Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The wonderous thing about growing flowers

“I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” Claude Monet
We all have had flowers around us at some time or the other. In gorgeous bouquets to greet us for this, that or the other occasion, reposing in a vase and brightening up the drabbest room, wearing it in our hair, even around our neck especially politicians and then at the feet of the deities. We use flowers all the time to speak for us when words fail us, to wriggle out of sticky situations, to woo and seduce, to pray, supplicate and propitiate (the gods, the boss or the wife!), to beautify and even to grieve and remember. We extract their essences and oils and use them to perfume our worlds, heal our bodies and minds and in the protective embrace of their fragrance, we offload our worries and stress and relax.
But, we leave the growing of flowers to other people. That’s bit like asking someone else to bear and bring up our children and give back them to us when all the difficult bringing-them-up bits are over and they are now self-sufficient, healthy, successful adults. And in doing so, we miss the indescribable experience of watching a flower grow. I know, I should have said, “growing a flower”. But, as in the case of children, we think we “grow” them, but actually all that we do (and can do) is provide the right conditions – sun, food, water, love, protection - and they grow themselves to become whatever they become. A rose, a biochemist, a jasmine, a dancer, a hibiscus, a football player.
So, what am I saying? Two things, actually
First, grow some flowers.
Second, it’s not easy.
Let me tackle the second thing first. Naturally, the question being, if it is not easy, then why do it at all? I’ll answer that in many ways. First, because the best things in life are also the most difficult. A happy marriage, the round chappati, a perfect. All of them take perseverance, practice and patience. Last week, I watched the Olympian girl gymnasts perform what is called rhythmic gymnastics. Each routine lasted for all of a little over a couple of minutes. But as each wisp of a girl wafted and whirled and swirled as if they were spools of gossamer silk thread being woven by a hidden hand or then the daughters of fairies, only we couldn’t see their wings, I knew that in every instant of those incredibly difficult, breathtakingly beautiful few minutes was an entire lifetime of hard, grueling, dedicated work, perhaps to the exclusion of all else. Because, if you think about it, the more effortless a thing seems, the more tireless effort has gone into it.
But, in our delusion that we’ve learnt to shrink time and the universe, we want the shortcut, the easy, the instant and as far as possible, the certain. We want guarantees, a result-oriented race for whom there must be an assured return output for whatever we put in - dahlia seeds or the down payment for those expensive computer animation classes. When in fact there are none. Nothing is certain, not that you will be alive the next minute or become a trillionaire next year. Or that you won’t. Bill Gates didn’t know it when he dropped out of college or the man who just died in a motorcycle accident.
So, grow some flowers. Because you learn that the best things in life don’t come that easy. And because you learn that often the things that give you the greatest satisfaction is stuff that you do just for the heck of it. If anybody were to ask me, I’d add three things to every school curriculum. Music, gardening and a craft - anything that teaches you to make things with your hands, like carpentry or cooking or pottery. So that the children learn not just the power of science but also of art. But more on that later….

Which brings me back an entire circle to point number one. Grow some flowers. Because when the flowers bloom – yup, if it is a labour of love and patience, they will - there might just be all kinds of nice things happening inside you. Even if it’s just one brave, bright marigold gently flaming its globed orangeness against a drab city skyline, the sight of it will be soul food. First, joyful disbelief (especially if you are a first time gardener) that you played a part in making something so utterly beautiful happen. Then, as the disbelief fades, your back will straighten up and your chest puff out just a little in the knowledge that somewhere inside you, maybe in the palms of your hands, tingeing the end of your fingertips is something of the Divine, the Magic that created everything and that created you.
And when they’ve done their blooming, don’t pick the flowers as yet. Let them be, breathing gently on their mother plant and every now and then, in a spare moment, go and look at them and allow yourself to marvel, something that as life turns us into jaded cynics and skeptics, we lose the habit of. Because only when you marvel and wonder can there be joy. I’ll end by borrowing words from a man who loved to watch all kinds of things – snow, apples, spiders, birches - and it turned him into one of the greatest English poets of our time. Robert Frost. “Earth’s the right place for love, I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” he says in his poem, “Birches”. I couldn’t agree with him more but it’s the last line of that poem that kinda sticks in the head:

“One could do worse that be a swinger of birches.”

One could do worse that be a grower of flowers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Belle of India

Out in the lonely woods the jasmine burns
Its fragrant lamps, and turns
Into a royal court with green festoons
The banks of dark lagoons.”
HernyTimrod, American poet
That Nature is a never ending source of wonderment and joy is nothing new, but as marvelous as its creatures and creations is also the fact that it can be so thoughtful. As all mothers are and I guess that is why we say “Mother Nature”. Look, for example, how she takes care of us in the hot, exhausting months of summer. Stocking us with all kinds of fruits and vegetables swollen with water and bursting with nutrients to combat the heat. And as if that is not enough, a whole array of summer flowers, exquisitely scented to soothe and refresh our hot, distraught bodies and spirits. Today, we visit this enchanting summer garden to acquaint ourselves with what has been rightly dubbed the queen of flowers – the jasmine…..
A jasmine by any other name…..
Mogra, motia, chameli, malli poo, jaati, mallige, juhi, mogra or moonlight in the grove…. Even I, being a native of the place where the famous Mysore mallige grows, did not know that there are an astonishing 300 varieties of jasmine. Mostly summer flowers that bloom in the evening or at night, scenting the air their delightful fragrance, to gently and sweetly lull the long, hot, exhausting day out of us. All tracing their ancestry to several centuries back to the Old World - China, Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan and all over the Far East. And it makes me proud to say that many varieties of jasmines are natives of our beloved land including the gorgeously fragrant Mysore mallige, also appropriately called “Belle of India”.
Naturally, you can’t bottle up such a beautiful fragrance for long and the jasmine soon crossed the seas. From Asia to Europe, landing first along the Mediterranean Sea, conquering Greece and Turkey, reaching Western Europe through Spain, then France and Italy and finally landing in England in the latter part of the 17th century. (By the 18th century, jasmine scented gloves became popular in Britain!)

Today, much of modern day perfumery is unthinkable without the jasmine, which is one of the key scents in some of the most celebrated perfumes in the world. Chanel No. 5, created by the legendary Coco Chanel and the famous “Joy” perfume, created by the French designer Jean Patou. A single ounce of Joy, still known as the 'costliest perfume in the world”, contains 10,600 jasmine flowers!

