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Vol. 6 No. 1 - Millennium Issue - January 2000

Philosophy and Science of the Indian Lotus

(Nelumbo nucifera)

By: S.C. Sharma and A.K. Goel

Of all the myriad blooms the most revered by man and esteemed by God is the magnificent lotus. The ‘Sacred Lotus’ Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn. is one of the most important and attractive wetland plant species in India. This taxon occurs widely in temperate, sub-temperate, subtropical and tropical regions in South-East Asia. In India, it occurs from Kashmir to Kanyakumari exhibiting enormous phenotypic diversity with a large number of racial variants in different shapes, sizes and shades of pink and white flowers having 16-160 petals. The habitats of this species are affected to a great extent by a number of natural and anthropogenic activities like disposal of domestic and industrial effluents, invasion of aquatic weeds, spraying of insecticides and pesticides, drainage, floods and other developmental activities. Eutrophication of aquatic bodies have caused a radical biochemical changes in the biomass of aquatic plant species. Further, shrinkage of the water bodies has threatened the habitat and distribution of the Nelumbo races at an alarming rate.

Philosophy of Lotus

Lotus flower has become an emblem of India - the petals represent the flourishing of surrounding cultures, religions and countries. It is the foremost symbol of beauty, prosperity and fertility. According to Hinduism, within each human being inhabiting the earth, is the spirit of sacred lotus. It represents eternity, purity and divinity and is used as a sign of life, and ever-renewing youth. The feminine beauty, especially the eyes are described by lotus petals (Kamalnayani). One of the most common metaphysical analogies compares like perennial rise to the faultless beauty from a miry environment to the evolution of man’s consciousness from instinctive impulses to spiritual liberation. In the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ man is adjured to be like the lotus - he should work sincerely without attachment, dedicating his actions to God untouched by sins like water on lotus leaf and the beautiful flower standing high above the mud and water.

For Buddhists, lotus symbolizes the most exalted state of man his head held high, pure and undefiled in the sun, his feet rooted in the world of experience. Few flowers have found such prominence in legends and symbolism as the lotus.

The Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions have fascinating stories about this plant species. In Hinduism, the lotus flower is said to be centre of the universe. It arose from the navel of God Vishnu and at the centre of the flower sat Brahma, the creator of the world. Each of the three Brahminical deities, Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Protector) and Shiva (the Merger) are associated with this plant. Goddess Lakshmi, the patron of wealth and good fortune sits on a fully bloomed pink lotus as her divine seat and hold a lotus in her right hand. Goddess of wisdom, Saraswati is associated with the white lotus. Virtually all god and goddess in Hindu religion are shown sitting on lotus or holding lotus flower in their hand.

It is also described that when divine life substance was about to put forth the universe, the cosmic waters grew a thousand petalled lotus flower of pure gold, radiant like the sun. This was considered to be an opening of the womb of the universe.

Distribution

First Indian fossilised record of Nelumbo nucifera has been reported from the Pleistocene epoch of Kashmir. The presence of Nelumbo in the Tertiary period of Assam is reported on the basis of impressions of leaves and rhizomes found in the collection from Eocene bed near Damalgiri. These records confirm the evidence in support of the view that Nelumbo nucifera is indigenous to India. This species is distributed over a wide range of phytogeographical regions, exhibiting great diversity in different shapes, sizes and shades of pink and white flowers. Nelumbo nucifera. "East Indian Lotus" is an old world Asiatic species, widely distributed in many Asiatic oriental countries, viz. India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Korea, Combodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and China.

Conservation

The genus Nelumbo belongs to the monogeneric family Nelumbonaceae and represented by two species namely N. nucifera native to tropical and sub-tropical Asia to Australia and also naturalised in Hawaii. Another species N. lutea Pers. ‘Yellow Lotus’ is indigenous to North America. The flowers of N. nucifera races are more attractive than the pale yellow flowers of N. lutea.

