Once there was a big tree, all gnarled and bent leftwards. Many round hard-shelled fruits were hanging from it. One fell on the car standing beneath and the windshield cracked. From then on, people living around the tree wanted it cut, chopped and thrown away. But the old lady of the house wouldn’t agree. She just wouldn’t let the axe touch the tree. “This is a Bael tree. Sacred.” The old woman of the house would wake up early, before the rest of the house did. Sometimes even before the birds in the trees did. Taking a broom, she would bend down and sweep away the dirt, fallen leaves and plastic packets strewn beneath the trees -- taking good care that no one woke to the swishing sound. A sound that had become a ritual.
She would sweep all the fallen leaves to one corner of the courtyard. A mix of Bael, neem and jamun that adorned the sprawling courtyard, around which the family had lived for generations.. A brick cobbled courtyard – where, not many years ago, children had played and eaten together -- had been re-laid with red sandstone, and was now a parking for scooters and cars owned by the family. But the old woman still continued to sweep the courtyard. Just as she had been doing since she was eighteen, on entering this home as a bride.
All the trees had managed to stand as they were. But that knotted and twisted Bael tree, her favourite, seemed to bend more with each passing season. How many times she had told her sons and their families to tend to it! But no one paid heed. This was the tree she needed every morning for her prayers. The leaves that grow in trifoliolate, she plucked for her prayers. She also knew about the medicinal properties of the plant. Her grandmother had told her so. That’s why, each morning, she would dutifully chew a few tender leaves while going about her chores.
Bael or Bilva tree has high medicinal properties. Perhaps to fix that traditional knowledge in the people’s mind, and keep it thriving over generations, our forefathers added to it a religious symbol. It is believed trifoliolate leaves of Bael (Aegle marmelos) represent 'Tri Kaal’ -- as in Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Mahesh (the destroyer).
Known as wood apple, stone apple, Bengal quince, Indian quince, holy fruit or golden apple, this important religio-medicinal tree has many local names too -- Bael, Bel, Bilva, Sriphal or Shivadruma (the tree of Shiva). That’s why it can be found in temples – and from birth to final rites, the trifoliolate leaves are mandatory offering with prayer flowers.
Bael is also considered an emblem of fertility. In ‘Skandapurana’, Bael is mentioned as a tree that grew out of the sweat droplets of Goddess Parvati that fell on Mandrachal mountain, the mythical mountain that emerged after ‘Samudra Manthan’. It is said that Parvati’s abode is in these trees in all her forms -- in the leaves, flowers, fruit and roots. That’s why Lord Shiva is said to be extremely fond of the Bilva tree and its leaves.
The leaves, stalks and the fruits are used for treating various ailments. The roots and bark of the tree have medicinal properties too. The roots cure various types of fevers, colitis, dysentery, diarrhea, flatulence and more. The leaves have astringent property, and act as expectorant for sore throats. For its diverse medicinal uses, Ayurveda calls it a healing plant – a plant that provides strength and heals every part of the body. Charak Samhita (1500 BC) says that no drug has been longer or better known, and appreciated by the inhabitants of India, than Bael. Thus, the entire tree is important in folklores, as well as the traditional Ayurvedic system of medicine.
It is said where nothing can grow, a Bael tree will. The flowers that bloom in April attract a lot of insects, bees and wasps -- foraging for food, they help in fruition too. This wild tree of the dryland is a matter of research today. Scientists at the Horticultural Research Institute in Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh, India) appraised various types of Bael fruit trees, and shortlisted some that are good for commercial cultivation – ‘Kaghzi’ (with few seeds), 'Mitzapuri' (with thin rind), 'Darogaji', 'Ojha', 'Rampuri', and a few more.
Come summer, the streets of north and central India will have open carts selling Bael juice. Shops will be lined with jars of Bael ‘Murabba’. In October, as the festive season starts, the trifoliolate leaves will be sold at a premium in the flower market. The stalks, thin as well as thick, are used for ‘havan’ – an ancient religious rite that has fumigation as the principle medicinal objective. The Bael fruit will be offered to the fire to conclude the prayers. With the advent of spring, nature starts flowering the tree – and cycle of life starts afresh. So does the human interaction with this tree that gives so much to human kind.
Let’s make some Bael Sherbet
Crack open the hard shell of the fruit.
Scoop out the flesh from within.
Soak it in water with a pinch of salt. Leave it for about 30 minutes.
Take the pulp out of the water.
Using your palms, give the pulp a good squeeze . Take a strainer and filter the juice, extracting as much as you can.
Keep the fibre aside.
Add sugar/raw jaggery and salt to your taste. You can also mix curd to the juice, with a dash of salt and sugar.
The fibre is a good compost for your plants so do not throw them away.
You can reach Sharmila Sinha at Lucheefoodstory@gmail.com
(The author runs a small home kitchen, Luchee Food Story)