Sacred Trees in Murukan Temples
Prof. Mrs. V. Balambal
Dr. Prof. Mrs. V. Balambal, M. A. B. T. Ph. D. FRAS (London)
Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi
Professor (Retd) of History, University of Madras, Chennai
Hindus are great worshippers of Nature. Even before they worshipped the Trinity and other deities, they had understood the significance of Nature. The Five Natural Elements (Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth) are treated with veneration, as they are inevitable to the progress of the humanity and very indispensable in day-to-day life of mankind. Trees are well associated with human life. Even before some trees were regarded as Sthala Vrikshas (Sacred Trees of the Temple), those were worshipped by ancient people as they believed in Nature worship.
Murukan, the favourite god of the Tamils, has been closely associated with trees and plants from his birth. When he was born in the form of fire from the Third Eye of Siva, he was carried by Vayu (air) and was deposited on six lotus flowers in the Saravana Poygai in the form of Arumuka (Shanmukha). Muruka was well associated with the five elements from his birth. Sangam literature calls him the Lord of Kurinji (hilly tracts) where there are lot of trees and plants. The Tamils have made it a practice to build temples wherever there is a hillock. When he conquered Surapadma, the demon king to deliver the devas, the demon took the form of a mango tree which was arrowed into two by Skanda who transformed the two parts of the mango tree into his peacock vehicle (vahana) and cock flag (kodi). Even now during the Surasamhara festival, it is the practice in Murukan temples to use the mango tree to depict the incident.
In course of time, the Tamils developed the temple building activities and wherever there was Murukan temple, they followed the practice of worshipping the trees attached to the temple. Hence it must be understood that Murukan in all temples does not have the same sthala vrikshas. It differs from temple to temple following the local geography. The objective of the paper is to analyse the sacred trees attached to temples situated in different parts of Tamil Nadu and trace their religious and medicinal importance. Any mythology attached to them is also specified. The sthala puranas, published works, personal visits to most of these temples are also narrated.
Though there are innumerable temples for Murukan in Tamil Nadu, the study is restricted to some temples which have different types of sthala vrikshas. Apart from mango tree and lotus plant, the trees attached to the Murukan temples under study are the following: Marudham or Queen's Flower(Terminalia Arjuna), Panneer or Indian Lavender (Guettarda speciosa), Punnai or Alexandrian Laurel(Calophyllum inophyllum ), Nelli or gooseberry (Emblica officinalis), Mahizham (Mimusops elengi), Pala or jack fruit tree (Artocarpus integrifolia), Kura ( Webra corymbosa), Padhiri ( Stereospermum suaveolens), Vanni( Prosopis spicigera) and Kal Athi (Ficus retusa auct).
Marudham is the sacred tree in the Dandayudhapani temple at Marudamalai in Coimbatore District in Tamil Nadu. It is known as Arjuna in Sanskrit. Perhaps this hillock and the nearby place are named after the marudham grove in that region. in ancient times. The tree has bunches of small flowers. People worship the sthala vriksha amd make offerings too.
There are lot of references made to this tree in Ayurveda as its barks are useful for heart diseases. Great physicians like Vagbhatta and Chakradatta prescribed the same with various combinations for the same. It is good for people suffering from asthma. Fractured bones get strengthened when it is taken with honey. Dysentry is stopped by taking the decoction of the bark powder of marudham. Foy young ladies who fear pimples, its paste is a good medicine. Even the sting of scorpion is cured when its ashes are applied on the place of bite. As it is an anti-microbial agent, it purifies the environment.
Panner is very sacred to Marukan in Tiruchendur as the vibhudhi (sacred ashes) prasadam is given to the devotees by the temple priests only in the panneer leaves. The white flowers are small in shape with all fragrance. Panneer tree is sacred to Siva and Vishnu in some temples. As it blooms at night, the whole surrounding is well scented. It used for archana and garlands to deities. This tree has some medicinal effects too. The wood of the tree is used to stop dysentery as well as to make nice furniture. The pustular swelling of the children is cured when the paste of the panneer leaves are applied.
Though punnai flowers are very closely associated with Siva as one of the eight flowers offered to Him during morning offerings, the punnai tree is the Sthala vriksha of Murukan in the form of Subramaniaswami in Mayilam in Cuddalore district. It is an indigenous tree and its blooming denotes prosperity. There are many references in puranas to Punnaga vanam (the forest of punnai tree). It has been a practice in villages in ancient times if the tree failed to bloom in time, the local women would dance around the barren punnai tree and kick the same at the bottom of the tree and surprisingly it would start blooming. (Agrawala,Ancient Indian Folk cults, 1970, Varanasi). Punnai flower juice cures venereal diseases and boils. Nervous disorders could be treated with its flowers. The powder made out of the punnai leaves is good for getting relief for giddiness and head ache. The juice taken from its barks is useful to stop internal and external bleeding. It is surprising to note that the intra-muscular injection of the oil taken out of punnai seeds reduces the pain in leprosy. (Dustur, J. F., Medicinal plants of India and Pakistan, 1962, Bombay). Though this green colour oil does not have good odour, it reduces and cures pain in joints, muscles, ulcers and skin diseases. (Cowen, D. V., Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India, 1984, Bombay). It is useful in making soap too. (Krishnamurthy, T, Minor Forest Products of India, 1993, Delhi) The punnai fruits give a gum.
