more questions about indian plants

Gerard Huet Gerard.Huet at
Fri Sep 1 13:51:41 UTC 1995

A common thread of discussion in Indology concerns the precise identification
of Indian plants used either in traditional medecine or in puja. For
instance, I was fascinated to hear about the mention of arka as one of the
21 plants sacred to Ganesh. Does someone here know about the list of
these plants? Where is the source of the Ekavimshati patra puja ritual?

Given such a list, presumably of sanskrit names, the problem will remain
of their precise identification in the scientific terminology of botany.
I have been looking for reasonable floras of the indian sub-continent, but
so far have come up only with mediocre descriptions of a few trees and schrubs.
Do you know of any available such flora, hopefully listing vernacular names
of the plants? This would help solving systematically such questions.
Such a discussion already occurred last february, when there was a flurry of 
interest on "kaumudii", but at the time all that emerged was the mention
by Dr Goodall of "Die Flora Altindiens. Renate Syed. Munich ?1991.", 
apparently an unpublished thesis, to which Dominik added a list of
rather specialised monographies on ayurvedic medicine and other hard-to-get
materials. Is this really the state of the art?

Let me mention two specific problems I am unable to solve with my
(admittedly poor) documentation.

The first one is the kitoka flower. It occurs in the myth of the fire
lingam. When BrahmA went up, he met Kitoka, who had been decorating 'Siva's
hair. She pretended to have seen the Face of the Lord, a lie which
was foolishly repeated by BrahmA. In punition, 'Siva gave aBi'sApa to
Kitoka: she was from now on impure for 'Siva worship, except on 'Siva rAtri.
Now my question is what is this "kitoka" flower, of which I have only
the above oral account. Does any one of you know its sanskrit and/or
latin scientific name?

The second one concerns "amla". There is a sanskrit plant
Amalaka or AmalakI usually assigned to Emblica Officinalis, the Myrobolan
Tree. In the neuter gender, Amalaka designates its fruit, which is used
in architecture to name the crowning portion of the 'siKara of South Indian
temples, because of its resemblance to the fruit. Indeed I have seen the
fruit, of unmistakable form, on trees on the eastern coast of Deccan,
which looked like coniferas.
Now some time ago I read an article in an Indian newspaper about amla,
"a minor crop for arid areas", assigned also to Emblica Officinalis Gaertn,
with a picture of clusters of berries. "Its fruits are large, attractive,
translucent with 6 segments, greenish yellow with a flat base, etc". In
any case, nothing to do whatsoever with the previous plant.
I have heard also the name Amla connected to some sort of mango tree.
Thus my confusion is extreme. Any experts on amla?

Gerard Huet

> From THRASHER at MAIL.LOC.GOV 01 1995 Sep EST 10:48:10
Date: 01 Sep 1995 10:48:10 EST
Subject: AMALAKA

          I wonder if the Amalaka on the s'ikharas of temples is thought to 
          represent the appearance of DRIED Emblic myrobalan, not the fresh 
          fruit which  is  also eaten.  Does anyone recall what  they  look 
          like dried? 
          Allen Thrasher                                                    

> From THRASHER at MAIL.LOC.GOV 01 1995 Sep EST 11:15:11
Date: 01 Sep 1995 11:15:11 EST

          Re Gerard Huet's questions on sources on Indian plants: 
          There  were  a  number of  large books  on  Indian materia medica 
          published in  the British period, most of  them with Sanskrit and 
          vernacular names.   In  addition,  since independence there  have 
          been  books  on  the  subject published  in  most  of  the  major 
          languages, most  of  them with names in other languages as  well, 
          and illustrated (usually  with  line  drawings).   Many  research 
          libraries  will  have  several  of  these, searchable  under  the 
          subject headings "materia medica--India," "botany,                
          medical--India," "materia medica, vegetable--India," and          
          "medicinal plants--India."  E.g.  to search Library of Congress's 
          holdings telnet to and log in  as marvel, or using 
          a  gopher client or gopher server  by pointing to, 
          port  70.  (The latter method can accomodate a  larger number  of 
          outside searchers at one time). If  you cannot get  to  a library 
          with these books  or access it  by interlibrary loan there  is  a 
          dealer  in  Delhi,  Pama Primlani,  who specialises in  botanical 
          books o.p. and  in print.  If anyone's interested I would have to 
          root around to verify his current address. 
          An  interesting  question  is  to  what  degree  the  traditional 
          physicians knew  the  flora  as plants  as opposed to articles of 
          commerce.  The  late Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer told  me  that  the 
          adivasis in Maharashtra could distinguish a  far larger number of 
          plants  (which  the  gathered  for  the  medicaltrade)  than  the 
          mainline population. 
          It would in any case be nice to have a color picture book of  the 
          plants prominent in  the classical literature of Sanskrit and the 
          other languages. 
          Allen Thrasher 
          Library of Congress 
          athr at                                                      

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