This obsession for lotus, ‘the queenliest of flowers’ has been rekindled once I was relocated to the South East Asian region. The abundance of the flower filled me with boundless joy! Lotus was considered divine and not so common in my childhood days, yet through pictures, poems and songs the flower became familiar. My child ego took great pride in sketching elaborate lotus flowers standing erect in the blue waters and it was a joyful task filling the petals with rich pink, and painting the broad leaves bright green and the waters deep blue, from where the flower rises proudly. Very much alike the example of the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche recounts in her Ted Talks, my art was not based on a real experience; the sketches were purely based on imagination and copies of the pictures I have seen. Water lilies were common then, but lotus flower was not so commonly seen. The existence of white or blue lotuses were unimaginable those days! Nevertheless, the famous legendary blue lotus of our village was a fascinating myth.
Blue Lotus has a dreamy aura about it. There is something magical and mystical in the name. The blue lotus that appears in Egyptian culture and Greek mythology could be the blue water lily; Nymphaea caerulea (Egyptian lotus, blue water lily, sacred water lily) or Nymphaea nouchali (Blue star water lily which is the National flower of Sri Lanka) and not Lotus flower, Nelumbo nucifera ( Indian lotus, national flower of India and Vietnam). Thus I came to the conclusion that Blue Lotus is scientifically water lily and symbolically blue lotus.
Buddhism has close association with the flower lotus just as Hinduism does. In Buddhism lotus is a symbol of purity and spiritual awakening. The flower rises pure and fragrant above the muddy waters. In Buddhist art and literature lotus motifs are highly symbolic. A fully bloomed flower symbolises enlightenment where as the one in bud form shows a period before enlightenment. Different coloured lotus also has different symbolism. Lotus motifs are present in mandalas and chakras too. My long association with the Cambodian and Vietnamese cultures drew me more towards learning the significance of this flower.
Apart from the spiritual aspect, lotus and water lilies play a major role in the everyday life of the layman. Both are widely used in South Asian kitchens. In Khmer and Vietnamese cuisine water lilies are used in soups and salads. Lotus tea and Blue lotus tea are widely available in Vietnam. Both the flowers are renowned for medicinal properties too.
Blue lotus tea
In Egyptian culture the blue lotus is associated with rebirth. Very much alike the Hindu mythology the Sun and Lotus have close connection in Egyptian mythology too. In Hindu mythology Lotus is Sun’s beloved; Lotus has no existence without the Sun. During the churning of the ocean goddess Lakshmi comes out standing on the lotus where as in Egyptian mythology sun god Ra, the creator, emerged from the primeval waters sitting on a lotus. Like Sun who disappears at night and comes back to life in the morning, the lotus flower re-emerges from water everyday. Per contra, most of the water lilies bloom at night hence called the beloved of the Moon.
A painting inspired by the mystical and mysterious Blue Lotus of my village
Scholars say that the blue lotus is widely depicted on the walls, pillars, thrones, papyrus scrolls and head dresses of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The bloom was known as the Sacred Lily of the Nile. I read an interesting article by Kirsten Cowart where the restorative powers of this sacred flower is mentioned.
An Egyptian lady surrounded and adorned by blue lotuses. The flowers resemble water lilies here.
Egyptian murals and carvings portraying men and women indulging in revels, holding bunches of blue lotuses and smelling them could be a hint on the intoxicating properties of the flower. The god of Healing power and Perfume, Nefertem holds bunches of blue lotus and he offers this to Ra, the sun god to sooth his pain.
It seems the flower has properties to calm the nerves and brain. Homer in his Odyssey mentions about Odysseus’ men who fall into a blissful forgetfulness after munching the lotus flower and fruits. He had to drag his men back to the ship and tie them to the rowing benches to resume their voyage back home. I wonder whether it is the blue lotus that has enchanted and ensnared the Greek heroes.
In Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’ he weaves the story around the same isle where Ulysses ( Odysseus) and his mariners had spent time. The enchanted flower the Lotus eaters of the island offered them had the power to change their minds. The mariners wanted to linger on that dreamy island forever. They come to the conclusion that ‘slumber is more sweet than toil.
My Blue Lotus has an entirely different shade of blue. The blue lotus I have heard and wondered about right form my early childhood is one of its kind, a faith or a myth associated with a temple in our village.
The serene temple premises
The story that intrigued us as children is about a sacred bloom called neelathamara (നീലത്താമര) . Those who keep a coin on the steps of the sanctum sanctorum of a nearby temple, with a wish in their heart, would be blessed to see a bloom in the temple pond the next morning. This would be a sign that the wish is going to be fulfilled. The unique flower is known as Neelathamara the malayalam equivalent of Blue Lotus. Neela thamara sounds more royal and desirable than chengazhineer poovu another mediocre name for the bloom.
The practice still continues but with changing times not many venture this divine intervention for personal favours. The flower is exclusively used for certain special auspicious rituals and sacred rites (കലശം,പ്രതിഷ്ഠ) in other temples, such as idol installation or for the glorification of the deity. The divine flower blooms in the morning in one of the deep rock pits on either side of the pond, provided the money is kept on the temple steps the previous evening.
stones that stood the test of time
My visit to the temple was after a long interval of more than ten years. Previous visit was with my father and for no reason I have never been there after he left us to the heavenly abode. The day we went, we were told that neelathamara was abloom that day as a temple in a distant district needed the flower for an auspicious occasion, but we missed the chance to see the sacred flower.
The temple pond
The kokkarni or the deep rock pit at the side of the pond
The 300 year temple in our little hamlet was always referred as Manokkavu, a shortened and colloquial version of Malamalkavu (മലമൽക്കാവ്). The temple sits on a hillock hence the name, the temple on the hill… It is quite interesting when my daughter told me that there is place called Manukau in Auckland!
When there’s too much rains that threaten a function to be held in a household or when there’s a need for rains for the crops to grow, people in my village offer a ‘koottupayasam‘ (കൂട്ടുപായസം) or a sweet rice dish to the temple deity and their woes are taken care of. A koottupayasam or ‘ada’ (അട) was a usual offering that my grandmother used to do then. The devotees are never disappointed as Lord Ayyappa always heard their prayers.
The story of the Neelathamara has remained mysterious and fascinated our minds. Am still curious about the appearance of the flower. The blue lotus like the blue moon has nothing blue about it, I understand. This same Blue lotus has been the theme of a famous Malayalam film, based on the story of the veteran writer M.T Vasudevan Nair from our nearby village. In the early part of this century the film was remade to become a huge hit once again. Even though Malamalkkavu is already well reputed as one of the two major schools of Thayambaka, the Percussion music in Kerala, the temple that is nestled in an unknown corner of Palakkad district earned more fame through M.T’s story, Lal Jose’s and Late Yousafali Kecheri’s films based on the story.
Yours truly and her mother in front of the age-old ootupura
Certain beliefs have no scientific explanations and Neelathamara remains an enigma. The simple and good hearted souls of this small village has deep faith and great pride in their powerful deity and this miraculous flower.