The ketakī’s white flower was once the favourite of the gods. Shiva used to wear it upon his head. One day, in order to help the squabbling Vishnu and Brahma determine who was better, Shiva challenged them to reach the furthest edge of his huge body. Vishu had no luck finding his feet; Brahma meanwhile caught a ketakī flower that had fallen from Shiva’s head and returned trying to use it as proof he had reached th head. The ketakī flower was asked if Brahma’s story was true and lied, whereupon Shiva cursed it never to be used in worship, although he did allow it to be used for decoration.
Another story tells how Shiva lost everything he owned in a game of dice with his wife Parvati and stormed off to live an ascetic’s life a ketakī forest. Parvati finally tracked him down and disguised herself as a girl from the mountain-dwelling bhīl people, a ketakī flower carefully placed in her hair. Unable to resist, Shiva broke his ascetic’s vow and cursed the flower and those who offered it at his shrine.
Most shaivites do not use ketakīs for their worship but poets have no such reservations; for them the ketakīs only fault is its spiky leaves. It is called the sūci-puṣpa, or needle-flowered one. The flower’s deep scent entices unsuspecting bees who then come to grief among the razor sharp edges of the leaves. Or, as one poet imagines it, the bees are in fact hurling themselves on these conveniently placed stakes in desperation at the lotuses departure.
The ketakī, which tends to grow near water, is a distinctive looking plant, with long thin leaves and a bizarre pineapple-looking fruit. It is the flower, whose tapering petals look as if they have been shaped by an origami master, though that is celebrated.
द्विरददन्तवलक्षमलक्ष्यत स्फुरितभृङ्ग्मृगच्छवि केतकम्।
घनघनौघविघट्टनया दिवः कृश्शिखं शशिखण्डमिव च्युतम्॥
Dvirada-danta-valakṣam alakṣyata sphurita-bhṛṅga-mṛgac-chavi ketakam |
Ghana-ghan’-augha-vighaṭṭanayā divaḥ kṛśa-śikhaṃ śaśi-khaṇḍam iva cyutam ||
The ketakī flower, ivory-white and glowing with the iridescence of a bee, seems to be the thin sliver at the top of the moon that, battered by the thick mass of clouds, has fallen from the sky.
6.34 Shishupalavadham – Māgha
It is also, as this verse demonstrates, strongly linked to varṣā – its flowering season – and the monsoon winds are often filled with the scent and the pollen of the ketakī. The abundance of pollen it produces is captured in one of its synonyms, dhūli-puṣpikā or pollen-flower. In Sanskrit several words mean both dust or powder and pollen – so that the ‘dhūli’ above could equally well mean ‘dust’. One poet, playing on this, sees in the ketakī the dust that grīṣma left behind when it departed.
The ketakī or ketaka is not mentioned in the Amarakośa, oddly, although one editor identifies ‘kesarī’ listed therein as ‘Pandanus’. Its synonyms seem to be limited to the dhūlipuṣpikā and sūcipuṣpa mentioned above, but it has many names in the vernaculars:
– Prakrit: keaya, keagī
– Hindi: kedgī, kevḍā, gagana-dhūlam, pīlī ketakī
– Bengali: ketak, ketakī, keoṛā, keyā, sauṇa
– Gujarathi – kevaḍī
– Marathi – pāṃḍhrā kevaḍā, ketakī
– Tamil: kētakai, tāḷai, tāḻai
– Malyalayam: pūkkaita, kaita, kaināiṟi, tāḻampū
In English it is called the (fragrant) screwpine, umbrella tree or caldera bush.
Most seem to agree that it is the Pandanus odoratissimus, but it is also identified as Pandanus tectorius and fascicularis.
The Pandanus database of Indian plants – which is of course named after the Pandanus odoratissimus – describes it thus:
A shrub or a small tree, many arial roots, narrow leaves up to 150cm long, fragrant flowers, large fruit of pineapple-like shape, grows all over India.