An Enlivening Historical Voyage with the Banana

Delving into the Hindu annals, we get a fascinating, enlivening and instructive picture of the history of the ubiquitous banana. There is a fundamental reason why the banana is regarded as a sacred fruit in India. The first of a multipart series.
An Enlivening Historical Voyage with the Banana

IN BHARATAVARSHA, THE PLANTAIN OR BANANA is not merely a fruit. It is a way of life, and has remained so almost since the dawn of the Sanatana civilisation. Among Classical fruits, it arguably holds the top spot. A handy formula to identify a Classical fruit is the sanctity attached to it in the Hindu annals. In one sense, the banana vies with coconut, which is known as the Kalpavr̥kṣa, whose every part is useful. Likewise, the leaf, stem, fruit, flower and other parts of the plantain tree continue to be put to multiple uses in our society and culture.  

From the spiritual heights of the Himalaya to the hill slopes of Chittagong to the fecund geography of Kerala, the banana has noiselessly established its millennial suzerainty. Our ancestors inhabiting this vast expanse have extolled its glories in verse, prose and ritual to such an extent that we don’t pause to think about the rooted significance of Kadaḷīphalaṁ nivēdayāmi, uttered while offering Naivēdya.  

But when we think about it, we get a profound insight into a core element of the Sanatana culture: a deep sense of gratitude. Thus, the moment our ancestors discovered the inestimable value of banana, they sanctified it. The Sanskrit synonyms for banana are endearing and expressive of its beauty, its behaviour and the value of its products.

As Kadaḷi, it is the fruit which is nourished by water.

As Rambhā, it is the fruit that is pleasant to the mind.

As Vanalakṣmi, it is the wealth-giving Goddess of the forests.

As Bhānuphala, it the sun-fruit.

As Vāraṇābuṣā and Vāraṇavallabha, it is the beloved of the elephants. 

Another ancient Sanskrit word for banana was mocha, imbued with a profound meaning. Mocha literally means “liberated.” In the context of the banana, it refers to the manner in which the flowering spike emerges from the parent tree like a child emerges from the mother’s womb. This clearly reveals the keen powers of observation of our ancestors and their innate reverence for nature. 

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The word Mocha also opens up a beautiful chapter in the global historical journey of the banana. Mocha became Mauja in Pali during the Buddhist and Mauryan periods. This era witnessed the briskest commercial and cultural exchanges between Bharatavarsha and the pre-Islamic Arabs and the Ionian Greeks. Thus, Mauja became mawz in Arabic. The Europeans took this Arabic corruption and derived the genus Musa, formalised in the first edition of Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum

The etymological origin of the words banana and plantain is equally interesting. 

Some scholars argue that banana is a contraction of Vāraṇābuṣā, where Vāraṇā = elephant. Others say that it is derived from Bhānuphala. The phonetic similarity in Bhānu and banana is unmistakable. 

The Greek philosopher and botanist, Theophrastus gave the name Arieana to the banana in his seminal work, Enquiry into Plants (Historia Plantarum). This is how he describes it: 

There is also another tree which is very large and has wonderfully sweet and large fruit; it is used for food by the sages of India who wear no clothes… [its] leaf is oblong in shape, like the feathers of the ostrich; this they fasten on to their helmets, and it is about two cubits long.

According to some scholars, the word plantain is supposed to be derived from the word Pala. However, Pala is a corruption of Phala, the generic Sanskrit word for “fruit.” The word Pala as denoting plantain, has undergone numerous transformations in various Indian languages. Thus, we have the following words for plantain: 

Kalā = Bengali 

Kēlā = Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati

Kēḷī = Marathi

Bāḷe = Kannada

Vālapālaṁ = Tamil and Malayalam

When we read Caius Plinius (Pliny the Elder), we get a vivid and evocative description of Pala in his Historia Naturalis. He faithfully echoes Theophrastus in The Pala: The Fruit Called Ariena, the twelfth chapter of this work. 

There is another tree in India… even more remarkable for the size and sweetness of its fruit, upon which the sages of India live. The leaf of this tree resembles, in shape, the wing of a bird, being three cubits in length, and two in breadth. It puts forth its fruit from the bark, a fruit remarkable for the sweetness of its juice, a single one containing sufficient to satisfy four persons. The name of this tree is "pala," and of the fruit, "ariena." They are found in the greatest abundance in the country of the Sydraci, a territory which forms the extreme limit of the expedition of Alexander.

Pliny’s description about the plantain being the food of “the sages of India” opens up another interesting historical vista. This description generated the specific name given to the common variety of banana found across the world: Musa sapientum, meaning “the Musa of the wise men.”  

Both Theophrastus and Pliny called the banana as the food of Indian sages for a practical reason. All our Smritis and Dharma-Sastra works include Ahimsa as part of the definition of common Dharma. Rishis were those who lived their lives strictly adhering to these tenets of Dharma. As part of their vow of Ahimsa (non-injury), some of our Rishis went to extraordinary lengths. They took a lifelong vow to not injure plant and vegetable life. They abstained from eating seeds and grains like rice, wheat, etc. They subsisted on fallen leaves. Thus, it is unsurprising that the banana was a huge boon for them. This is precisely what the ancient Greeks witnessed when they came to India. Hence the name, Musa sapientum.      

So, the next time you eat a banana, remember that you are eating the food of our Rishis, the spiritual sculptors of the Santana culture. In this backdrop, it is only natural that Hindus till date, regard the banana with such reverence. 

The next stop in our journey from Rishis brings us to our Kavis. Like the moon and the lotus, the banana was also a favourite among Sanskrit poets. An unnamed scholar writing in 1891-92 describes this poetic fancy: 

The plantain tree is a very graceful plant, and its straight, succulent stem is a favourite object with Sanskrit poets with which to compare the lower limbs of a beautiful maiden.“Her limbs are like the Rám-rambhá plant,” is a simile which no poet of any pretension will forget to apply to his heroine. With the stem of the plantain, a beautiful comparison is made by Kálidasa in "Kumarasambhava." Sometimes the compliment is carried a little further, when the gracefulness of the heroine comes off victorious in comparison with the poor plantain.

The love for the banana wasn’t confined to poetic geniuses like Kalidasa. In fact, there is almost an inexhaustible treasure of banana-themed folklore throughout Bharatavarsha from the very ancient times. This includes short stories, individual verses and folk songs. It also expressed itself in proverbs and impromptu sayings as people did their routine chores like ploughing, pestling, grinding, etc. A significant portion of this  folklore also talks about the ruin that will befall a person who disrespects the banana. 

Here is a rather delightful and instructive verse that was wildly popular in rural Bengal even at the turn of the 20th century. 

Dák de bale Rávan

Kalá potoge Ashár Srávan,

Sát háth antar savá háth bái

Kalá pute Kháo chásá-bhái.  

Rávana exclaims — 

Sow the plantain in the Asháda and Srávana months.

(Dig a) Two feet hole, ten feet distant,

My brother, put each plantain plant.

There is a nice rhythm in the original Bengali, easily memorisable. Ravana’s connection is unclear in this context. Perhaps the anonymous poet who composed this found “Ravan” as a handy rhyme for “Shravan.” The verse is clearly meant as simple agricultural education to the proverbial unlettered farmer. But the fact that such anonymous verses had survived in our cultural and social memory without formal documentation is significant. We can find countless such verses on the same and similar themes throughout Bharatavarsha. 

Sadly, we’ve lost that cultural continuity over the last eight decades. 

The aforementioned poem is the beginning of a multipart series that will narrate several delightful and enlivening stories related to the banana, drawn from Hindu folklore. 

To be continued       

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