Considering the great importance of this aquatic plant species, National Botanical Research Institute had taken-up a project on collection, introduction, acclimatisation, documentation and multiplication of Nelumbo nucifera in the NBRI Botanic Garden for ex-situ conservation of its racial variants. The germplasm of 35 indigenous races has been built­up in the Botanic Garden covering varied phytogeographical zones of India. The germplasm of two species and 25 races has also been enriched from the Botanic Gardens of Japan, Thailand, U.K., Germany, U.S.A., Brazil and Australia in various shades of pink, white and yellow flowers. Generally the number of petals vary from 16-36 in most of the races of lotus. The maximum number of petals from 116-160, were recorded in a pink double flowered race collected from Midnapur (West Bengal) which has been described as Nelumbo nucifera ‘Krishna’. ‘Kamal Krishna’ is an extremely beautiful cultivar for cutflower having 4-5 days vase life.

Lotus (Kamal) is the ‘National Flower’ of India. It is deeply associated with the Hindu mythology, philosophy, art, architecture, poetry and culture since the time immemorial. It is the symbol of purity, beauty, divinity and eternity. Nelumbo nucifera ‘Sacred Lotus’ is an important constituent of the aquatic flora. A pond full of lotus plants provides a stunning sight. It is not only important for the Indian culture but deeply imbibed in whole of South East Asia, Japan and China. It is of immense aesthetic, nutraceutical and economic values. Efforts have been made for the conservation, documentation, multiplication and dissemination of the species and races of Nelumbo nucifera in the Botanic Garden, NBRI, Lucknow.

Floral Biology

It is an interesting phenomenon that the lotus plants produce a significant amount of heat during the sequence of flowering and regulate the temperature with precision to form its own microclimate. The best and profuse flowering has been observed at the temperature between 30°C - 35°C for 2-4 days duration. The thermoregulating mechanism in the lotus flower enhances and stabilizes the floral development and helps the insect pollinators with a warm and hospitable environment.

Propagation

Lotus is propagated by the division of rhizomes and seeds. Rhizomes with new sprouts are cut into small pieces having at least three nodes. Seeds are scarified at both the ends for early germination. Seeds are known to possess the maximum period of viability among all the flowering plant species. The seeds can be stored for several years at the room temperature. Lotus was once grown in Egypt, where it is now extinct. But seeds found in Pharaoh’s tomb sprouted after centuries of storage. Excavated seeds from South Manchuria have germinated and survived even after five hundred years. This is the reason lotus is called the ‘Symbol of Eternity’.

Pollution Abatement

Investigations have also revealed that the lotus plants can absorb heavy metals and may be recommended for plantation in the ponds utilized for discharging the industrial effluents for water purification in the most natural manner. Further, the lotus can be planted in tubs and placed inside the swimming pools which will provide additional beauty to pool and purify the water naturally without usage of harmful chlorides.

Medicinal, Economic and Nutraceutical Importance

Lotus possesses many medicinal, economic and nutraceutical properties. In the ancient medicinal literature, it has been reported in several Ayurvedic formulations as sweet, cooling, astringent, demulcent useful in weakness, dysentery, diarrhoea, in burning sensation during fever and also in curing cough and cold. The flowers are commended as cardiotonic, liver, urinary and veneral disorders. The seeds are highly valued in conception, blood disorders and as cooling medicine. The leaves and rhizomes in powdered form are prescribed for the treatment of piles. The rhizomes and fresh seeds are edible and cooked for the preparation of several delicious dishes. The farinaceous rhizomes ‘Kamal Kakdi’ are edible and sold in the vegetable market. The leaves are used as plates in rural areas for serving the food. Lotus flowers are in great demand in the floriculture market.

Nelumbo is used extensively by people throughout the subcontinent and has remained an integral part of the cultural ethos in India. The R&D management should be based on proper understanding of the biology, habitat, macro and micro climates of this plant species in the aquatic ecosystem. Conservation of Nelumbo nucifera and its sustainable utilization can help in keeping this species alive, flourishing and improving the economic condition of rural masses.

Dr. S.C. Sharma is an Emeritus Scientist (CSIR) and Dr. A.K. Goel is a Scientist at the National Botanical Research Institute, Lucknow-226001 (India).


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


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