Palmyra Tree Worship in India and Sri Lanka!

battocaola branched palmyra
Rare branched palmyra trees in Batticaloa in Sri Lanka.

Research paper written by London Swaminathan
Post No 1306; Dated 23rd September 2014.

Tree worship is practised around the world. We see it in Sumer, Indus and Maya civilizations to name a few. But India is a country where it is practised till today with same fervour as it was 2500 years ago. Vishnu Sahasranamam gives three trees as Gods names : Asvatta, Udumbara and Nyagrodha. All these trees belong to the genus Ficus (Pipal, Fig and Banyan Trees). We have even people named after these trees in our old literature- both secular and religious. But the surprising thing is the Worship of Palmyra Trees!

Palmyra’s botanical name is Borassus flabellifer (Family: Arecaceae or Palmae). It is indigenous to India. Lord Krishna’s brother Balarama had it on his flag. It is strange that he chose this tree when there were hundreds of beautiful flowering and fruit laden trees in India. The oldest Tamil book Tolkappiam mentioned the Palmyra flag of Balarama. Nakkirar in Purananauru verse 56 also praised Balarama carrying Palmyra flag and plough. The tree and its parts are used in hundreds of ways. No part of this tree is useless. So it is called Karpaga Taru (Wish Fulfilling Tree).

Major temples in Tamil Nadu have “Sthala Vrkshas” meaning the local tree of the temple. This is the tree of the temple in Tiruppanandal, Tiruppanangkadu, Tiruppanaiyur, Tirumazalpadi and Tirukkurungkudi. Both Buddhists and Hindus worshiped this tree. Some people thought it was because the palm leaf that was used for writing the scriptures and preserving them. But it is not convincing. Moreover the 2000 year old Sangam Tamil literature and Sri Lanka’s chronicle Mahavamsam specifically say that these trees are abodes of Gods!!

It is called Panai or Pennai in Tamil and Tal or Tad in most of the Indian languages. In a few temples in Tamil Nadu Adi Shankara and his followers did Tadanga Pradhista to Goddesses. It was used as an earring of women at one time. That is why it was called Thadanga ( In Tamil Thodu).

palmyra with 8 branches
Palmyra tree with 8 branches

In Mahavamsa

During the reign of Pandu abhayan in Sri Lanka he built several buildings and made several facilities for the public. One of them was the erection of a Palmyra tree surrounded by a fence which was the God of the Hunters (See chapter 10).

In Sangam Tamil literature Palmyra tree is said to be worshipped by the residents of Neithal landscape (sea shore and its surrounding area). Alamperi Sathanar of Natrinai verse 303 says that there was a Palmyra tree in the meeting place of the village and the tree had a huge stem where God resides. The commentator adds that it is common for the people of the littoral land to invoke family deity and city deity in the Palmyra tree.

Indian temple sculptures from second century BCE show Palmyra tree in at least eight places. In many of them Balarama’s killing of Dhenukasura is portrayed with the tree. I have already written about Vibhishana’s gift to Rama in the Ramayana Wonders series where Vibishana presented Ram, a momento with seven golden Palmyra trees. It was a puzzle and I commented that it may be due to Rama’s heroic act of piercing through seven trees with one arrow. Now my guess is proved right.

palmyra 7
Amriteshwara temple, Karnataka

At the Amriteshwara temple in Amritapura, Karnataka, there is a sculpture with seven Palmyra trees. There are markings on the tree to show that it was pierced by an arrow and Sri Ramachandra is standing on the left with his bow. The arrow having pierced through the trees is denoted by a downward moving line. There is a snake under the trees. Lakshman, Hanuman and Sugreeva are all watching the scene (See page 200 of Plants in Indian Temple Art by Shakti M Gupta). So this is the reason for Vibishana donating a Seven Golden Palmyra trees memento to Rama. Ramayana refers to a different tree. Palmyra tree is Tala tree. There may be some confusion in the transcription of the word. There is scope for more research here.

In my Tamil article Long Live Palmyra Tress posted on 27th January 2014, I have listed the Tamil proverbs on Palmyra trees and the important Tamil verses where Palmyra is used as a simile.

Palmyra Tree Miracle
When the famous Saivite saint Sambandhar visited Tiruvothur he saw a devotee crying. The devotee raised some Palmyra trees so that he can use the income for his community service in the Shiva temple. By rare coincidence all the trees were male trees and did not yield fruits. Atheists were mocking at him and teased him asking when his god would yield him fruits. When Sambandhar asked him the reason for his sad face, he told him about the ‘male only Palmyra trees’. Later Sambandhar visited the Shiva temple and looked at the Palmyra trees and he sang ten verses in praise of the Lord and said the male trees will yield (Kurumpai Aan Panai Eenum in Tamil). Next minute all the trees bloomed and bore plenty of Palmyra fruits! Dr R Nagasamy, renowned historian and archaeologist, has quoted the Sanskrit lines from the Upamanyu Bhakta Vilasam giving the same meaning: Tala: pumamsa: sruthvai they bhavanthu paritha: palai:
Fruits of Palmyra Tree

Talisman and Tale Tree
I guess the English word Talisman and Tamil word Tali came from the Sanskrit word Tala for Palmyra leaf. In the ancient India, Hindus wore ornaments made up of Palmyra leaf in which they wrote mantras. Adi Shankara and his followers installed Thadanga in Kanchi Kamakshi Temple and Trichy Akilandeswari Temple. But that is worn on the ear as ear studs.

During lunar and solar eclipse times the Brahmin priests visited my house and asked us to wear the Palmyra leaf with written mantra on our foreheads. This is to ward off the evil effects of the planets, if the eclipse occurred on the day of your birth star etc. This custom shows that wearing the palm leaf with written mantra has been there for ages.

Tamil Youths Ride on Toy Palmyra horses
In ancient Tamil Nadu, Tamil youths who fell in love with girls used to make a horse toy with Palmyra leaves and used to ride on it along the streets to make it public. Then the parents of the girls were forced to marry them. Though it was practised only by the Tamils in ancient India, the association of horse in this ritual show that it also came from the north. Horses came to India from outside. The oldest reference is in the Rig Veda.

Star Anuradha is called Mudai panayam in Tamil meaning stunted Palmyra tree.
Countries like Cambodia have Palmyra trees as their national emblem. In Tamil Nadu and Palakkadu area of Kerala the tree plays a big role in common man’s life. It may be due to the toddy tapped from these trees.

122 Amruteshwara temple Rama Sita Lakshmana Golden Deer
Ramayana in Karnataka Temple

My earlier Ramayana and Tree related posts:

1.Where is Rama Setu (Rama’s Bridge) ? 2. Did Sita Devi Die in Earth Quake? 3. Ramayana Wonders Part1 (4) . Ramayana Wonders Part2 :How many miles did Rama walk? (5) Ramayana Wonders Part 3: Rama and Sanskrit G’ramma’r (6) Part 4: Who can read all 300 Ramayanas? (7) Ramayana Wonders part 5: Indus Valley Cities in Ramayana (6) Indian wonder: The Banyan Tree (7) Ramyana Wonders Part 6 (8) Where there is Rama, No Kama and many more


Pictures are taken from different websites;thanks.