So delectable, so cool, so calm, so uplifting…
There is a reason for those 10,600 jasmines. As the story goes, “Joy” was created in 1930 to chase away the Depression blues that West was in the grip of. So, jasmine was a natural selection because both in Ayurveda and aromatherapy, the jasmine and its essential oil have powerful mood uplifting and antidepressant properties. Aromatherapists prescribe jasmine as a calming agent, to soothe stress, pain, and anxiety. Naturally, for the disbelievers who pooh-pooh all this herbal mumbo-jumbo, there is some research data. Dr. Alan Hirsch, a researcher on the effects of smell and taste on physiology, published a research report in which he has stated that inhaling jasmine scent increases beta waves in the brain. Beta waves are associated with increased states of alertness.
Now tell me, what more can you ask of a flower to do for your drooping self on a hard, hot, sweaty hot summer’s day?
But, though its relaxing, soothing qualities make it something of a summer specialist, the jasmine is also a flower for other seasons, therapeutically speaking. In Ayurveda, the jasmine essential oil is an important one, used in nourishing, warming sadhanas for vatta types in autumn and winter and to calm the mind and the stomach of Pitta types in the rainy season. It is also used as an anti nausea treatment during purgation therapy and for respiratory problems and uterine disorders. And its soothing, cooling, rejuvenating qualities make it the key ingredient in the famous “chameli ka tel” popular all over North India to both scent the hair and cool the brain…

and oh so sexy….

"Perfume is the unseen but unforgettable and ultimate fashion accessory. It heralds a woman's arrival and prolongs her departure." Coco Chanel
Naturally, a flower with a scent so exhilarating cannot but also be…. yup, an aphrodisiac! Its reputation as an intoxicant is ancient and formidable, and while researching it, I came across a whole clutch of stories ranging from the possible to the bizarre. Naturally, Cleopatra figured prominently in most of them and according to one story, she used jasmine in her hair when she wanted to distract Marc Antony during “business” meetings! But my favourite story features not the gorgeous Queen of the Nile but elephants. Apparently when elephants need some help to reproduce, it is said that the owners put jasmine oil on them to excite them. True or false – dunno. But on a more serious note, the jasmine used as an aphrodisiac by many ancient civilizations - the Chinese, Indians, the Arabians, the Egyptians (and possibly Cleopatra!). Even today, aroma therapists recommend it. And you can try it any which way – from dabbing your pillow with a drop or two of the oil to even wearing the flowers in your hair. So now, you know why Malli poo is so popular with us South Indian women!!!

Whither jasmine?
Like the rose, the essential oil of the jasmine is one of the most coveted and expensive in the world. Naturally, since it takes over 8 million jasmine flowers to produce 1 kilo or 2750 kgs to make about 12 drop of Jasmine oil! And you would think that the best jasmine oil in the world would come from the country where it originated and has grown for centuries - India. Sadly, the story of the Indian jasmine is the same as Indian saffron. The best jasmine oil comes not from India but from countries like France, Italy, Morocco, Egypt, China, Japan and Turkey. In France, growing jasmine and distilling its perfume is a billion-dollar industry and the town of Grasse in the French Rivera is so famous for jasmine flowers that the best jasmine is often referred to as “Grasse jasmine”.
But, as I bemoan the current status of the Indian jasmine, I rejoice because in the course of writing this piece, I found something else. In my garden, there are 3 beautiful creepers planted by my father that trail their beautiful, delicate dark green feathery selves to the ground like girls drying their hair in the sun. Every year, for just 2 to 3 months, to coincide with the monsoons, they stud themselves with the most exquisitely scented star-shaped white flowers that start as blush-pink-dipped buds in the evening and bloom to pure white virginal stars the next morning. They are my mother’s favourite flower and their perfume is like no other, heady but with an intoxication that is delicate and utterly enchanting. I only knew it by the local Kannada name by which it is popular all over Karnataka. Jaji. Till I researched for this article and found its botanical name - Jasminum officinale grandiflorum. Which is the very same jasmine that grows in Grasse and finds its way to the most fabulous perfumes in the world! Its English name is Poet’s jasmine.
And so, I end this article with Rabindranath Tagore’s paean to this exquisite denizen of India….

AH, these jasmines, these white jasmines!
I seem to remember the first day when I filled my hands
with these jasmines, these white jasmines.have loved the sunlight, the sky and the green earth;
I have heard the liquid murmur of the riverthrough the darkness of midnight;
Autumn sunsets have come to me at the bend of the road
in the lonely waste, like a bride raising her veil
to accept her lover.Yet my memory is still sweet with the first white jasmines
that I held in my hands when I was a child…..

Tel Maalaish!

