Sunday, August 27, 2006

Why Lord Shiva chose an elephant's head for Ganesha

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

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, 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!