It has been a tradition in Tulunad, perhaps over centuries, to have a compulsory intake of the repulsively pungent sap of the Devil’s Tree on Aashadha Amavasya, which is called Alstonia scholaris in Botany.
Its twig and leaf formation is unique and uniform, due to which fact perhaps it is known as Saptaparni in Sankrit. The Konkani form of Santni Rooku and Saatavana in Hindi too may have derived from ‘Saat’ for seven, says a language expert. Similarly, because of the milky appearance and consistency of the sap, the Kannada term ‘haale’ may have been obtained, he opines. He is prepared to stand corrected if anyone puts up a better guess.
In the coastal districts, the practice of drinking a concoction made of this sap on the day of Aashadha Amavasya had transcended religions and castes. Tradition demanded a share of protocol as well. The sap had to be extracted by chiselling the bark of the tree with a sharp-edged stone and not with any metal implement.
Just to beat the pungent taste, depending on individual tastes, garlic, ginger, pepper, lime, tamarind, jaggery etc are mixed and the concoction is prepared. It is always taken on an empty stomach.
It was more a symbol of religious harmony. In the olden days, the knowledge about the herbal treatment and medicinal qualities of native plants spread from word-of-mouth and also has come down the generations.
The Devil’s Tree sap is reputed to have high medicinal value and antibiotic properties. The Aashadha Amavasya, which almost without fail falls in July, is the time when there are heavy rains in the districts. That is when people catch ailments like cold, cough, fever and water-borne diseases.
The sap intake was believed to be not only a sureshot remedy but also a powerful supplement for the immunity system in the body, an Ayurvedic practitioner says. If the present generation does not respond well to the native medicines, it does not mean that they do not have efficacy, but because once the body gets used to the allopathic medicines, the herbal medicines may take long to work. The sap is also reputed to be a worm-killer and also an appetite-booster.
If the elders used to take this medicine on the appointed day, there was nothing religious about it, says senior citizen Catherine, who is still following the practice of making her children and grandchildren drink the concoction on the very day. She feels the society in general accepted the day of Aashadha Amavasya, so that no one would miss it. If it was fixed on the basis of any month or date, it would not have been taken seriously and was most likely to be missed or kept off for another day, she feels.
I recall, my mother too used to give me and my brothers a dose of the sap on the day. Muslims too in Dakshina Kannada drink this medicine. There were no objections, reservations or resentment from anyone. With the growing mistrust and divide among various communities, the olden harmony is only a thing of the past, he says with a tinge of sadness in his voice.
One need not wait for a certain day and recommends that it be consumed all through the year by people of all ages. There is a belief among the public that the roots of this tree sink deep and wide and can unsettle the foundation of any building. It is for this reason that the trees are not allowed to grow near any buildings.
Extra caution is necessary since very often the Nux Vomica (Kannada – Kaasaraka, Tulu – Kaayer and Konkani – Kaazro) is mistaken for the Devil’s Tree. The mix-up is because the unwritten requirement of extraction of the sap before sunrise. Being the new moon night, there would be hardly any light. Hence the mistake is likely.
During the past twenty years, several lives have been lost because of the mix-up. Elders have cautioned those trying to extract the sap in the early morning hours of Thursday, July 19 to ensure that they would not use the sap from the wrong tree.