The lotus flower holds many meanings

Posted on September 20, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The Star- By ALLAN KOAY allan@thestar.com.my

This is especially true for Thayanithi Kulenthran as the flower’s benefit to the environment is especially close to her heart.IT has been a hectic rush through the morning traffic jam on the Federal Highway to get to Thayanithi Kulenthran’s house on a weekday. Once through the front gates and into the house, there is a serenity to its interior and surroundings that you feel immediately calm. The battle through the congestion on the roads is suddenly a faraway thought.

The first thing you will notice is that the house in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, is surrounded by a well-kept garden of soft grass, shady trees and … what are those large pots to the side and back of the house? Why, they contain lotus plants – some of the flowers are in full bloom while others are still mere buds.

In the middle of all the pots is a medium-size pond with more lotus plants either floating on the algae-filled water or standing straight up on stalks. It is a quiet neighbourhood, and the atmosphere helps to add calmness to the whole scene. It is a meditative garden.

This deceptive calmness is, however, teeming with busy life! All around us are buzzing dragonflies and floating butterflies, a hive of insect activity.

Soul garden: K. Thayanithi owns several pots of lotus plants and a small lotus pond. Her garden is teeming with insect life which she believes is due to these plants. – Pics by Art Chen/The Star

The word “biodiversity” comes to mind, and Thayanithi is not far off in describing how a lotus pond could contribute greatly to the biodiversity of an area. For almost a decade, she has devoted herself to studying and researching the plant. And she laments the fast-disappearing lotus ponds in landscapes all over the world.

It all started for her in 2001 when she visited Hanoi on a US-funded urban environmental management project.

“The day after I arrived, the first thing that I came across was this woman selling glutinous rice in lotus leaves,” Thayanithi relates. “That triggered my memory, and I thought, this comes from my distant past. I mean, it was familiar yet it was like seeing it for the first time. But I told myself, no, I’ve seen this before.”

She remembered how ubiquitous the lotus leaf had been during her childhood. As a child, she had followed her father to the market where she saw fish and meat, especially wild boar meat, wrapped in lotus leaves.

“Since plastic bags and newspapers started being used, you don’t see that anymore,” she says.

From thereon she took it upon herself to learn more about the lotus plant, Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the sacred lotus. Most people would identify the lotus as a religious symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. In ancient cultures, it represented purity, peace, rebirth, enlightenment and beauty. Because of its perceived divine nature, it is often seen in religious paintings, and is central to the Hindu story of creation. Hindu deities are often represented sitting on lotus flowers.

It is easy to see why the lotus plant is regarded as divine and pure; it grows in mud but the plant itself is pristine and untouched by its grimy surroundings.

“I thought I’d better start growing this plant in order to understand it and know it,” says Thayanithi. “And I would learn as I went along. It wasn’t easy to find a lotus plant, and I finally found one in a nursery that cost RM45.”

An old, dried pod of a lotus plant with the seeds still in it. Every part of the plant has its use.

She saw many lotus ponds on her first visit to Hanoi.

“We went out to the villages and there were also ponds there,” she says. “I took note of all that and about five years later I was curious enough to go back there on my own and see if things had changed.”

In Hanoi, the ponds were still there. During the project, she had brought up the issue of lotus ponds in the hope that the Vietnamese would create a policy to preserve those ponds. But in the outlying areas, in a particular village that she had visited when she first went there, the pond had been filled up for a housing project.

“Once money comes into the picture, it’s housing and economic development,” she says. “That’s what happens, even here. I believe it will happen in other countries as well, wherever there are these ponds. If attention isn’t drawn to the fact that we should keep them, naturally they would go.”

While she believes in the spiritual quality of the lotus plant, Thayanithi also sees its practical benefits. She says the socio-economic benefits of the lotus plant are numerous. Every part of the plant has its use. The flower has decorative value, the petals can be dried and made into a light tea, while the stamen has diuretic properties. The seeds can be eaten and are a Chinese delicacy used in the popular lin chi kang dessert. The roots are often used in soups.

“Lotus ponds, like all wetland ecosystems, can help to mitigate floods,” she adds. “They can be vital freshwater reserves as well.”

‘Lotus ponds, like all wetland ecosystems, can help to mitigate floods,’ says Thayanithi.

This is because the lotus plant does not grow in contaminated water, only in clean water.

“The lotus pond draws life to it,” says Thayanithi. “And what I have noticed in my garden, in these last 10 years, is that the life there in terms of the number of insects and animals that have come through has been greater. I can only attribute it to the lotus. Perhaps other plants also play a part. There is biodiversity, from dragonflies and honeybees to butterflies and beetles, and even frogs and toads.”

She believes that in today’s world where we are facing issues of declining biodiversity, research into the lotus plant and pond can be a positive step towards helping the environment.

Before her involvement with environmental work, Thayanithi had been a schoolteacher, a home tuition teacher and an assistant researcher. Since then, she has held several voluntary and freelance position such as council member of Environmental Management and Research Association of Malaysia; trainer and member of the research committee of Lestari, the Institute for Environment and Development of University Kebangsaan Malaysia; and consultant to the Centre for Environment Technologies. In 1999, she set up her own company, Greenfields Consulting.

Today, she has formed a movement called DayAnidhi Earth (dayanidhiearth.com), which aims to inspire “compassion for Earth,” and nurture “Earth carers.”

Yet, there has not been much environmental awareness and concern about lotus plants and ponds and their importance. Thayanithi says this is because research into the lotus plant is only very recent.

“Initially, it was the excitement of discovering this ancient seed that could germinate,” she explains. “But I went on this journey and found that there was more to this plant. I’ve been studying it totally on my own time and with my own resources.”

A beautiful white lotus flower about to bloom.

She says she is not alone in her interest and journey of discovery.

In 1917, Japanese botanist Dr Ichiro Oga and a Chinese farmer had discovered lotus seeds that had been buried in a lake bed in Manchuria for centuries.

“In 1995, American botanist Jane Shen-Miller reported that some 1,000-year-old lotus seeds from China were found to germinate successfully,” says Thayanithi. “At the same time, Indian botanist Anil K. Goel found that lotus ponds were dying in India due to urbanisation and pollution. He then began an international effort to collect lotus germplasms to be preserved.”

In looking for lotus ponds here, Thayanithi first found one in the Paya Indah wetlands sanctuary in 2001.

Dragonflies are especially attracted to lotus ponds, and Thayanithi’s lotus pond at the back of her house has its fair share of such visitors.

“Kuala Selangor and Rawang had a few remaining when I last inquired,” she says. “Our largest lotus lake is Tasik Chini in Pahang, but sadly the lotuses there have been dying for some years.”

She has held three workshops at her home to introduce friends to the lotus plants. Several women have joined her in growing lotus plants in their homes.

“During a workshop, a friend said he had a farm and there was a big pond there,” Thayanithi reveals. “He wanted to have lotuses in it. I thought that it was marvellous because from my little pond, the plant was going on to a bigger pond. I took a plant and put it in the pond. And now it is still growing. A year later he created another pond.”

The lotus plant’s flowering patterns have been described as unusual. The flower opens at dawn and by afternoon, it closes. Thayanithi says the plant flowers best just after rain, and is very dependent on sunlight and water. Some believe that a person’s intention is also important to whether a lotus plant will flower.

“There is a saying that the lotus doesn’t flower for everybody,” says Thayanithi. “There have been cases where some people’s lotus plants have not flowered at all. That is why I believe this plant is so unique and special.”

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