You’d think that the prerequisite for an “oil bath” would be…well, oil, right? Well, that too, but the way it was in my maternal grandfather’s house, oil (lots of it, naturally) was only one of the ingredients. Indispensable were also at least one able-bodied minion with strong, sure hands and lots of stamina, gallons and gallons of hot water bubbling away in a copper cauldron a little smaller than an average Mumbai flat and chickpea flour (besan ka atta). More about the chickpea flour later. First the oil bath…
There were so many members in the joint family that lived in our ancestral home (my mother says at least about 30-35) of which my grandfather was yajamana (head) that the weekly oil bath had to happen in batches. Naturally, the women were in a separate batch and the men and the chilte-pilte (Kannada slang for bunch of kids) were in the privileged lot. Which meant that other than taking their clothes off (the men retained just a skimpy cotton langoti), everything else was done by the minions. Naturally, as the yajamana, my grandfather went first. My mother says that he made an impressive sight. He was a short, bald man and but stripped down to his almost-altogether, what hit the eye was the gold – in his ears, around his neck, circling his wrists and on his fingers and even around his rather substantial belly.
But even the gold had to step aside for the oil….
It was a magnum opus that lasted at least an hour. First, his entire body was vigorously massaged with warm oil. Of course the only thing that my grandfather did was to occasionally proffer a limb or make a body part more accessible. The actual massaging was done by the minion. Who, I’ll have you know, was often a woman called Monti! Yeah, I gasped too when my mother told me this but at the time, nobody thought that it was the slightest bit “odd”, just the most natural thing. Anyway, once the oil massage was done to everyone’s satisfaction (my grandfather’s and the minion’s), it was time for that chickpea flour. Yup, no new fangled stuff like soap to take the oil off. It had to be lashings of chickpea flour, which was rubbed – naturally by the minion – into the skin almost as vigorously and lavishly as the oil. Remember, these were days when probably the word “face scrub” and “exfoliate” hadn’t even entered the average Western beautician’s dictionary but in my grandfather’s house, they knew a thing or two about skincare. Because when the whole enchilada was finally washed off with the almost boiling hot water from the copper cauldron, the skin emerged beautifully soft, moist and tender as a baby’s bottom, glowing and ever so slightly flushed and tingling, wearing the faintest, gentlest patina of oil that lingered the whole day like a sweet memory. Which was, you could say, also roughly the state of the mind.
So what’s the big deal about these “oil baths” and why do the Southies get so glassy-eyed with ecstasy about it? Well, technically the term is a misnomer and only a dye-in-blood South Indian will understand what it means. Namely that we don’t bath in oil, as the term might suggest to the uninitiated (and how sorry I feel for them!). But that we first anoint, slather, soak and massage every known body part accessible within the bounds of decency with warm oil, mostly in full public view in a sort of Sunday morning family event. When we can lug ourselves out of the euphoric, dreamy haze that it induces, we wash it all off with oceans of hot water and then often totter off to a hot lunch, finished off by cool buttermilk only slightly less in quantity than the hot water that we bathed in. Finally, to a crescendo of gutsy, blissful sighs, we finally sink into a Kumbhakarna siesta from which we awake ready to face anything. World War 3 or a Rakhi Sawant video.

But please don’t be misled by my jocular tone because an oil bath is actually some very serious business of therapy and healing. You see, it all goes back to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda. And Ayurveda, like yoga, is not just a system of medicine but a way of life. So, it prescribes not only for the sick to heal, but also for the healthy to stay healthy. In Ayurveda, health is a state where the body is in harmony not only with its own nature but also with the nature outside. And since everything including life itself is constantly changing, this is considered as a dynamic state of being, a balancing act where you have to constantly adjust and fine tune your body not just by its doshas, not just by the season but even on a daily basis. So dinacharya is the daily morning ritual that Ayurveda prescribes that readies you both in body and spirit to face the day. And an “oil bath” or rather massaging yourself with oil before your bath is the integral part of it. So, once upon a time, an “oil bath” was a daily event. With time, it became a weekly thing and now, it’s almost a forgotten thing, remembered perhaps once a year on Diwali day, when a little oil is ritualistically applied on the head.
So why is this “oil bath” so important and what does it do, therapeutically speaking? Naturally it all begins with the skin, the body’s largest organ and the main organ of our sense of touch. Touch has been used since time immemorial as an important method of healing, especially in the world’s two most ancient systems of medicine, Ayurveda and Chinese medicine and massage or abhyanaga is one of them. When the body is massaged, the very first thing that happens is almost instant and complete relaxation. because the human skin is loaded with nerve endings, the receptors that receive and transmit all sensation to the brain. There are roughly 350 such nerve endings in each square millimeter of human skin, the hands being supersensitive with each fingertip having more than 3,000 touch receptors.
So, in an oil massage, skin first meets skin, introduced by warm, silky oil. It has been said that the effects of an oil massage are similar to being intensely loved. And love it has to be because in Ayurveda, oil is called sneha, which also means love. So skin begins to love skin, one surrendering and allowing the fingertips to caress and press, rub and probe gently, even gently pinch; the palms to knead and press and smooth. According to Ayurveda, for the sneha – and we could well be referring both oil and love! - to reach the deepest layers, it must be massaged for 800 matras or roughly 5 minutes. Naturally because as we all know, you can’t hurry love. And thus loved and pampered, the blissed out skin begins to send a flood of messages to the brain to relax, wind down, let go. Now these messages get stored forever in the memory of the skin so that with every repetition of a massage, the skin remembers and the relaxation is quicker and easier. Massaging also generates body heat, which stimulates the millions of blood vessels located just below the surface of the skin. The act of rubbing the skin’s surface with oil also knocks off the build of layers of dead skin cells, leaving your skin soft and glowing. Incidentally, did you know that the skin sheds 500 million dead cells every day?!.
Okay, so that’s the obvious stuff. But what if I tell you that the daily oil massage also stimulates almost every critical body part or system - the muscles, the nervous system, even the respiratory system because as the body relaxes, your breathing slows and calms down, improving the oxygenation of the cells. It kick starts vital organs and gets the prana energy flowing, all of which results in a general feeling of being rejuvenated and energized. It’s like waking up the inside of you just the way you do every morning!
And we’ve only just begun.
Because the oil massage is also a great way to detoxify. Toxins accumulate in the body for a lot of reasons – stress, food, environmental pollution, lack of exercise, the effect of seasons and according Ayurveda, the imbalance of our own doshas, etc., etc. Their accumulation is the cause of much that ails us; in fact Ayurveda considers this the root of all disease – from arthritis to diabetes to urinary disorders. So, the act of massaging activates the body to start getting rid of its waste and toxins in different ways. By making you sweat gently. By getting that circulation up and running and most importantly, by waking up sluggish intestines and bowels!
Last but most importantly, an oil massage is a bit like your TV remote control. There is a sloka in Ayurveda which says,
“Shirah shravana padeshu
Tam visheshena sheelayet.“
Roughly translated it means that 3 areas of the body must be massaged are the head, the ears and the feet. Because you see, with these 3 areas, we can access the deepest interiors of our body to almost every organ and gland to retune and reset them. You’re thinking, the head makes sense because that’s where the brain as well important endocrine glands like the pituitary and the pineal glands are located. But the feet? And even curiouser, the ears? Ah, according to Ayurveda, these two areas (along with others like the hands) are considered vital junction boxes connected to the entire body. For example, points all over the outer ear or the visible portion of the ear are considered connected to almost all the major organs and glands in the body including heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, liver, pancreas, gall bladder reproductive organs, the thyroid, prostrate and pituitary glands. The ear lobes are connected to the eyes and teeth.
The feet are no less important. The big toe gives us access the brain and helps vision. The index toe releases energy into the lungs. The third toe gets us access to the intestines, the fourth to the kidney and the little toe to …..believe it or not, the heart. And on the sole of each foot are 4 of the 107 marma points, vital points of the body, so vital that hitting them can grievously injure, even kill - as is done in Kerala’s ancient art of Kalaripayyat.
And these are only some of the physical benefits of an “oil bath”. Did I mention that it also helps improve vitality, strength, stamina, concentration, flexibility, youthfulness, makes you sleep like a baby, feel good about yourself …..oh, what the heck, let me just quote the wise sage Charaka himself,
"The body of one who uses oil massage regularly is affected much even if subjected to injury or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age." Charaka Samhita Vol. 1, V: 88-89
Isn’t it breathtaking how exquisitely simple it all is? How far just a few cupfuls of warm, sweet sneha and a pair of sure, loving hands can take you down the happy road to health and well being? I have this sneaking suspicion that my passionate and life long affair with music began because as a baby, every morning before a bath, my ayah would give me an oil massage so thorough and so delightful that like my grandfather’s elder sister-in-law, I’d fall into a deep, ecstatic exhausted slumber afterwards. While massaging me, she’d sing a song. It was concieved when Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker went to Calcutta and one morning watched a local maalish-wala show off his talents. Guru Dutt asked Johnny Walker to remember the scene. He did and it appeared as this song in the classic 1957 film Pyaasa and became so famous that a song with Johnny Walker became mandatory in the formula Hindi film box office hit. The lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi puts it a little differently but is as eloquent as the sage Charaka on the benefits of an oil massage…..
Sar jo tera chakraaye, ya dil dooba jaaye
Aaja pyaare paas hamaare, kaahe ghabraaye.. kaahe ghabraaye
Sun sun sun, are beta sun, is champi mein bade bade gun
Laakh dukhon ki ek dava hai kyoon na aazmaaye
Kaahe ghabraaye, kaahe ghabraaye