Mahizham is the sthala vriksha for Siva, Vishnu and Murukan and sacred not only to the Saivites and Vaishnavites but to Jains and Buddhists too. Mahizhzm trees find their place in the Amaravati and Sanchi stupas. It is an emblem of Neminatha, a Jain Tirthankara and he attained jnana(enlightenment) under this tree.. It is the sthala vriksha of Sri Kandaswamy temple at Tirupporur in Kanchipuram District and Sri Kulandaivel temple at Poombarai in Madurai District. This tree has small but very sweet smelling flowers. Even if it dries, the smell remains. There are many myths associated with this tree. It is believed that the tree blooms if women eat under its shade or beautiful women spits on it. (M. Amirthalingam, Sacred TreesofTamil Nadu, Chennai, 1998, p 167). In Indian society, it is a boon to get a male child. It is believed that the women who do not have male children beget a male child if they tie a small cradle to the tree after going round the temple. Similarly, people tie threads to the branches of the sacred tree if they want their wishes to be fulfilled. They untie the thread after the fulfilment of their wishes. As Murukan is Seyon (son of Korravai & Siva) women offer worship to him especially for begetting a child.
Kura or the Bottle Brush tree is sacred to the Divine Father and Son (Siva and Murukan) It is the Sthala vriksha of the Kumarasivam temple at Tiruvidaikali in Nagapattinam District. It is a sacred tree to Jains too. It is the sthala vriksha of the Vardhamanesvara temple at Tirupparuthikkunram also known as Jaina Kanchi near Kanchipuram. An inscription found in this temple states that the tree neither grows neither tall nor becomes shorter but it protects the sceptre of the king, represents dharma and stands in front of eternal abode of Trilokyanatha. (South Indian Inscriptions Vol. VII, No. 399)
The Sthalapurana states that Lord Muruga is pleased with the sweet smell of its flowers and women tie cradles to the tree to beget male children. It is believed that this tree is special to the Tiruvidaikali temple and the temple priests offer daily worship to a serpent (Naga) which lives in the hole in the sthala vriksha. People who live in this area confirm that no one in this area has breathed their last because of snake bite as the Lord continues to protect the people.
Kal-Athi or Narrow Leaved Fig is the sacred tree of Murukan in the form of Subramaniaswami in Tirupparankunram in Madurai District. Tirupparankunram is first of the six abodes of Murukan. It is a hillock and the deity is on top of the hill. It is the place where Murukan married Devasena after his successful war with Surapadma. The natural beauty of this place has been elaborately stated by Nakkirar inTirumurukarruppadai, one of the Ten Idylls of the Sangam Age. To cure the liver disorders, the juice made from the bark of this tree could be used. Similarly the decoction of its bark cures leprosy and ulcers.
Pala is one of the three important fruits, the other two being plantain and mango. In Kollimalai in Salem District is famous for the Arumukaperuman temple. The sacred tree of the temple is pala. It is not known to many that the leaves of pala are as auspicious as banana leaves. So when women decorate the kalasam (sacred metallic pot) with plantain leaves, pala leaves are also used. . It is interesting to note that this tree that jack fruit is depicted in the early Buddhist sculptures. The shade of this tree is so sacred that all gods, Agamas, Sastras and Vedas are said to have gathered under its shade. (M. Amirthalingam). It is believed if one waters this sacred tree with one pitcher of water, it is equal to have performed abisheka to all the gods.
Vallakottai in Virudhunagar District is noted for the Murukan temple. The name of the deity is Muthukumaran. The Sthala vriksha is padhiri tree with small but very sweet smelling flowers It is sacred to Siva, Vishnu and Murukan as well as to the eleventh Tirthankara Vasupujya who attained enlightenment under the padhiri tree and a yaksha is associated with the tree. (Bhattacharya, Jaina Iconograsphy, Delhi, 1974) The Sthala purana of the Padaliswarar temple at Tiruppadhiripuliyur states that padhiri tree is the sthala vriksha of that temple and Goddess Parvati performed the special puja under this tree to free herself from sins. (Sthala purana of Padaleeswarar temple). The whole tree is of medicinal importance. Caraka, Susruta and Varahamihira, the great physicians of Ancient India have referred to the padhiri tree and its various parts used to prepare medicines to cure various diseases. Its bark is used to cure stomach ache, cough and anaemia. The use of its flowers is good for arresting diarrhoea and bleeding. Similarly its fruits are used to treat the blood diseases. The root is used to clear stomach ache.
