Some Sacred Trees and Flowers of Sri Lanka

Regretfully this is the last in the series of Sri Lanka’s flora. Perhaps Leonie and Margaret should start planning another venture to some exotic part of the world!  E.T.

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones.

Photographs: Margaret Richards.

The spreading Sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) or Bodhi tree is the tree that plays the most important role in the spiritual and cultural life of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and is found at every Buddhist temple. This is because Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree, which serves as a symbol of and living link with that moment. The shrine (stupa) – the universal Buddhist architectural symbol – echoes the shape of an inverted Bodhi leaf, with its distinctive tip. Many of the island’s specimens have been grown from cuttings taken from the great Bodhi tree at the ruined ancient city of Anuradhapura. This is one of Sri Lanka’s most sacred sites as the tree is believed to have been grown from a cutting taken from the actual tree in India at Bodhgaya under which the Buddha meditated. The tree is in the centre of a large and elaborate enclosure, festooned with prayer flags and dotted with dozens of younger Bodhi trees. Pilgrims flock to this site all year round to make offerings.

Bodhi tree

Another sacred tree is Sri Lanka’s national tree, the Na tree (Mesua ferrea) or Ironwood. Buddhists believe that the next Buddha will attain enlightenment under this tree. Its young leaves are bright red but mature to a deep green. Its fragrant white flowers are given as offerings in Buddhist temples and oil made from its seeds is used for lighting temple lamps. The oldest man-made forest in Sri Lanka, near Dambulla in the hill country, consists mainly of ironwood trees descended from trees planted in the 8 th century AD.

Stupa anuradehapura
Ashoka tree

The Ashoka tree (Saraca asoca), a small evergreen rainforest tree with bunches of fragrant orangey-yellow flowers which contrast strikingly with its glossy dark green leaves, is considered sacred throughout Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. It is thought that Buddha was born under an Ashoka tree and it is often planted at Buddhist monasteries. It also represents the God of Life in the Hindu faith. This tree (Ashoka means ‘without sorrow’ in Sanskrit) has many medicinal qualities.

The Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is the sacred flower of Buddhism. The Lotus grows best in still, muddy ponds and when mature produces exquisite blossoms which rise above the surface – analogous to the enlightened person who lives in the world of ignorance and craving and yet rises above it to become pure and beautiful. Lotus flowers are standard decorative elements in Buddhist temples, often painted on ceilings and walls or carved at the base of columns. Buddha figures are often seated on lotus thrones. The illustration shows the use of stylised lotus flowers in the ancient Dambulla cave temples. The lotus has been cultivated in China for more than 3,000 years, grown not only for cultural and ornamental reasons, but also for medicinal purposes and for its edible ‘seeds’ and rhizomes. I was fascinated to discover that recent molecular research has shown that the closest living relatives of the sacred lotus are plane trees and members of our own Protea family!

Temple flower offerings
Dambulla cave Buddha