, 2020
September 29, 2020