कुटजपुष्पपरागकणाः स्फुटं विदधिरे दधिरेणुविडम्बनाम्॥
Dalita-mauktika-cūrṇa-vipāṇḍavaḥ sphurita-nirjhara-śikhara-cāravaḥ |
kuṭaja-puṣpa-parāga-kaṇāḥ sphuṭaṃ vidadhire dadhi-reṇu-viḍambanām ||
Pale like the dust of crushed pearls, beautiful as the spray from trembling waterfalls, the grains of kuṭaja pollen look just like churned milk.
6.35, Ṥiśupalavādha – Māgha
Kuṭaja, ‘born in a pitcher’, is not a obvious name for a flower. In its literal sense the word is applied to the legendary sage Agastya, who was in fact born in a pot and became famous for a variety of feats including digesting an asura and drinking the ocean.
Its origins though are traced back not to Agastya, or a pitcher, but – according to Dymock, Warden and Hooper – to the amṛta (nectar) that fell from the soon-to-be-resurrected vānaras who had been mown down by the rakṣasas in Laṅkā. The kuṭaja also makes several appearances before this moment in the Rāmāyaṇa, most notably in Rāma’s description of the monsoon, when the kuṭajas, delighted at the rain, bloom. Rāma imagines offering the small white flowers to the sun; the yakṣa in the Meghadūta uses them to propitiate his would-be messenger, the cloud. Kuṭajas, like the ketakī and the kadamba, are an intrinsic part of the poetic varṣā; the wind is always scented, and lovers garlanded, with them.
Kuṭaja and kaliṅga (more famously the name of a city and people) are the main synonyms for the plant but others include śakra (Indra), giri-mallikā (literally mountain jasmine), vatsaka (little calf) and śakra-āsana (Indra’s food).
Its seed is also given several names – apart from the simply kaliṅga and vatsaka-bija (seed of the vatsaka plant). Two of these mean “Indra’s seed” – indra-yava and śakra-bija – possibly in connection with the dead vānaras, who were restored to life by Indra. Another name for the seed, bhadrayava, means literally ‘blessed seed’.
Other Indian languages call it thus:
– Prakrit: kuḍaya
– Hindi: kurcī, kuḍā
– Bengali: kuraci, kuṛaci, kūṭaj
– Tamil kuṭacappālai, vēppālai
– Malayalam: kuṭakappāla
In English it is known as Kurchi, the Conessi tree or Tellicherry bark (Tellicherry, also known as Thalassery by which its Greek trading contacts are revealed, is on the Malabar coast, in Kerala).
The plant is identified as Holorrhena antidysenterica in Pandanus although Monier Williams says it is Wrightia antidysenterica. The photo at the top of this post is the former.
The botanical name reveals a rather more prosaic, albeit important, aspect to this plant. The bark is used to treat dysentery. Dymock, Warden and Hooper’s Pharmacographia India tells us that the plant had a mixed relationship with India’s erstwhile colonisers; its popularity faded when it was confused with another, less efficacious bark, W. tinctoria. It is now back in vogue and apparently well regarded by the British Materia Medica.
The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes the Holorrhena antidysenterica thus:
A deciduous laticiferous shrub or small tree, white flowers in cymes, grows all over India up to 900m elevation.