Tulasi – the Indian Basil

Tulasi (Ocimum Sanctum) holds a special place in Hindu religion. Worshipping Lord Vishnu with a four leaf clover of Tulasi is said to be the surest method of pleasing Him. Tulasi, along with the bilva for Lord Shiva and the neem for Devi, forms a triad of sacred leaves.

There are several legends explaining why the leaf became so dear to Vishnu. One version has it that Tulasi is none other than Goddess Lakshmi and when She transformed Herself into a sacred plant, Vishnu became a stone, the salagrama, so that He could ever remain with Her. A better known tale has it that Brnda was the chaste wife of Jalandhara (also referred to as Shankachooda), a Rakshasa. She spent her time worshipping Vishnu so that her husband would come to no harm. As a consequence, the Rakshasa became invincible and Shiva who set out to vanquish him found the task impossible. Vishnu, realising that it was Brnda’s chastity that was protecting her husband, transformed Himself into a Jalandhara/Shankachooda look-alike and spent a night with Brnda. The husband was killed instantaneously. A heart-broken Brnda, before ascending the pyre of her husband cursed Vishnu to be ever worshipped as the shapeless salagrama. But such was the Lord’s compassion that He blessed her stating that she would reincarnate as the Tulasi leaf and would always be used for His worship. Vishnu has ever since been propitiated with the Tulasi. Yet another story has it that Tulasi emerged as a beautiful nymph shortly after Lakshmi did, during the churning of the ocean by the Devas and the Rakshasas. She too desired to marry Vishnu, but Lakshmi in order to prevent this, converted her into a plant. The ever compassionate Lord immediately ordained that Tulasi would henceforth be used for His worship. The holy shrine of Tiruvallikeni in Chennai (Madras) was once a forest of Tulasi shrub and was referred to as Brndaranya Kshetram. The marriage of Tulasi to Vishnu is observed as Uthwana Dvadashi by the Madhva community. This happens around a fortnight after Deepavali.

The leaf is highly fragrant and holds medicinal properties as well. Traditionally, two variants, the Rama and the Krishna Tulasis are used for worship. The former has light green stalks and leaves while the latter has dark leaves. The Krishna Tulasi is relatively rare and difficult to grow. Most traditional Hindu homes have a Tulasi Madam in their backyards. This is a square pedestal with an open chamber at the top that is filled with soil and has the Tulasi planted in it. Very often, a brass icon, representing Tulasi as a Goddess is placed at the root of the plant and worshipped. Women offer prayers and water to the plant each morning and in the evenings, a lamp is lit in front of it. There are rules and regulations that govern the rearing and worship of Tulasi plants. Leaves are plucked for worship in fours and only on certain days of the week and month. They are offered as Prasad in Vishnu temples and are kept in the chignon by women and behind the ears by men. The burial spots of Sanyasins are also marked by a Tulasi Madam which goes by the name of Brndavanam. The wilting of the Tulasi plant is considered an ill omen. Religious fasts are invariably broken by a sip of water which has Tulasi leaves in it. Offering Tulasi and water from the Ganges to the dying ensures salvation and freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

There are plenty of shlokas and hymns in praise of Tulasi.

In Carnatic music, composers have been inspired by the religious significance of the Tulasi and have created songs on it, apart from numerous songs that describe Vishnu as one who holds the Tulasi dear or who is garlanded with Tulasi leaves.

Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), the grandsire of Carnatic music has composed two songs on Tulasi. Vrndavanave Mandiravagi (traditionally sung in raga Saurashtra and Ata tala) and Vrndavana Devi (traditionally sung in raga Madhyamavati and Adi tala) describe the greatness of Tulasi and the benefits that accrue from Her worship.

Tyagaraja (1767-1847) has probably left behind the largest corpus of songs in praise of Tulasi. Among these Amma Ravamma (Kalyani, Jhampa) is perhaps the most popular. The lines “tamarasa dala netri, tyagarajuni mitri” are ideal for neraval and swara singing and have been used for ragam tanam pallavi suites as well, as demonstrated once in a chamber concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan and P Unnikrishnan several years ago. Tulasi Jagajjanani (Saveri, Rupakam) was a favourite of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s and his elaborate treatment of the song in his Music Academy concert of 1967 (Tyagaraja’s bi-centenary) stands out. This song describes the greatness of Tulasi and states that the root of the Tulasi is like Vaikunta (the abode of Vishnu) for all rivers, while the stalk is the abode of the Gods and the tip is where the Vedas and the scriptures reside. Tulasi Dalamulache (Mayamalavagaula, Adi) is really not so much on Tulasi as it is on the worship of the Lord. But it will remain forever associated with MD Ramanathan. Another song in this category is Tulasi Bilva (Kedara Gaula, Adi) which again describes the worship of the Lord with several flowers. The Alathoor Brothers made it their own. Coming back to songs on Tulasi, Tyagaraja gave us two more, Devi Sri Tulasamma (Mayamalavagaula, Adi) and Sritulasamma (Devagandhari, Adi), but these are rarely heard in concerts.

Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973), clearly inspired by Tyagaraja, composed his Paradevataye (Chakravakam, Adi), on the lines of Tulasi Jagajjanani. The mystique of the Tulasi evidently continues and will inspire composers and singers for a long time to come.

This write-up was for the sleevenotes accompanying the CD comprising songs with Tulasi as the theme sung by Amritha Venkatesh