श्यामा लताः कुसुमभारनतप्रवालाः
स्त्रीणां हरन्ति धृतभूषणबाहुकान्तिम्।
śyāmā latāḥ kusuma-bhāra-nata-pravālāḥ
strīṇāṃ haranti dhṛta-bhūṣaṇa-bāhu-kāntim |
Priyaṅgu creepers, their young shoots bowed under their burden of blossom, outshine the beautiful hue of women’s arms arrayed with jewellery.
First half of 3.18, Ṛtusaṃhāra – Kālidāsa
The priyaṅgu is one of literature’s favourite creepers and is often associated with women, as several of its names – mahilā, aṅganā and kāntā, all of which refer to a lady – suggest. Flowering in the colder part of the year, with its slender, fragile frame buffeted by the wind and the snow, it is perhaps a natural point of comparison for a vulnerable woman in adversity, particularly of the love-related sort.
पाकं व्रजन्ती हिमजातशीतैराधूयमाना सततं मरुद्भिः।
प्रिये प्रियङ्गुः प्रियविप्रियुक्ता विपाण्डुतां याति विलासिनीव॥
pākaṃ vrajantī hima-śīta-pātairādhūyamānā satataṃ marudbhiḥ |
priye priyaṅguḥ priya-viprayuktā vipāṇḍutāṃ yāti vilāsin’ īva ||
Ripening in the cool dew showers, constantly shaken by the wind, the priyaṅgu creeper, my pretty one, pales like a girl parted from her beloved.
4.10 Ṛtusaṃhāra, Kālidāsa
Although associated with śiśira, the priyaṅgu appears too in vasanta and hemanta in the Ṛtusaṃhāra, so possibly straddles those seasons. Like the proverbial whiteness of the kunda, the priyaṅgu flower is, according to Rājaśekhara, known for being yellow (pīta). The Pandanus description though cites a white-flowered plant. And confusingly the callicarpa macrophylla, the most likely botanical identification, seems to have purple flowers. One of the priyangu’s synonyms, śyāma (literally ‘black’), imply that the body of the plant is a of a dark hue.
Several of its other names suggest an association with Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu (possibly as Kṛṣṇa): govindinī and viśvaksenā. Neither Monier Williams nor the Puranic Encyclopaedia though shed any further light on whether these associations are rooted in myths, unfortunately.
The seeds seem to have been used by women as a constituent of the pastes – chief of which was sandalwood (candana) – they would rub upon themselves for the benefit of their lovers. The priyaṅgu also appears as a type of honey, as in book 4 of the Rāmāyaṇa. One variant of the plant was known for its scent as another of its names, gandhaphalī (‘the fragrant fruited one’), attests. Today it is known for its medicinal values, and is used in traditional preparations of various sorts including oils and powders.
The priyaṅgu is often referred to as the śyāma or the phalinī in Sanskrit. The Amarakośa lists a total of 14 synonyms which gives a sense of how popular it was – most plants get three or four. In addition to the names above, these are: mahilā, latā, govindinī, gundrā, phalī, viśvaksenā, gandhaphalī, kārambhā and priyaka. It can also be called kāntā or aṅganā. Its botanical name is, according to the Pandanus Indian Plants Database, callicarpa macrophylla. However, Monier Williams gives several alternative identifications – none of which associate the priyaṅgu with callicarpa macrophylla – panicum italium or panic seed; aglaia odorata and sinapis ramosa or Indian mustard. The Pandanus identification though seems to be more widely accepted. In Hindi the plant is also called priyaṅgu or daiyā (sunalī); in Marathi gehulā; in Bengali Maṭhārā; in Tamil nāḻal and in Malyalam ñāḻal.
If we take the Pandanus identification of the priyaṅgu as callicarpa macrophylla it is:
An erect shrub, 1,2 – 2,4 m high, growing in Bengal, Assam and sub-Himalayan tracts up to 1800 m, opposite simple leaves with white tomentose beneath, rose flowers, crowded in axillary peduncled globose cymes, fruits white drupes