In consultation with Dr. C. S. Anil Kumar – B.A.M.S., M.D., (Ay) D.N.Y., Physician Consultant in Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy and Professor at JSS Ayurvedic Medical College, Mysore.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

In Defence of Mud and Oil

Din soona suraj bina
Aur chanda bin raina
Ghar soona deepak bina
Jyoti bi do nain…
Diya jalao, jag-mag jag-mag…K.L Saigal in the film TANSEN (1943)

Well, we did it one more time. When along with the curtains in the drawing room and the silver in the puja room, we laundered and polished and aired out our goodwill and charitableness, tarnished and dusty for a year’s non-use. No, no, don’t worry, I am not going to be Uncle Scrooge and ruin the lovely Diwali that everyone has just had with my grouchy bah and humbug. Instead I write today of a beautiful but perhaps dying Diwali tradition – the humble clay Diwali diya or earthen lamp.
Naturally, at the outset, let me say that I do not have any suitably weighty body of research that says that it will help cure this, that or the other ailment. So I realize that when I sing praises of what is after all a bit of mud, cotton and oil, I compete with that infinitely more snazzy, more convenient, no-mess, no-drip modern day marvel - electric decorative lights. Which not only come on at the mere flick of a switch (and go off as easily) and in so many chak-mak Diwali colours, but can also be made to “pulse” to the latest Jhankar beats. And no spoilsport breeze can ever blow them out. In comparison, my humble diyas are a messy, laborious rigmarole of cotton wicks and oil and the light is in just one boring colour that will tremble and shiver at the mercy of the faintest wisp of a breeze. So, defending the clay diya is like trying to defend the importance of art, dance, poetry and song in the school syllabus. At least in the case of song, there is enough research demonstrating what amazing things that a spot of music can do to your kids’ IQ. So, if not to introduce Munna to the joy of listening to the sweet, aching sound of Talat Mahmood pleading, “Jalte hain jiske liye, teri ankhon diye….”, then at least to boost up his mathematical skills, we will allow him a few music classes. But what “good” will a few silly, mud (oh, alright, clay, if you insist) diyas that we light once a year do for anyone?

Like I said, the dice aren’t loaded in my favour but let me try anyway….
"The Hindu does not worship an idolMade of wood and clay.He sees consciousness Within the earthen-ness And loses himself in it." Swami Vivekananda
Let me start with mud….er, I mean clay. The association of clay with creation and the circle of life is an ancient and universal one. As swiftly miraculously as it takes form, clay can be and is destroyed. Impermanence, change, regeneration – the cycle of life and its inexorable rhythm is embodied in clay and in the potter’s wheel. Even when it remains unformed in the soil, it is invaluable. It absorbs ammonia and other gases needed for plant growth and helps the soil to retain the fertilizing substances in manure. So, without clay, the womb of Mother Earth cannot hold on to its fertility. And out of a lump of clay can be born anything. A Pongal pot, a roof or floor tile, a Dussera gombe (doll), a kulhar, a Bankura horse. Or an Ayyanar deity, fiercely guarding the entrance of a village in Tamil Nadu. Or the 7500 strong terracotta army of life-size soldiers, horses and chariots that Emperor Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor had buried with him more than 2000 years ago. Or the 30,000 clay tablets that formed the library of King Sennacherib of Assyria (now partly in Iraq) who ruled from 704 to 681 B.C. Or the thousands of magnificent statues of Goddess Durga and Lord Ganesh that grace our lives for 10 days every year and then sink into oceans and rivers to become clay again.
Or a little clay diya. Or then, mankind itself….
It is said that Brahma fashioned man out of clay. Which makes him the first potter and so, ever since, potters in many parts of India and Nepal have “Prajapathi” as their family name. And the origin of the first earthen pot is equally sacred. During the sagar manthan or the churning the ocean, when the amrut or nectar finally came up, there was no vessel to collect it in. So Vishwakarma, architect of the gods (he designed Indralok, Dwarka, Lanka, Indraprastha to name only a few divine residences), divine sculptor and supreme craftsman, shaped some earth into a pot or kumbh. (So, the potter is called kumhar in Hindi and Kolkatta’s most famous potter’s colony, where the fabulous Durga statues are made every year for the Durga Puja celebrations is called Kumortoli.) Which is why many potters light a small diya as a mark of respect to the great Viswakarma before they start the day’s work.
And it is more than likely that that diya is a clay one and the oil in it will most likely be….
The Sanskrit generic word for oil is “taila” (Hindi – “tel”), said to have originated from the Sanskrit “tila” or sesame - an indication that sesame or gingelly oil’s status as the first among oils. Nurturer and healer, next only to ghee in its sattvic, calming nature, sesame oil carries in it all the wonderful qualities of its parent seed. It is said that the sesame seed formed when a drop of Vishnu’s sweat fell on the earth and in Ayurveda, it is considered one of the first foods of the earth. And so sesame oil, rated by the great sage Charaka as “shreshta” among oils, is indispensable in Ayurveda, used for everything from seasoning healing foods to treat orthopedic injuries and generally improve and rejuvenate the body’s vital systems. And it is this wonderful oil that is normally used in diyas. Why? Well, many say that the flame of a diya fuelled by ghee or sesame oil purifies the air around it. So, what else would we fill into the lamps that will light our way out of the darkness of all that is bad and sad and troubled into all that is good and happy and peaceful – both inside and outside us? How else would we welcome Goddess Laxmi into our homes but with the brave, beautiful, golden flame of a clay diyas?
Which brings me finally to…..Anjali. A lovely name for a girl and means “offering”. But what does it have to do with the diya? Ah, it is a beautiful connection. Cup both your hands together as we do when we offer something in a puja or when we accept a boon or prasadam. Now look carefully at the shape that your hands have formed. It is exactly the shape of a diya. (In Ayurveda, “anjali” is also the volume that can be held by your two cupped hands.) So, every little clay diya, made from the coming together of fire, water, air, space and sacred earth, filled with the sweet, peaceful, healing goodness of sesame oil that gives itself up so willingly to burn so bright and pure, is an offering, a prayer. In gratitude for life, that we have completed one more circle and ready to embark on another. Invoking all that is good and peaceful and healing and that we may have the power to deal with whatever life has in store for us. Remembering that like the clay of the diya, that everything we are, have, own – the new designation, the freshly Asian-painted house, the newly wed daughter-or-son-in-law, even the brand new 26’ plasma TV bought with the Diwali bonus - is only lent to us for a while. So, enjoy it while it is there and when like the oil in the diya, its time is up, give it back without grief….
So, my dear, dear readers, I hope that this Diwali, the humble little clay diya blessed each one of you and your homes with its simple, beautiful blessing.
Happy Diwali

