Know Your Plants - The Mystical Rudraksha Tree
 

BOTANICAL CLASSIFICATION

Kingdom Plantae
Division Magnoliophyta
Class Magnoliopsida
Order Oxalidales
Family Elaeocarpaceae
Genus Elaeocarpus
Species Elaeocarpus ganitrus
Common Name Utrasum bead tree (English)
Rudraksha (Sanskrit)

One of the most sacred of all Hindu insignia is the Rudraksha bead, which is often associated with Lord Shiva. The beads are actually the dried seeds of the Rudraksha tree, Elaeocarpus ganitrus. Although, every Hindu is familiar with the beads, only some are familiar with the Rudraksha tree. Few are even ignorant about the fact that the beads are of plant origin.

Rudraksha and Hindu mythology

All legends pertaining to the origin of Rudraksha describe them as tears shed by Lord Shiva for the benefit of humanity. According to one story, Lord Shiva once entered a profound state of meditation. When he emerged from this state and opened his eyes, the deep joy and peace that he felt were expressed as tears, which ran down his cheeks and fell on the earth. From these tears emerged the Rudraksha tree.
The word Rudraksha, in fact, comes from two Sanskrit words – ‘rudra’, a synonym for Lord Shiva and ‘aksha’ meaning eyes.

The tree and the bead

The Rudraksha tree is a medium-sized, evergreen tree that grows up to 200 ft in height and about 4 ft in girth. It is generally buttressed at the base. The bark is greyish-white in colour and has a rough texture. The branches of Rudraksha spread in all directions in such a way that when growing in natural habitat, the crown takes the shape of a pyramid. The leaves are shiny green. The flowers are ovoid, conical, elongate, nearly 1 to 2 cm in diameter. They appear in during April-June.

The fruit (berry) is globose, varying in size from about 3-40mm.It is covered by an outer shell of blue when fully ripe. Hence, the beads are sometimes referred to as ‘blueberry beads’. Lodged within the pulp of the berry is a single round light brown coloured seed. These are the seeds that are used as the revered Rudraksha beads. The seed has a rough surface and a vertical perforation running from top to bottom, which facilitates in making Rudraksha rosaries. Each seed possess from one to twenty one vertical lines running down its surface, like the longitudinal line on the globe. These lines called mukhis (or facets) are natural formations on the seed. Seeds with one vertical line are called ‘ek-mukhi’. These are extremely rare and are equally expensive. The most common ones are the four and five faced seeds.

Geographical spread

Altitude-wise, the tree’s habitat starts from seacoast upto 2000 meters. Geographically, it is found growing naturally and abundantly in tropical as well subtropical regions. The tree grows in Indonesia, India, China, Nepal (homeland of the Rudraksha tree), the Solomon Islands, Marianas Islands, Australia, New Guinea and Hawaii. In India, the tree’s habitat is mainly distributed in the eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and the Konkan ghats.

Uses

The tree is valued for its timber. The white wood is light and strong and hence used to make aeroplane propellers. In Nepal, the wood is also used as firewood and for making agricultural implements.
The Rudraksha berry is sweet to taste. It is used to treat a variety of ailments including indigestion, vomiting, injuries and epilepsy. The fruit also forms the main diet of the fruit bats or flying foxes in the Himalayan region.

The main use of the tree however, comes from the seeds or beads that are generally worn by people on their wrist, forearms or neck. The wearing of Rudraksha is believed to bestow psychic powers, good health and prosperity to the individual. Rudraksha is known to keep blood pressure under control and impart mental peace, self-confidence, meditation, spiritual progress and a higher level of consciousness.

Conservation status in India

As per recent studies, the population of the Rudraksha tree in India is dwindling at an alarming rate. The decrease in the population is mainly attributed to the over-exploitation of the species and also, to the large-scale disturbances in their habitats. The tree reproduces by means of seeds. The increased seed collection by local people has resulted in the shrinkage of the natural seed bank in the soil. This in turn has adversely affected the regeneration of the species.

Thus in India, the tree (currently not listed in the Red data book) is being pushed to the threatened category and may even become extinct, if immediate conservation measures are not taken up.

Lalitha Ramadurai