The śephālikā puts forth its tiny scented flowers, white for the most part but bright orange at the base, in the evening. By the morning they cover the ground beneath the small tree. Dymock, Warden and Hooper, in their Pharmocographia Indica, relate the story behind the flowers’ short life:
“According to the Indian legend, a certain Nāga (prince) called Pārijāta had a daughter of whom the Sun became enamoured, but he soon deserted her for another sweetheart; whereupon the damsel pined away and died of grief.”
The śephālikā is thus also known as pārijātaka, although, as the notes below under ‘Names’ explain, there is a certain amount of confusion over this. It is one of the many species of jasmine native to India.
It is on the authority of Rājaśekhara and Kālidāsa, who both include the śephālikā in their description of śarad, that the tree is included here in this season. It is certainly not associated with any other season, but nor does it appear often in śarad descriptions.
The Amarakośa lists three synonyms for śephālikā: suvahā (probably ‘patient’), nirguṇḍī, and nīlikā (‘the blue one’). It also lists what it says is the white variety thereof: śveta-surasā (surasa/ā, which means ‘lovely’, being the name of several plants this simply means ‘a white surasa’) and bhūta-veśī. As the śephālikā is mostly white, save for its orange stem, it is not clear what this might mean. Does it refer to an entirely white flowered variety or are we to assume that the śephālikā listed here is not white?
While all agree on the name śephālikā – the Nyctanthes arbor tristis – neither Monier Williams nor VS Apte concur on the other synonyms. Apte identifies the nīlikā as the indigo plant, which seems more likely. Monier Williams lists śvetasurasā as a white flowering variety of the Nyctanthes or the Vitex negundo – sindhuvāra, covered in vasanta here – and refers to the bhūtaveṣī (but not bhūtaveśī) as a white flowering variety of the Vitex, but not the Nyctanthes. Apte has the same entry but for bhūtaveśī, which, interestingly he says is known as nirguḍī in Marathi.
Dymock and Warden note that the śephālikā is also known as the pārijātaka, as per the story above, but this causes a new set of problems. The pārijāta(ka) is normally identified as Erythrina variegata or indica, a larger tree with spectacular orange flowers. Known as paribhadra or mandāra in Sanskrit and the coral tree in English, it is one of the five divine trees which Krishna stole from Indra’s garden to give to Satyabhāmā. Pandanus and Monier Williams both identify the pārijāta(ka) as such and don’t link it to the Nyctanthes but Apte identifies the pārijāta(ka) solely as the Nycanthes while relating the same story of Krishna stealing it from heaven and noting that it is one of the five divine trees.
To confound matters further, the śephālikā seems to be popularly known now as the pārijātaka – at least in some parts of the country. For the purposes of this article, though, pārijāta(ka) is assumed to be Erythrina and mentions to it in kāvya were not included partly because it is difficult to tell which plant is being referred to in any given verse, and partly because most of the time it is unlikely to be the śephālikā.
Other names are more straightforward. Rajanī-hāsa could mean either ‘the one who forms the night’s smile’ (smiles are characterised as white) or ‘the one who smiles (ie: blooms) at night’. Atyūhā means ‘the one who thinks too much’.
The śephālikā is known as sebhāliā, sehālī and sehāliā in Prakrit, and modern Indian names for the śephālikā include:
– Hindi: harsiṅgār, parjā
– Bengali: śephālikā, śephāli, śiuli
– Tamil: paviḻamallikai
– Mal: paviḻamalli, pārijātam
It is known in English as night jasmine or coral jasmine.
The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes the Nyctanthes thus:
A large shrub or a small tree up to 10m high, fragrant white flowers with orange corolla, grows all over India up to 1500m elevation, also cultivated in gardens.