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Karagre vasate Laksmih
Karamule Sarasvati
Karamadhye tu Govindah prabhate karadarsanam

“Lakshmi resides in the fingertips, Sarasvati in the base of the fingers and Vishnu the centre of the palm. Therefore look at your hand first thing in the morning.”

It struck me recently that here in India, we greet God and each other pretty much the same way. With a namaste, a namaskara, namaskar, namashkar or namaskaram, depending on which part of the country we are from. This thought crossed my mind when I saw two Western celebrities doing namaste – Goldie Hawn in a chat show and poor, beleaguered Michael Jackson as he walked out of the courtroom. In both cases, the gesture was awkward, stilted, the way a sari looks on Western women even when draped on one as gorgeous as Elizabeth Hurley. And so I wondered, what is the significance of a gesture that is almost second nature to most of us and is used elsewhere in the world only while praying?

“I bow to you.”
Actually, we don’t really have to look very far for the meaning because it’s all there in that one word. Namaste or Namaskara. And it is the first part of the word that is the most important. “Nama” which is the same as “namah” as used in so many mantras including the panchakshara - “Om namahshivaya”. The larger, broader meaning of nama or namah is taken to be “I bow down to”, “I pay homage to” or “I venerate”. But this comes from the fact that “nama” is the coming together of two words - “Na”, which means “that which is not” and “ma” which means “mine” or “I”. So, the literal meaning of nama would be 'not I' or “not mine”. So, by saying “nama”, the implication is that by negating myself, by that I am nothing, I am acknowledging you are of prime importance. And thus, I pay homage you, bow down to you, revere you. When we say it to God, it also means I worship you. (“te” in namaste means “you” (I bow down to you) and “kara” in namaskara means “doing”.)
Can you think of a more beautiful way of greeting another human being? Firstly, it is the ultimate gesture of humility, the keeping aside of ego and arrogance that comes in the way of so many of our interaction. Then, it recognizes and honors the fact that in each one of us there is something good, something worthy of respect, even something divine. All said in one simple gesture and one word.
So, now we know what the words namaste or namaskara mean. But why do we fold the hands together?
Hand talk
Before answering that question, a small voyage to reacquaint ourselves with our hands. Human civilization would not be what it is without them. In Ayurveda, the hands are classified as one of the 5 organs of action. And they are – stunning, complex organs with which not only do we build and create but also express ourselves with. (By the way, one of the main differences between us and apes and chimpanzees is that we do not use our hands for locomotion.) Our hands move and form into a million different gestures to show love and power and anger and despair and defiance and failure and triumph. We make love and war, cook and eat, mock and insult, applaud and bless, even kill with our hands. The New York stock exchange could not function without them. Music, art and literature would not have been possible without them. And the delicate, intricate swirls and whorls of lines on each of our fingertips make every single one of us unique and like no other human being on this planet. Think about it – right at this very minute, there are at least 6 billion sets of fingerprints, every one of them different from all the other 5, 999, 999, 999!
But perhaps the most spectacular avatar of our hands is as an organ of touch. The human hand contains about 100,000 nerves, of at least 20 different kinds - 8 related to movement, carrying commands from the spine and 12 receive various touch sensations. Each our fingertips have about 3,000 nerve receptors, just under the surface of the skin. Our trunks have about the same as one fingertip! (Source : A Primer on Touch By Elise Hancock) Divided into specialist functions to tell us fire from ice, a baby’s cheek from sandpaper, granite from cotton wool, rain from dry sand. Collaborating with the brain to make our fingers so magically dexterous, so sensitive, so intelligent that they can weave fabric fine enough to pass through a ring, make the flute imitate the rippling of mountain stream, a drum talk the language of raindrops, reattach nerves finer than a human hair, transplant sunlight shimmering on water on to a canvas. And make a deaf person hear, a mute speak and a blind see….
And so, it is only expected that our ancients designed an entire system of healing of the mind, body and spirit, using the hands, especially the fingers to form “mudras”….

