Tamarind - spiritual

There are many references to tamarind in Hindu mythology, often referring to its small leaflets or the tart taste of the fruit.

Hindu mythology

In Sanskrit texts tamarind is referred to as the tintrini tree. Legend connects it to Usha, the daughter of the goddess Parvati. In honour of Usha, tamarind may be used instead of salt in the month of Chet.

Painting of a large tamarind tree in a rolling field.
Tamarind tree at Allahabad, 1814.

Tamarind is commonly known in north India as imli, and Imli-tala or shade of the imli is sacred to Krishna in mythology. The popular deity is an incarnation of the great god Vishnu, and personifies idealised love together with Radha. It is said that Krishna sat under a tamarind tree when separated from Radha and experienced an intense epiphany with her spirit permeating him. The 15th century saint and reformer Chaitanya also meditated upon Krishna seated under a tamarind tree.

Night spirits

The evergreen tree with its mass of feathery foliage has strong and supple branches and is highly wind-resistant. Its leaflets fold at night and it is believed to be the haunt of ghosts at this time. Sleeping underneath a tamarind tree is considered to be folly. This belief has possibly gained currency because the acidic nature of the tree makes the soil around it barren of other plants.

In south India, the tree is grown in the precincts of temples to the Mother Goddess who battles evil spirits at night. People avoid walking near tamarind trees in the dark. There are various popular stories which explain why the leaves are composed of many leaflets. These include the tale that the leaves were split by arrows shot by Lakshmana, a hero from the Hindu epic Ramayana which dates from about the 4th century BC. This proves that the tree has been known in South Asia for over two millennia.