When the East
Gave birth to the Moon,
Love was the dancer at the feast;
The heavens smiled for joy;
And the Wind strewed the perfumed dust
Of lotus-pollen in the courtyard of the sky.
Pankeyrooham (born from the mud), Sahasrapatram (thousand petaled), Kamalam (that which decorates water), Amboroham (that which sprouts from water) – Lotus has been known by many names in the subcontinent. Across artistic genres - literature, painting, music and rituals, the Lotus flower has been seen as a sacred symbol of fertility, birth and spirituality for centuries.
The earliest mention of Lotus (Nelumbo Nucifera) in the subcontinent can be found in the Vedas, where the word puskura has been used to describe this beguiling flower. The Atharva Veda says the scent of the earth resides in the Lotus. “Yaste gandhah puskuram avivesa” which literally translates into “Thy sweet scent, which entered the puskura”. According to the Rig Veda, Agni – the god of fire – emerged out of a Lotus flower. Ancient sculptures from the Chalukya dynasty from 5th century AD show a male figure, which has been identified as Prajapati – the Creator – later known as Brahma, resting on a Lotus leaf. The Taittiriya Aranyaka says, “the world was water that was moving. He, Prajapati, alone appeared on the lotus leaf. Within his mind originated a desire ‘may I create this world.’” Almost all Vedic creation myths describe Lotus as the flower from which all creation emerges.
Legends say that Lakshmi - the goddess of wealth and wisdom - emerged seated upon a Lotus from the ocean of cosmic milk during its churning. This is why Lakshmi is known by many poetical epithets such as Padmini (abounding in lotuses), Padmapriya (lotus-lover), Padmavarna (lotus-hued) and Padma-uru (lotus thighed). In Sanskrit literature, the Lotus flower has been used as a descriptor of beauty. In her book The Lotus Symbol in Indian Art and Literature Santona Basu writes, “Human, particularly feminine beauty is set on par with the lotus, the ultimate example of beauty for the poets.”
In Ayurveda and Yoga the seven chakras of the body are each symbolised by a Lotus of a specific colour and with a specific number of petals. The Muladhara chakra is represented by a Red Lotus with four petals; the Svadhishthana chakra is represented by an Orange Lotus with six petals; the Manipura chakra is represented by a Yellow Lotus with ten petals; the Anahata chakra is represented by a Green Lotus with twelve petals; the Vishuddha chakra is represented by a Blue Lotus with sixteen petals; the Ajna chakra is represented by an Indigo Lotus with two petals; and the Sahasrara chakra is represented by a Violet Lotus with thousand petals. In Buddhism too the Lotus flower plays a prominent role. Several sculptures of Buddha depict him seated on a blooming Lotus flower. The Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” translates as “Oh jewel within the lotus, we bow to you.”
The flower is also an extremely popular motif in the architectural and design vocabulary of the subcontinent. Stylised carvings depicting Lotus have been found in the Ajanta caves, on stupas in Sanchi, Bharhut and Amaravati, among others. This aquatic flower was also incorporated in the Mughal architecture in the subcontinent. One of the most important motifs used in Kolams – famous Rangoli patterns drawn during harvest festivals in parts of South India – is the Lotus. It is also the most revered flower when it comes to ritual offerings during spiritual or religious ceremonies.
However, the significance accorded to the Lotus flower is not limited to the subcontinent alone.
In Egypt the Blue Lotus (Nymphaea Cerulea) holds a sacred place. It is believed that the Sun God Ra, who is also seen as the creator of the world, was first seen floating as a baby on a great Blue Lotus. In Japan, the flower is revered for its ability to rise from the murky water and bloom into a beautiful flower, symbolising the attainment of enlightenment. Kanrensetsu are special Lotus viewing ceremonies held in Japan during the Lotus blooming season. In India too Lotus is a metaphor for purity that blooms even from the murk of muddy waters.
The earliest mention of Lotus (Nelumbo Nucifera) in the subcontinent can be found in the Vedas, where the word puskura has been used to describe this beguiling flower. The Atharva Veda says the scent of the earth resides in the Lotus. “Yaste gandhah puskuram avivesa”.
One of the qualities strongly associated with Lotus, across the world, is that of regeneration. The ability of this flower to heal and regenerate has been revered by all ancient civilisations. In his book The Lotus Quest: In Search of the Sacred Flower, Mark Griffiths says, “Even during its long dormancy, the embryonic lotus is capable of repairing itself, not so much embalmed as ceaselessly revitalised by a cocktail of chemicals. Some of these are familiar – ascorbic acid, for example, in which the embryo is exceptionally rich. Others are more mysterious, such as L-isoaspartyl methyltransferase or MT for short. This enzyme is common in plants as a protein structure repair agent, an inbuilt anti-ageing tonic. In seeds it plays a vital role in the maintenance of viability during storage, but only up to a point. In most species, its effectiveness decreases over time and they die as a result. But not in the case of Nelumbo (Lotus) – a thousand-year-old lotus seed will show MT activity comparable to that of a seed that has not long ago ripened and dropped from the receptacle. As a result, its tissues will betray no real sign of ageing.” Thus, the Lotus flower and extracts from it parts are also fast becoming a staple in modern skin care.
Many such qualities of the Lotus make it an exceptionally beneficial flower for our overall wellbeing. The Charaka Samhita, a 5000-year-old book which is one of the Ayurvedic texts, recommends consuming the tender leaves of Lotus for stomach issues such as diarrhoea. The treatise also suggests wearing Lotus garlands to calm Pitta dosha as it is cooling and soothing for the body and mind. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) also recommends consuming boiled Lotus seeds with rock salt to relieve diarrhoea. TCM also uses Lotus leaves and root extracts to regulate menstrual cycles and ease menstrual cramps.
More recent studies have also looked into the many benefits of Lotus. Lotus root has many vitamins, such as vitamin C, and minerals such as potassium which help regulate blood pressure. Applying Lotus boiled in green tea on your face can help reduce acne. Another study said that Lotus seeds have a significant anti-inflammatory impact which could be used as a base in future medicines. Lotus roots also have a compound known as pyridoxine which interacts with our brain’s neural receptors in a way that reduces stress and irritability.
Lotus is packed with properties that can impact our everyday lives and wellbeing. However, across the world Lotus has been associated with much more than its physical benefits. It has been known as a metaphor and a spiritual symbol. The journey of the Lotus from the murky underground to the surface of the water has appealed to humankind for centuries. In the beauty of this flower we find solace and hope. In its beauty and its ability to bloom from murky mud we see purity of mind and heart and locate the possibility of reaching a higher consciousness.
Padmaparnam yatha caiva jale jatam jale sthitam
uparistad adhastad van a jalenopalipyate
As a lotus leaf, though born in water and remain in water
is not stained by water either above or below.