A leafless tree that seemed to be dead during December and January is suddenly bursting into flowers that make it seem as if on fire. One can easily spot the tree in the green forest canopy and it is little wonder that the Englishmen called it the ‘Flame of the Forest’. Botanically known as Butea monosperma, the tree is known as Palas or Palash in most Indian languages, a name that was anglicised as ‘Plassey’ and is associated with the establishment of the East India Company as a coloniser in India. The ‘Battle of Plassey’ in 1757 AD is a turning point in the history of India and the beginning of the name ‘Mir Jaffar’ as slang for a traitor. Colonel Robert Clive later received the title of ‘Baron of Plassey’ and got entry into the House of Lords in Britain. The Palas is native to the Indian subcontinent and grows across the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Brahmaputra valleys to Myanmar and along either coast of India right down to Sri Lanka. It flowers in spring with orange and vermillion coloured flowers. Each flower has five petals as in the Gulmohur (Delonix regia) with one standard petal, two wings and two fused into a keel that is curved like a parrot’s beak, giving it the nickname of ‘parrot tree’. The petals of dry flowers were powdered for use during the ‘Holi’ festival and hence the term Gulal derived from the word ‘gul’ meaning flowers. The scarlet to orange Gulmohur flowers and the golden flowers of the Copper pod (Peltophorum ferrugineum) can also be made into gulal. Suryakant Gaonkar from Keri-Sattari has revived this tradition of making eco-friendly and safe gulal from petals and it is available in Goa for this Holi and Shigmo festival in mid-March.
The wood of the Palas is soft and durable even in water. Hence, it is used for Persian wheels and other water scoops. Spoons and ladles made of this tree are used in various Hindu rituals to pour ghee into the fire of the ‘havan’.
It is also used for making charcoal. Palas has tri-foliate leaves consisting of three large, heart-shaped leaflets which are used to this day instead of paper plates to serve idli or vada in South Indian villages. A few leaves may be pieced together with the midrib of coconut leaflets as staples to make a patravali or leaf-plate to serve rice or other food. The leaves are rough, hairy and leathery. Cattle generally do not browse on it and hence the seedlings have a greater chance of survival in unfenced areas
Palas is a tree we will celebrate with flowers at Mahashivratri and gulal this carnival and shigmo. It is a time to look back at our traditions and return to using natural colours and dyes as done by my friend and celebrated fashion designer, late Wendell Rodricks.
On May 24, we can mark his 60th birthday and the inauguration of the Moda de Goa museum at the house that Dona Maria Braganza gifted to him in Colvale, not far from Ambeamni by planting mango seedlings along the widened NH-66 there.