Grīṣma brings with it the budding of the śirīṣa. One of the few flowers to make an appearance in the hot season, along with the mallikā and the patala, the śirīṣa is much prized among women as the ear decoration of choice. The śirīṣa thus appears often but almost always as a form of adornment rather than in its natural setting.
But, although a grīṣma flower, the śirīṣa’s influence extends beyond the season and seasonal poetry. It is a byword for delicacy throughout Sanskrit literature. Phrases such as śirīṣa-komala, ‘delicate as the śirīṣa’, dot poetry and prose. Kalidasa uses this imagery in both the Raghuvaṃśa and the Kumārasambhava. In the first poem, it is the young king – just six years old upon his accession – who is compared to a śirīṣa. So sensitive is his body that it hurts him even to wear jewels, and yet he bears the burden of the earth. In the second, Pārvatī is twice compared to a śirīṣa flower, most effectively the second time when her mother tries to dissuade her from the harsh tapas (austerity-laden penance) she has decided upon:
मनीषिताः सन्ति गृहेषु देवतास्तपः क्व वत्से क्व च तावकं वपुः।
पदं सहेत भ्रमरस्य पेलवं शिरीषपुष्पं न पुनः पतत्रिणः॥
In the house are such deities as thy heart would desire. Child, how widely different are the two – penance and thy body! The delicate śirīṣa flower can bear the tread of a bee, but not that of a bird.
5.4, Kumārasambhava, Kālidāsa – translated by MR Kale
Several poets also dwell on the colour of the śirīṣa flower, which Māgha vividly describes as acquiring the golden-red of the sun’s horses as grīṣma arrives:
रवितुरंगतनूरुहतुल्यतां दधति यत्र शिरीषरजोरुचः।
उपययौ विदधन्नवमल्लिकाः शुचिरसौ चिरसौरभसंपदः॥
The hot season, when the glow of the śirīṣa pollen becomes the colour of the manes of the sun’s horses, approached, dispensing navamallikās with their enduring rich scent.
6.22, Ṥiśupālavadha, Māgha
Bhāravi has an interesting verse which is more difficult to interpret:
मुखैरसौ विद्रुमभङ्गलोहितैः शिखाः पिशङ्गीः कलमस्य बिभ्रती।
शुकावलिर्व्यक्तशिरीषकोमला धनुःश्रियं गोत्रभिदो नुगच्चति॥
That row of parrots, the colour of blooming śirīṣas, carrying the yellowing tips of rice in their beaks red as coral shards, resembles the glory of the Indra’s bow.
4.36, Kirāṭārjunīya, Bhāravi
The phrase ‘śirīṣa-komala’ you would expect to mean ‘delicate as the śirīṣa’ but given the overall simile (upamA) here in which the parrots – multi-hued with śirīṣa-like bodies and red beaks that carry yellow-brown rice – are compared to a rainbow, the commentary’s gloss ‘sa-varṇa’ is a better reading. The Pandanus description for Albizia Lebbeck, which it identifies as the śirīṣa, though talks of a white flower which doesn’t seem to fit with either Māgha or Bhāravi (it is difficult to tell exactly what colour a ‘śuka’ is or would have been but the rainbow comparison would work less well if the parrots were white). The Pandanus description does though seem to be supported by the term śirīṣa-pattrā (or śirīṣa-pattrikā) which literally means ‘śirīṣa-petal’ but denotes “a kind of white” according to Monier Williams.
Indeed there is a strong association between the parrot and the śirīṣa, most obviously revealed in the various synonyms for śirīṣa such as śuka-puṣpa (parrot’s flower), śuka-druma or śuka-taru (parrot’s tree) and śuka-priya (dear to parrots). The very name ‘śuka’ (parrot) can also be a synonym for the tree and it is also called the ‘Parrot tree’ in English. As in the verse above, this may be due to their similar colour –another poet describes a śirīṣa earring as being playful like the tail of the young female parrot – as well as parrots’ apparent fondness for the tree.
The Amarakośa lists just two synonyms for the śirīṣa: kapītana, which according to Monier Williams can mean several other plants and trees as well, and bhaṇḍila, which can also mean fortune, or refer to a messenger or artisan. In addition, we can include the parrot-synonyms as above: śuka-puṣpa, śuka-druma, śuka-taru, śuka-priya and śuka.
The Prakrit name is sirīsa, similar to the Hindi ‘sirīs’. Hindi also has ‘śirīs’ and the Bengali name is even closer to the Sanskrit: śirīṣ. Tamil has cirītam, kāṭṭuvākai and veḻvēṅkai, and Malayalam vāka and nenmēnivāka. In English it is the Siris tree or the Parrot tree.
Monier Williams identifies the śirīṣa – and all other synonyms as listed above – as the Acacia sirissa but the Pandanus database says that it is the Albizia lebbeck or Acacia lebbeck.
The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes Albizia Lebbeck thus:
“A deciduous tree up to 20m high, bipinnate leaves in pairs, flowers white and fragrant, grows all over India, also cultivated.”
The image above is of Albizia lebbeck.