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Vol. 25 No. 2 - April 2019

Rudraksh: Prospect for population expansion by Conservation through Cultivation approach

By: M. L. Khan* and R. S. Tripathi

Rudraksh (Elaeocarpus ganitrus, Elaeocarpaceae) is well known in ancient Indian Holy Scriptures (Puranas) for divine and magical qualities of the beads. Rudraksh (eyes of Rudra i.e. Lord Shiva) nuts are traditionally used for prayer beads in Hinduism and treatment of various diseases in traditional Indian medicine (GBIF 2013). More importantly, nuts are worn around the neck and wrist to touch the skin for the benefit of its magnetic power. The most crucial concept of Rudraksh nuts is its number of grooves or ‘mukhi’. The grooves arise based on the locules of the ovary which are visible on the surface of the stony nuts as ridges and divide into segments from top to bottom (Figure 1 a). The nuts may have one to 14 grooves however, majority of them possess five to six grooves (Khan et al. 2004. One to three or nine to 14 grooved as well as ‘twin’ nuts are the rarest and most sought after for spiritual purposes. It is believed that the wearer of Rudraksh beads (especially with single groove) maintain good health, feels the presence of Lord Shiva and help abstain the mind from negative thoughts (Rudraksh 2003). Rudraksh nuts are highly ornamental and also popular as hatpins, coat buttons and pendant either directly or coated with copper, silver and gold. The beads are admired world-wide and the demand is increasing with the popularity of Indian spirituality, especially in the Western societies.

Indian subcontinent possesses about 25 Elaeocarpus species and they are found in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, and Uttar Pradesh (Zmarzty 2001, Pant 2013). E. ganitrusis mostly distributed in the foot hills of Himalayas, especially in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (Khan et al. 2003). However, the species is facing the danger of extinction due to habitat loss for construction of roads, hydroelectric dams, clear felling of forest for agricultural activities (Bhuyan et al. 2003) and overharvesting of the nuts for use as beads (Khan et al. 2005). Further, dispersal of the Rudraksh seeds is negatively impacted due to the decline of population of nut-dispersing animals in the region, and also due to anthropogenic activities (Khan et al. 2005). Khan and co-workers (2003, 2004, 2005) have reported a significant decline in fruit production due to forest disturbance. Further, they have also reported very few or no regenerating population in its native range. Hence, alternative approaches to augment the dwindling populations of Rudraksh are warranted.

One such approach could be ‘Conservation Through Cultivation’ (CTC) which gained remarkable success for many plant species of high extinction risk. The Limbe Botanic Garden in Mount Cameroon first envisioned the concept of CTC for conservation of Prunus africana, which was facing extinction risk because of acute harvesting pressures (Sunderland & Nkefor 1996). The CTC program has also been successful in case of American ginseng, Mahogany, and several orchid species including the most promising example of Ginkgo biloba, which is the oldest tree on earth, commonly known as ‘living fossil’. Ginkgo remained unchanged on this planet since the time of Dinosaur, however, extinct in the wild for centuries. People in many countries like China, Japan, Korea, America and Canada planted Ginkgo along the streets as ornamental tree for its beauty, longevity and medicinal values. The CTC has now become an important toolkit for conserving plant diversity, especially the rare/endangered species.

E. ganitrus is an elegant tree with light green leaves and beautiful appearance. Mature trees are 20-25 m tall having moderately spread branches and upright silhouette (Figure 1 b). Leaves are often spread and therefore partial sunlight can penetrate the ground, giving a mixed feeling of sunlight and shade during hot and humid summer in tropics. Rudraksh flowers during May to June in raceme inflorescences which appear white in color and gives wonderful eyeshot of the tree (Figure 1c). Rudraksh could be a favorite tree for home garden owners throughout India for its precious nuts. The tree has already shown its promising performance as a shade tree and road side plantation in the campuses of educational institutions (e.g. North Eastern Regional Institute of Science & Technology, Nirjuli, Arunachal Pradesh, India Figure 1 b), Rajiv Gandhi University, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, India and highways (along National Highway 52 from Assam to Itanagar) in Arunachal Pradesh. Nuts of Rudraksh are extremely hard and affect natural regeneration negatively (Bhuyan et al. 2003). Germination experiments revealed that mechanical scarification through cracking the endocarp by vise could give raise one to four seedlings per nuts (Khan et al. 2003). Therefore, human intervention is urgently required to enhance the population of Rudraksh. Since there is high demand for Rudraksh beads, CTC can play significant role to revitalize the species in parks, botanical gardens, road-side plantations and other social forestry programs. The tree starts fruit production at the age of three to four years (Bhuyan et al. 2003), thus, can fulfill the demand of nuts within short duration. Population expansion of Rudraksh will also support survival of different animal species such as frugivorous birds (hornbills,, bats, flying squirrels etc.), monkeys, deer and wild pigs. Therefore, Rudraksh can show a promising way of CTC and help to continue the ancient Indian tradition in coming days.

Figure 1:
(a) Rudraksh nuts showing horizontal ridges (with arrow)
(b) Plantation of Rudraksh in the campus of North Eastern Regional Institute of Science & Technology, Nirjuli, Arunachal Pradesh, India
(c) White inflorescence of Rudraksh.

*Department of Botany, Dr. Harisingh Gour Central University, Sagar, MP, India - E-mail: khanml61@gmail.com

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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