The de-stress mudra
The word “mudra” means “gesture”, but it also means “seal”, especially in yoga.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga says, “The Kulavarna tantra traces the word mudra to the root “mudh” meaning to delight or pleasure and dravay which means to draw forth. Mudras, “by creating barriers within the body,” “redirect the energy which is normally dissipated outwards” inwards. And the anjali mudra is no different. It is also known as the namaskara mudra. Because that is exactly how the hands are placed – folded together in a namaskara and placed in the centre of the chest with both the thumbs gently pressing against the sternum. It is said that when we thus join our hands, we close or complete (seal) an energy circuit between the hands and the brain, creating a deeply meditative state. Which is why the anjali mudra is considered a relaxing mudra, reducing stress and anxiety and calming you down gently and beautifully.
But don’t take my word for it. Try this. Sit in a comfortable position and relax completely, shutting your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Then, just slowly bring your hands together in a namaste, pressing them firmly but gently against each other, making sure the fingers are matched and there is no gap between them. You need not place your hands in the centre of your chest and this is not the actual mudra, but you will immediately feel a sense of calming down, of something releasing within you….
Which leaves us with the unanswered question. Why do we fold our hands the way we do in a namaste? To tell you the truth, I didn’t find a really satisfactory answer in all the research that I did. So, I will offer you my own theory. In ancient Indian wisdom, each finger has a symbolic meaning. For example, in Ayurveda, each of the 5 fingers are conduits of the 5 elements – the angushta or thumb for space, the forefinger or tarjari for air, the middle finger or madhyama for fire, the ring finger or anamika for water and the little finger or kanishta for earth. In yoga, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “the small, middle and ring finger respectively represent the 3 gunas – tamas (inertia), rajas (action and creativity) and sattwa (luminosity and harmony). In order for consciousness to pass from ignorance to knowledge, these 3 states must be transcended. The index finger represents the individual consciousness or jivatama, while the thumb symbolises the supreme consciousness.” Our hands are our lifeline - our means of survival, expression and the conduit through which we experience the world around us. Our hands also are our identity card – you can change your name, but your fingerprints are as indelible and unique as your DNA.
So, you could say that in our hands is contained the universe, the sum and substance of what we are. Therefore, when we join our hands together in a “namaskara”, we not only say, “I bow down to you”, but that “along with my ego, I submit to you all that I am and have.”
So, to you my dear readers, I say today, “Namaskara”.

Payasam - Food of the gods and the worlds oldest dessert...

Milk - not just the earth’s first sattvic food, but also the most complete food, nutritionally speaking. And the source of other wonder foods like curd, buttermilk and ghee. Rice - one of the first foods of the earth, so much so that in Sanskrit, the word for food and cooked rice is the same – “anna”. So, when you combine the two with sugar or jaggery and ghee and slow cook for hours, what do you get? A result so heavenly that it is food fit for the gods! We mortals call it payasam. Kshirika in Sanskrit. Kheer in North India. Naturally, India’s association with it goes back to...well, at least to the Ramayana. When the childless King Dashratha was performing the putra yameshti yagya to plead for progeny, a divine purusha appeared holding a golden pot of payasam, which he gave to the king. On the advice of sage Vasistha, Dashratha distributed the payasam among his queens. According to one version, all three of them got a share, but before she could eat hers, an eagle swooped down and took away Sumitra’s share. So Kaushalya and Kaikeyi each gave her half theirs. Soon, the news that all the three queens were with child filled the kingdom of Ayodhya with joy! The scene of King Dashratha distributing the payasam to his queens is part of the fabulous sculptured panels of the fabulous Chola temples in Tamil Nadu.
And so, payasam is a universal offering to the gods all over India. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In temple, mosque, church and gurudwara, sometimes a sacred ritual thousands of years old. And often so delicious that its fame makes the devotees flock as much for darshan of the deity as for a potion of this earthly ambrosia. Today, we take a slow boat down the river of this divine food…

“Payasannapriya” meaning She who loves payasam. That is how the Devi is described in the Lalithashasranama. And so it is only befitting that there should be a temple dedicated to her called Kheer Bhawani! Situated in the Tulla Mula village just 27 kms from Srinagar, surrounded by beautiful chinar trees, this temple is one of Kashmir’s most sacred Hindu shrines, its antiquity going back to the time when, as the story goes, Lord Rama prayed here during his vanvas. Twice a year, thousands of devotees gather here, once in June to celebrate the Kheer Bhawani festival and then during all 9 nights of Navarati, a tradition among the Kashmiri pundits. But how did the temple get its name? Because of the kheer and milk that devotees offer to the Goddess, pouring it into the serene sacred waters on which the temple complex is built. It is said that the waters change colour to warn of imminent disaster!

One of Islam’s holiest spots is the dargah or tomb of the famous Sufi saint, Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti in Ajmer. Built over 3 centuries, the great shrine of marble, silver, gold was completed by Akbar’s father, Humayun. But the dargah became famous as Akbar’s favorite place of worship, who would often vow to make the 150 km journey from Agra to Ajmer on foot if a wish was fulfilled or a mission successfully completed. Like he did when he conquered Chittor in 1568. After reaching the dargah, he ordered the construction of a massive cauldron or “deg”. With a circumference of over 10 feet, it could hold 4,480 kgs of rice and was placed west of the main door or Buland Darwaza. 50 years later, his son, Jahangir, for whose birth he prayed at this very dargah, added a smaller one of half the capacity. Since then, every year, during the Urs festival marking the death anniversary of the saint, it is in these massive degs that the dargah’s famous kheer is made. Rice, ghee, milk, sugar and dry fruits are cooked together to become the dargah’s tabarruk or blessing and served to all pilgrims. Such is the rush that it is called the “looting of the kheer” because the degs are emptied within a matter of minutes, devotees even jumping into them to scrape whatever kheer remains at the bottom!

What else would abound in God’s own country but God’s own food? Not only do mortals quaff it in prodigious quantities at every possible opportunity but some of Kerala’s most famous payasams are made in …of course in its temples, but also in many of the churches as well!
Mulanthuruthy in Ernakulam district. Where the ancient Mar Thoman Syrian Orthodox Church stands, established in the early part of 12th century. Every year, payasam is an integral part of the annual celebrations of the church. A small portion is blessed, mixed with the rest and served to all the parishioners at the feast. Also in the Ernakulam district is St. Antony’s Church and the festival to mark St. Joseph’s Day is so famous that the church is known as St. Joseph’s Church. Thousands attend the festival, many to feast particularly on the delicious kadum payasam. Wealthy devotees “sponsor” and pay for the payasam, which incidentally ‘keeps’ for a year without spoiling – till the next feast!

