Envis Centre, Ministry of Environment & Forest, Govt. of India

Printed Date: Monday, June 17, 2019

Sacred Trees of Tamilnadu








Sthala vrikshas or sacred temple trees are found all over India. In Tamilnadu, almost every temple is associated with a plant or tree connected to the history and mythology of the temple and/or deity. This is the sthala vriksha.




Ancient Tamil literature frequently refers to sthala vrikshas. Towns are sometimes named after the sacred tree, such as Thiruverkadu, Purasaipakkam, Thirumullaivaayil, Maangaadu, Thiruvaalangaadu, Kacchineri Kaaraikadu, etc. In South India shrines were erected in places where certain trees were regarded as the abode of the deity and worshipped as such. The same tree was then adopted as the sthala vriksha. Examples include the eka-amra (mango) tree of Kanchi, jambu (the Indian black plum) of Jambukeswaram, tillai (mangrove/blinding tree) of Chidambaram, kadambu (Indian seaside oak) of Madurai, mullai (Jasmine) of Mullaivaayil, nelli (Indian gooseberry) of Tirunellikka, panai (palmyra palm) of Thirupanandhaal and Thiruppanaiyur and so on.




Sthala vrikshas are generally associated with Shiva, Vishnu, Muruga and sometimes with goddess Sakthi. They are also found associated with some village guardian deities, such as Arkamma (erukku), Panaiveriyamman (panai), Puliyidaivalaiyamman (puli) and Kadamberiyamman named after kadambu




The tradition of associating trees with gods and goddesses in Tamilagam can be traced back to Sangam literature, which is full of references to more than a hundred plants that dominated the life of the ancient Tamils. There are more references to plants with special significance. The Agananooru and Purananooru describe the use of flowers in love and war. Detailed descriptions of the morphology of plants, colour of flowers, pollination and cultural and ritual uses are available in Sangam literature.




A rare reference to the worship of the banyan tree, as mentioned in the Agananooru, says that brick walls were built around tree trunks and the plant venerated as a temple. This is equivalent to the worship of the sthala vriksha. The origin of the practice of tree worship is however, lost in antiquity. Sangam literature also refers to certain trees protected by kings and symbolic drums used in war were also made from wood obtained from such trees. There are also references to Naga stones being placed under tree trunks, a practice which continues even today all over Tamilnadu and other parts of India.




Sometimes, it is believed that the trees are incarnations of the Gods. On other occasions, minor deities are believed to dwell within or near the trees. Trees such as vembu (neem) are sacred to Amman; vilva, konrai and aal are sacred to Shiva: pipal and tulasi are sacred to Vishnu (the pipal is considered to be the incarnation of Vishnu). The Indian gooseberry (nelli) is sacred to Lakshmi and Parvati, while punnai is sacred to Adhisesha and mango is associated with Ambika and Lakshmi. The sthala vrikshas are protected and worshipped not only for their religious significance but also for social and economical importance.




Socio-cultural aspects




The sthala vrikshas have played a vital role in the well-being of humanity. The culturally important vrikshas are arasu, vembu, vanni, vaalai, maa, nelli, iluppai, kura, panai, padhiri, mahilam, kadambu and mullai.




Four vrikshas (maa, nelli, iluppai and kura) are embraced by women for fertility. As symbols of fertility, plants are worshipped by women to fulfill their desire for children and to protect their children from ill health. Some of the vrikshas are ritually married to each other. For example, arasu (pipal) is considered to be a male vriksha, while vembu (neem) and vaalai (plantain) are considered to be female. The marriage of the two trees is conducted with Vedic rites and celebration, to ensure rain and fertility. According to the Irattinacurukkam, some plants are said to respond to a woman’s touch: if they mature without flowering, they can be cured of sterility by the touch of women, after which they will flower and yield a good harvest. Vrikshas such as punnai, padhiri, mahilam and shrubs like species of jasmine are known to respond to such rituals. Women walk around the plant and kick it at the base to make it flower. It is believed that ultimately, the women themselves bear children. Such beliefs persist even today, but can be traced back to the Shalabhanjika bracket figure holding the tree on the gateway of the Sanchi stupa




Some vrikshas are worshipped for an early marriage. For example, in Tirunallaaru and Tiruvilanagar, unmarried girls tie a knot between two blades of grasses to pray for marriage. The same plants are also worshipped by married women to bear children. Seven vrikshas are specially worshipped to bear only male children; they are the maa, vaalai, kura, palaa, padhiri, mahilam and nelli. These vrikshas are also worshipped to gain wealth and a long life.




Few vrikshas are worshipped to be free of illness and disease. They are: vembu, arasu, iluppai, kura, tulasi, nelli and vanni. Widows worship four vrikshas - arasu, vanni, vaalai and tulasi for a better life after death. The various modes of worship of different plants by women is well documented in literature and folklore.





Sthala vrikshas and biodiversity





Tamil tradition and culture have successfully preserved biodiversity through the ages. The sthala vrikshas are symbolic of a single genetic resource and play an important role in the conservation of biodiversity. The social, economical, medicinal and environmental importance of these trees was recognised and the sthala vriksha evolved as a means of conserving the land’s rich genetic plant diversity. The sthala vrikshas represent various geo-climatic habitats.




Rare species are also preserved and worshipped as sthala vrikshas. Among the few that are valued as a genetic resource, are the vellerukku (Calotropis procera) which has a white bark and flower, the vriksha of Erukkatthampuliyur. The vriksha of Jambukeswaram is the vennaavel (Eugenia jambolana), which bears a white fruit. The bark of this tree is also white in colour, so it is called vennaval in Tamil. In Thiribuvanam, palaa (Artocarpus integrifoia) is the vriksha, and is said to bear only one fruit a year. The vriksha of Kuththalam is ukthala (Cordia myxa) which is believed to never flower or bear fruit. An unique vilva (Aegle marmelos) tree at Thiruvenkadu, one of the three sthala vrikshas of the temple, does not have thorns unlike the vilva tree found elsewhere. In Aalwar Tirunagari, the vriksha is puli (Tamarindus indica), the leaves of which, it is believed, never close and whose fruits never ripen.





The process of conserving economically, ecologically and medicinally important plants by declaring them as sacred also protected the genetic value of several plant species. Thus the preservation of sthala vrikshas may also help in the conservation of local floral wealth.