Kumaravayalur in Trichy District is a notable Murukan sthala. The sacred tree of this temple is vanni, the sthala vriksha of Siva in many temples in Tamilnasdu. It is referred to in Rig Veda, Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is believed that Agni or fire resided in the vanni tree for some time and hence it is very sacred and it is very much used in vedic sacrifices. Vedic Brahmins use the sticks from vanni and arasu or pipal (Focus religiosa) trees to make the initial sacred fire for yagas. (Macdonell & Keith, Vedic Index, Delhi, 1982) It is interesting to note that it is sacred to Sani(Saturn). There are many myths associated with this tree. Vanni tree's bark, fruit, flowers and leaves are used in Ayurvedic medicines. The juice taken from its leaves cures joint and muscle problems and bilious disorders. Miscarriage is averted if the pregnant women takes the pulverised mixture of vanni flower and sugar. It is an antidote for snake poisoning if a powdered mixture of its leaf, fruit and bark is taken with honey. (Shanmugam N. K. Mooligai Kalai Kalanjiyam, Madras, 1989). The strong wood of Vanni tree is useful for making agricultural implements and all objects which could be made out of wood. The strong vanni trees control soil erosion. In these days of caste consciousness, the Vanniyars, a caste group in Tamil Nadu believe that the vanni tree is the tutelary tree their community. They have made it a practice to use the wood of the vannitree to cremate the vanniyars.
Swamimalai in Tanjavur District is one of the six abodes of Murukan. He is said to have taught the meaning of Pranava mantra to Siva in this place. Hence he is called Swaminathaswamy or Takappansamy. He is seen the form of a teacher and the great lord Siva as a humble obedient student, as a teacher and student respectively. The sthala vriksha of the temple is Nelli (gooseberry). Though this tree is mostly associated with Siva and Vishnu, it is sacred in Swamimalai. Goddess Lakshmi resides in the fruit and so it is a symbol of wealth and prosperity. TheKanakadhara Sthothra chanted by Adisankara brought all riches to a poor woman who gave a gooseberry to Sankara. Amalaki fruit is also mentioned in Jaiminiya Upasnishad, Chandogya Upanishad Kurma purana, Sangraha purana and many other medicinal works. Nelli is also depicted in the bas- relief of the Stupa at Sanchi. It is believed to be very nutritious. It is associated with the fertility cult. Women tie red and yellow threads to get their wishes fulfilled. Women who aspire for a son, tie a cradle to the tree and most of them beget children. They untie the thread after the fulfilment of their wishes. Women decorate the tree with sandal and turmeric paste, kumkum, flowers and offer camphor too. Thesthalapurana of the temple says that this tree is to be planted in the southern side of the temple. A myth associated with this tree states when the whole earth was submerged Lord Brahma was shocked and surprised at the deluge and saliva dripped from his mouth , out of which came the gooseberry tree. (Padma purana, Uthrakanda, 47. 7-11). Skanda Purana states that this tree came out of the joyful tears shed by Brahma when he did severe penance. (II, 4. 12. 13). Apart from its religious value, the gooseberry tree has medicinal values. Its bark, leaves, flowers, fruit and nut are useful to prepare many medicines. It has been proved that one nelli fruit's nutrition is equal to three apples. It is rich in vitamin C. Asthma, tuberculosis, bronchitis, diabetes, bleeding of the gums, blood infection, cancer etc could be prevented if its juice is taken with honey. It also relieves stress and tension and proves to be a good liver tonic. If taken raw, it gives a cooling effect to the eyes and body. For constipation it is a good remedy. It is experimented successfully that a fermented liquor obtained from its fruits could be used for indigestion jaundice and nasal problems. (Dastur, J. F. Medicinal plants of India and Pakistan, Bombay, 1962) Various parts pf the tree are used to prepare medicines for tooth ache, fever, anaemia, nervous disorders, sores, pimples etc. It is used by women to strengthen the uterus. For scorpion sting the juice of onion and nelli bark works an antidote. The nelli is used as edible in various ways.
There are many Murukan temples in nook and corner of Tamil Nadu and devotees go there to offer their worship in many ways. Along with the main deity, they worship the Sthala vrikshas due to various reasons. They attach religious significance to the sacred trees. They have developed strong feelings and faith in these trees and they do not distinguish between the main deity and the sthala vriksha. Their beliefs in the tree that it would bring fulfil their wishes draw them closer to the trees. They decorate the trees, offer worship as they do to the main deity. Perhaps all devotees are not permitted to go to the sanctum, but all can go to the sacred tree attached to the temples, even touch the same and offer worship. Their faith in the sthala vrikshas is unique. These trees are of great medicinal use. The Ayurvedic treatment recommends the medicines which are made of parts of trees and plants which have no side effects at all.
More than these religious, mythological and medicinal aspects, to safe guard the environment, trees play an important role. The ecological factors reflect on the prosperity of a country for which nature is to be well taken care by the people. The Sthala vrikshas reveal the socio-economic aspects of the region concerned. People's knowledge of the trees and the veneration of the sthala vrikshas inculcate in them a sense of responsibility to protect the environment. In India it has been the tradition that anything would be appealing to the people if it has some religious sanction. Sthala vrishas are one of the best examples of the same. Murukan worship also promotes the protection of nature in this way.