Neem - spiritual

Neem is deeply imbued with spiritual meaning. Its curative properties were attributed to the fact that a few drops of heavenly nectar fell upon it.

Ayurvedic texts

The Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira, dated about 6th century AD, contains a chapter of verses on plant medicines. It recommends that the neem tree be planted near dwellings. The ancient Hindus believed that planting neem trees ensured a passage to heaven. Smallpox and chicken pox were cured or staved off with the use of neem leaves. It was believed that the goddess of smallpox, Sithala, lived in the neem tree.

Botanical drawing of a neem branch.
Neem leaves on a branch, early 19th century.

Regional beliefs

Neem leaves are strung on thresholds to ward off evil spirits, brides take ritual baths in neem-infused water, smoke from the neem tree is wafted into rooms to cleanse them, in a ceremony babies are laid upon neem leaves to provide them with a protective aura, snake-cults are associated with the neem tree, these are but few of the myriad ways in which the tree makes its mark on the psyche of the sub-continent.

In eastern India, wooden images are made of the popular deities Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra; these are made in a pillar-like form with the face and body delineated but with no arms, and carved out of neem wood. The powerful goddess Kali is said to dwell on the tree and sometimes stones representing her are placed before the tree and worshipped. The bitter neem leaves are chewed with some jaggery in the south on new year's day or Ugadhi, to symbolise acceptance of the good with the bad.