Champa, Bakul and Parijata: Sacred Flowering Trees of India

By David Crow, L.Ac.

Bakul (Mimusops elengi), champa (Michelia champaka), and parijata (Nychanthes arbotristis) are among the most beautiful and sacred of India's many exotic flowering trees. Countless souls throughout the ages have lived in the gentle presence of these beneficent beings that give their barks, leaves, roots, seeds, resins, and flowers for medicine, ceremony, and pleasure. So rich are their contributions to traditional societies that the ancient Rishis proclaimed these trees to be gifts from the heavenly realms, bestowed upon humanity and brought to earth by the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Endowed with religious symbolism and divine attributes, these three trees in particular are deeply entwined with the culture, lifestyle, and ancestral memories of people across the subcontinent.

Bakul, champa, and parijata are all associated with various deities and are planted in and around the grounds of temples and ashrams. Bakul trees, for example, are frequently found growing at temple entrances. Following the ancient custom of marrying male and female trees, the bakul, which is considered male, is planted on the right side of the entrance, while the chalta tree (Dillenia indica), which is considered female, is planted on the left side. The deep green leafy branches of the bakuls offer luxuriant shade and cool respite from India's blazing heat, creating a peaceful atmosphere that is conducive to meditation. Legend tells that Buddha was born under the glorious golden-flowered boughs of the tall champa tree. The parijata flowers resemble miniature mandalas, with pure white petals unfolding from a bright orange center; this image was seen by the Rishis as symbolic of agni, the purifying flame of awareness, burning away the obscurations of the mind to reveal the petals of purified consciousness.

All three of these trees offer a vast pharmacy of ethnobotanical remedies, utilized for centuries for ailments ranging from sore muscles and the common cld to malaria and epilepsy. It is the fragrance of their flowers, however, which has made them so beloved and renowned. The bakul flowers are tiny, but have a potently sweet fragrance which pervades the surrounding countryside. The flowers of parijata are also small, yet exude a unique and intense honey-like hyacinth bouquet, unlike any flower known to the West. The large golden-petalled flowers of the champa tree are also strongly aromatic, with a radiant, soft and spicy sweetness. This flower in particular is loved by Indian women, who wear the nectar-scented blossoms in their hair.

Because of their delicate beauty and delicious perfume, bakul, champa, and parijata are used extensively as temple offerings to please the gods and goddesses, worn and given as garlands at festivities and ceremonies, made into incense, and compounded into an endless variety of unguents and medicated oils. In perfumery, these three flowers are alchemically distilled into a base of sandalwood oil, forming the subtle natural perfumes known as attars. Beneficial for everyone, yet with a distinctly cooling nature, these floral essences are highly effective for pacifying heat conditions of both the body and the mind.

A hundred years ago, Sri Ramakrishna was walking under the fragrantly flowering trees that grew at the Kali temple in Calcutta. Reaching up, he plucked a blossom and gazed at it in wonder. In his god-intoxicated state, he perceived the white sap oozing from the flower as blood flowing from a wound, and realized that he had just killed a living being. From then on, he instructed his disciples to never pick flowers, but to let them fall naturally to the ground, as offerings from the tree. What botanists now know is that when a flower blossoms, it produces a spherical aura of fragrance that is similar to the radiation of light from the sun. Every flower's living aura has its own radius: the golden champa has one of the highest diffusivity levels of all flowers, while the musk champa, which grows only in Bombay, has an even greater radius: one tiny flower can be smelled throughout an entire neighborhood.

The effect of aromatic molecules on consciousness is profound and well-documented by both traditional Ayurvedic and modern scientific research. The Charak Samhita tells us that Sweet smells maintain youthfulness and vigor, and give a long life. They are rejuvenating, and increase sensual enjoyment. Mental and physical relaxation combined with heightened alertness, improved concentration, enhanced memory, regulation of the nervous system, and restoration of immunity suppressed by stress are only a few of the benefits that science now ascribes to inhaling the aromas of flowers. Is it any wonder that these three trees, which produce a luxurious abundance of intoxicating blossoms, are associated with higher consciousness and the opening of the heart?

Walking through a thick carpet of parijata or bakul flowers that have bloomed in the night and fallen to the ground of a temple courtyard, it is easy to understand why the sages of old pointed to the heavens as the source of these flowers. Or, perhaps, the Rishis were telling us that heaven is wherever these beautiful trees blossom, green universes bursting with living solar systems of spiritually uplifting fragrance, showing us the way back to a better world.

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