सकज्जलशिखा रेजुर्दीपमाला इवोज्ज्वलाः॥
karṇikāra-latāḥ phulla-kusum’-ākula-ṣaṭpadāḥ |
sa-kajjala-śikhā rejur dīpa-mālā iv’ ojjvalāḥ ||
The karṇikāra tendrils with bees thronging the full blown flowers shone like blazing strings of soot-tipped lamps.
Verse 1655 in the Subhashitavali, attributed to Indradatta
The karṇikāra is difficult to pin down with certainty. In most instances it seems to be a tree with distinctive yellow flowers that are often compared to torches or oil lamps, as in the verse at the top of this post or a memorable Kālidāsan description in the Vikramorvaśīya (third verse of the third act) of the approaching king as a mountain in motion with the torches that the attendants who surround him bear as the blooming karṇikāras on its slopes.
Rāma’s description to Lakṣmana of the karṇikāras near the Pampa lake describes the trees in a different way:
puṣpit-āgrāṃś ca paśy’ emān karṇikārān samantataḥ
hāṭaka-pratisamchannān narān pīt’ambarān iva
And look at these flower-tipped karnikāras everywhere – they look like men robed in yellow and laden with golden jewellery.
Chapter 1 of Kiṣkhindhā Kāṇḍa of the Rāmāyaṇa – Valmīki
Nevertheless, the karṇikāra also appears with red flowers at times and Kale, in his gloss on the tree’s appearance in the Ṛtusaṃhāra, notes that it can have either red or yellow flowers. He also says that the karṇikāra has no smell, a fact which Kālidāsa plays on:
वर्णप्रकर्षे सति कर्णिकारं दुनोति निर्गन्धतया स्म चेतः।
प्रायेण सामग्र्यविधौ गुणानां पराङ्मुखी विश्वसृजः प्रवृत्तिः॥
varṇa-prakarṣe sati karṇikāraṃ dunoti nirgandatayā sma cetaḥ |
prāyeṇa sāmagrya-vidhau guṇānāṃ prāṅ-mukhī viśva-sṛjaḥ pravṛttiḥ ||
For all its magnificent colour the karṇikāra troubled the mind – for it gave out no smell. The creator tends not to favour bestowing a complete set of qualities on a thing.
3.26 Kumārasaṃbhava – Kālidāsa
If the karṇikāra is the cassia fistula this description would fit the highly ornamental, and scentless, tree well. The photo at the top of this post is of a cassia fistula in Lal Bagh, Bangalore.
Names and Identification
The Amarakoṣa gives only two alternative names for the karṇikāra: drumotpala and parivyādha. In Monier Williams, all three are identified with the Pterospermum Acerifolium. The karṇikāra is also though identified as the Cathartocarpus Fistula. Apte says that the karṇikāra is the Cassia Fistula, which could be another name for the Carthartocarpus Fistula. The Pandanus database says that the Cassia Fistula is either āgravadha or kṛtmāla in Sanskrit, which the Amarakośa corroborates listing eight names for the tree – none of which is karṇikāra (or indeed drumotpala or parivyādha). It does not thus seem possible to say for sure that the karṇikāra is the cassia fistula, but this seems the most likely fit.
The cassia fistula is described in Pandanus thus: “A deciduous tree up to 15m high, bright yellow flowers in long racemes, grows all over India.”
VS Apte, who identifies the tree as cassia fistula, has a good description of the flower in his dictionary: “The golden yellow flower of this tree has its petals bending inwards so that the flower looks like a saucer. Its stamens and style are longer than the petals and looks like so many wicks jutting out of an oil lamp.”