Which brings us to Kerala’s famous temple payasams. The payasams at the Guruvayur and Sabrimalai temples are famous enough, but the one made at Sri Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha near Alleppey has a wonderful story attached to it. Lord Krishna once appeared as a sage to the king of the region and challenged him to a game of chess. The king accepted the challenge, agreeing to the sage’s condition that that the prize should be decided before the game. The rishi’s prize, in case he won, was what seemed to be just a few grains of rice. He asked that one grain of rice be placed in the first square of the chessboard and then each subsequent square would have double the number of grains of the previous one. Whatever number of rice grains would thus fit on the chessboard would be his.
The king agreed – he had to because his opponent wanted nothing else. Naturally the rishi won. But when the king started adding the grains, he realized how he had underestimated his opponent. The number of rice grains multiplied in geometric progression and the “few grains of rice” finally beacme 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains, amounting to trillions of tons of rice! The king realised that even if he got all the rice in his kingdom and the adjacent ones, there was no way he could pay up. Seeing the king’s consternation, Lord Krishna revealed himself and put the king out of his misery by allowing the debt to be paid off over time – as free payasam to pilgrims. And so the famous paal payasam of the Ambalappuzha Sri Krishna temple is made and distributed as prasadam everyday to this very day! (Source : wikipedia.org)


And finally, what is often called the world’s oldest payasam. If the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Orissa is one of our most ancient, famous and sacred temples, the prasadam made there is equally so – so much so that it is called “mahaprasadam”. Every single day, hundreds of temple cooks and their assistants, working on 752 chulas in a kitchen that sprawls over 2500 sq. ft, cook an awesome 100 different dishes, enough to feed at least 10,000 people! Everything from steamed rice to dals and vegetables and a mind-boggling array of sweets including one named after Lord Jagannatha himself! And of course, payasam or bhat payasa . Kurma Dasa, celebrity gourmet chef and who is called 'Australia's Vegetarian Guru', found the original recipe for it, one that hasn’t changed in two thousand years. Here it is….

2 tablespoons ghee
3/4 cup long grained rice, washed and dried1/2 bay leaf2 litres milk1/2 cup ground rock sugar, or raw sugar 1/4 cup currants1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seedsone pin-head quantity of pure cooking camphor (optional)1 tablespoon toasted nuts for garnish

Heat the ghee in a heavy pot over medium heat, and toast the rice for a minute.
Add the bay leaf and milk. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to half its original volume.
Add sugar, currants, and cardamom, and simmer the mixture until it reaches one fourth of its original volume, and is thick and creamy.
Stir in the optional camphor, and cool to room temperature, or refrigerate until chilled.
Serve garnished with the toasted nuts.

Grateful thanks to Mr. Kurma Dasa - http://www.kurma.net/, Elizabeth Ninan

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Why Lord Shiva chose an elephant's head for Ganesha

Photo www.flickr.com/photos/arpana/sets/965242/
Today was Ganesha Chaturthi. In modern day terms, you could say, the birthday of one of the most belovedand well-known deities of the Hindu pantheon of Gods, without whose invocation and blessing no important work is ever begun, so much so that the Hindi idiom for inaugurating anything is “Sri Ganesha karna”!

We call him by many names, this Lord of All (Vinayaka), each one both a paen and a prayer. Lambhodara or he of a belly large enough to accommodate the entire universe, the Giver of Boons (Varadavinayaka) and Knowledge (Vidyavaridhi), the Destroyer of Obstacles (Vighnavinashanaya, Vigneshwara). We have grown up listening to and reading the wonderful stories about him. The devoted son (Eshanputra, Rudrapriya Shambhavi, Gaurisuta), who not just lost a tusk defending his father from the wrath of the mighty Parasurama and thus became known as Ekdanta, but who also defined the meaning of filial love for all time to come by circling his parents when asked by them to circle the universe. The divine chronicler who, not happy to just be Vyasa’s stenographer, stipulated that he would do the job only if the sage recited the Mahabharata in one uninterrupted stretch and who in turn fulfilled Vyasa’s counter condition that in that uninterrupted flow, he would not write down anything that he did not understand. (It was in these conditions that the Mahabharata was completed in 3 years!)
And so naturally, this infinite repository of wisdom (Buddhinath, Buddhipriya, Buddhividhata) became the consort of not just Buddhi but also Siddhi, worshipped ever since as not just Vinayaka but Siddhivinayaka. But perhaps the most popular story is the one of how our Lord Ganesha got his elephant head (Gajanana, Gajakarna, Gajananeti). There are many versions and I must confess that my own favourite is the one about him standing guard for his mother Parvati. But as I searched for and read all the versions, I couldn’t help wondering. Why an elephant head and why not that of some other animal?

I know that there will be many answers to this, most of them from reli

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The point about butterflies

Photo http://www.floridata.com/tracks/butterfly/queen.cfm
Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. - Nathaniel Hawthorne

"Just living is not enough," said the butterfly. "One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower."- Hans Christian Andersen

