Feature photo: Saraca asoca tree in the forests of Southern India
Saraca asoca is a sacred tree to the Hindus and the Buddhists. It is commonly called Ashoka. The tree has substantial references in ancient Indian texts.
Ashoka is a sacred plant of Hindus, representing the Hindu god of Love, Kamadeva. The god and the tree are worshipped every year on December 27. It is no wonder that there is a lot of folklore surrounding this tree.
Hindus believe that the touch of the Ashoka tree relieves a person of worries—one of the Sanskrit names for the species is nasty-soka or “reliever of worries.” Padma Purana states, “The planting of Asoka tree leads to the destruction of all sorrows.” Varaha Mitra, in his encyclopedic work Vrhat Samhita, says that planting of Asoka, siris (Albizzia lebbek), etc. in the garden or in the house brings welfare to the household.
Mythical stories on Ashoka abound. One explains how the Ashoka tree starts blooming at the touch of the female feet to which is attributed the name padaghatadasoka. Kalidasa, the poet who lived in the 4th century AD, describes the dance of Malvika, the courtesan under an Ashoka tree, in his work Maavikagnimitram.
In Buddhism, too, the Ashoka tree is associated with the incarnations of the Buddha. Xuan Zhang, a Chinese visitor to India in the 7th century AD, claims that the Buddha himself was born under an Ashoka tree, though this is disputed by others who say that the birth happened under a sala tree (Shorea robusta). Indeed, if the Buddha’s place of birth was Lumbini in Nepal, then the latter opinion is more possible as it is a region that abounds in Shorea robusta trees and not Ashoka. I have visited the place and have worked in the neighboring forests which are predominantly Shorea robusta forests. Saraca asoca is not seen in these regions.
The 2nd century BC stone railing discovered at Bharhut has a carving that depicts an Ashoka tree intertwined with the figure of a goddess. Figures with similar associations of goddesses with the Ashoka tree are interpreted as the association of the tree with spirits of fertility spirits (Biswas and Debnath, 1972).
Additional reading on Ashoka – its botany and medicinal properties, read the section on the tree in Asian herbs