To me it has to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. Butterflies in the sun. Recently, early one morning, I was on the terrace of my house. Suddenly I could see wave after wave of butterflies swooping over my head and flying past, like a sort of Nature’s air show. It was as if little bits of the sky had floated down and then taken wing because the butterflies were the exact colour of the brilliant blue sky against which they flew. And as I watched, their blue wings caught the sunlight and turned into a rising cloud of undulating, iridescent azure. I stood transfixed - incredulous that something so utterly beautiful, so breathtakingly stunning could have come my way, just like that. Without any fanfare or pre-release publicity, without my asking. And totally free. It made my day and the sight of those butterflies is forever imprinted like a patch of brightness inside my head.
And so, today, I’m going to talk about how to attract butterflies to your garden. Of course there is a serious-jelly, ecologically correct, healthy, New Age living for doing this – in fact there are many. But let me come to that in a bit and first tell you the other reason to do this. Because along with air and food and water and money and old age pension and nail clippers and love and , we need beauty in our lives. Things that take our breath away, that delight and entrance and fill us with wonder and joy. Things that make us glad that we are alive and make our day. And the sight of butterflies fluttering in the sun is just one of those things.
That done, now to the serious-eco-healthy part. Butterflies, along with moths and birds, are Nature’s most important plant pollinators - second only to honey bees. And if there’s no pollination, no papaya for breakfast and no bhindi for lunch, maybe not even eucalyptus oil for your cold balm. Insects (like butterflies) pollinate 75% of crop plant species, which give us about one out of every four mouthfuls of food and drink that we consume. Besides, butterflies not only help produce our food, along with caterpillars, they are also food for many other animals. But there is one other very important reason to have butterflies around. They are indicators of the state of health of your ecosystems. If butterflies abound in your environment, it means that there’s plenty of vegetation around and all is tickety-boo with the ecosystem. When the butterflies vanish, the ecology is in serious trouble.
And the good news is that it’s not that difficult to have these beautiful creatures around. All you need to do is to grow brightly flowering plants loaded with nectar in lots of piping hot, golden sunshine. Nothing exotic or hothouse-rare mind you, just your average hibiscus or tomato!
So today, I will introduce you to just two easy-to-grow plants that you can grow even in a pot or a planter – one has some of the prettiest flowers in the world, the other you can eat.
The icing on the cake being that both these plants are well-known medicinal plants…..
Jasun, jaswand, joba, dasawala, sapattuppu, dasanam. Hibiscus rosa sinensis. But perhaps its beautiful name is a Sanskrit one – japakusuma or jabakusuma. “Japakusuma” meaning the prayer flower and aptly so. Because the hibiscus is the primary flower of worship for the Devi, Her most favourite, so much so that in some parts of India like Chattisgarh it is called Deviphool. In the invocation to Suryadeva, he is described in the first line as “Jabaakusuma sankasham” or “as radiant as the colour of the red hibiscus”. One of the most popular and well-known hair oils not so many years ago in India was a brand called “Jabakusum”. A name well chosen because the hibiscus has quite a reputation for making hair beautiful and healthy. Being a natural emollient which makes the hair soft and promotes hair growth, the hibiscus flowers when crushed yield a dark purplish dye that is said to also help darken the hair. The hibiscus is a key ingredient in one other famous hair oil, this time an Ayurvedic formulation – brahmi amla tel!
But the hibiscus’ greatest importance and one that has serious long-term implications for women is this. In Ayurveda and traditional medicine, it has long been used both as a contraceptive and to treat gynacelogical problems like vaginal and uterine discharges, menstrual irregularities etc. But, modern medical research both in India and abroad indicate that hibiscus may indeed give us the first female oral herbal contraceptive. While the R&D work is still on, the indications are promising.
That’s as far as we humans go. Now for the butterflies. They are attracted to the hibiscus’ many brilliant, glorious hues. The butterflies that favor the hibiscus include a species called blues - to which family the glorious blue butterflies I mentioned at the beginning of this article belong to, thus named because of their gorgeous colouring.
And finally, the bonus - the hibiscus, as a tree, also attracts many small birds including song birds!

Anethum graveolens or Anethum Sowa. (Which is Indian variety.) Shatpushpa, madhura in Sanskrit. Suwa (Hindi), sapsige soppu (Kannada), sataguppai (Tamil),
Relative of the cumin (jeera), bay leaf (tej pata) and the carrot.
Or as known in the Western World – dill.
Which makes it time to talk about gripe water. Once called "the secret of British nannies", and what no mum will do without for her new born little darling. Well, the active ingredient in gripe water is dill, the remedy given to millions of babies the world over to relieve colic. Actually, the wonderful therapeutic benefits of the dill weed has been known for about 3000 years. The ancient Egyptians and Romans knew it and Hippocrates, the father of medicine, used dill in a recipe for cleaning the mouth. Charlemagne had it on his banquet tables as a digestive for his guests who indulged too much. And here in India, we used it in Ayurveda and traditional medicine for all kinds of healing and soothing – as digestive and anti-flatulent, mouth freshener, for colds and flu and to stimulate menstrual flow and breast milk.We now know that dill’s wonderfully gentle ability to soothe even a baby’s irate stomach is due to its anti-bacterial ability, which tackle many strains of bacteria including Escheria coli, responsible for gastrointestinal illness like infectious diarrhea.
But this is not all that pretty little dill – a delicate, wispy, dark green plant – offers. Apart from soothing unsettled digestions, it is also very nutritious. Fresh dill – like all greens – is an excellent source of dietary fibre and both the both seeds and the leaves are very good sources of calcium, so essential for healthy teeth and bones, as well as iron and manganese.
Now for the butterfly attracting qualities of dill. Its gorgeous yellow flowers that look like sunshine lace would attract any self respecting butterfly. But along other members of the carrot family, it is the only food plant for the caterpillars of the gorgeous black swallowtail butterfly - which is a common Indian species.
So, grow some butterflies in your garden. Because….well, you know why now but also to remind yourself that the some of the best things in life are free. Finally, let me end with this joke told to me by a very dear friend. A scientist, one of those hot-shot genetic engineer, imperiously and rather impertinently declared, “Okay, God, this is it, You’re no longer the Master of Creation. I have finally cracked the mystery of creation.” God, used to the ways of his humans, quietly said, “Really? Then who is?”
“Well, I am,” declared the scientist even more grandly, “And to prove it, give me a handful of dust and I will create anything You want out of it.”
“That’s wonderful, my son,” said God even more quietly, “so why don’t you first create that handful of the dust?”
So the point, my fellow gardeners, is this - we grow nothing, we create nothing, we invent still less. With a bit of luck, we just somehow create the right conditions for something to pop out of the universe and show its workings to us. Be that the wheel or a zinnia.
Sources : the world’s healthiest foods website, http://www.floridata.com/ and other sources.


Of the approximately 18,500 known species of butterflies probably account, India accounts for about 1500 species.

The ancient Greeks believed that the soul left the body after death in the form of a butterfly. Their symbol for the soul was a butterfly-winged girl named Psyche.


The word butterfly comes from the Old English word buterfleoge, meaning butter and flying creature. Butter probably referred to the butter-yellow colour of some European butterflies. Or then, as another story goes, because it was once believed that witches assumed the shape of butterflies when they stole butter and cream!