A very common and well -known water plant found in our fresh-water ponds, tanks and paddy fields is the water lily (Nymphaea lotus), called Olu in Sinhalese and olli in Tamil. It is ubiquitous throughout the island, a pretty sight as one travels cross the interiors of the land.
The blue water lily (Nymphaea stellate) or Nil Manel in Sinhala, Kamalam, Alli Tamarei in Tamil, is of particular significance to Sri Lankans as it is the national flower of Sri Lanka. The exquisite beauty of the Blue water lily is a common sight with flowers in bloom throughout the year.
Lotus flowers are also among the favourite flowers that Buddhist worshippers take with them to the temple while temples too are adorned with paintings of lotuses. In Hinduism too, the lotus is an important symbol. The Apsaravas (Celestial nymphs) in Sigiriya frescoes too can be seen holding these flowers thus highlighting the significance these flowers have had throughout our history.
Poets of lore have written odes to the lotus flowers while many songs have been sung in praise of the beauty of them. The plant grows in streams, tanks and ponds and bloom almost all year round. The lotus can be easily recognized by its toothed rounded leaves, green above and reddish below, floating in the surface and by its pretty white followers shaded with pink or with blue (which is another variety called Nymphaea stellate – standing on long stalks and opening their petals to the vaults of heaven.
These flowers, which open at night and early mornings, present a lovely rural sight even by the roadside. At a latter stage of the plant’s growth – for instance, during the middle months of the year in the dry zone- they develop into fruits, which are found under the water surface and this is the time when rural folks wade into the water, knee deep , to dip their hands into it , and collect the fruits in baskets or gunny bags from the plants well rooted in mud.
In the old days, the fruits were used to prepare olli pittu and olli rice from the seeds in order to supplement their staple diet but this practice is far less these days.
Several notable Sri Lankan medical men like Dr. Emmanuel Roberts, Dr. John Attygalle and Prof.J.P.C. Chandrasena have mentioned, in their books, of the flower’s medicinal value in the local medical practice. Dr. Chandrasena, for instance, in his book, Medicinal Plants of India and Ceylon, says, “The flower is also used as a dry and cold astringent in diarrhea, cholera, fever and diseases of the liver and also recommended for cardiac tonic. The powered root is prescribed for piles as a demulcent, also or dysentery and dyspepsia. The seeds are a cooling medicine for cutaneous diseases and leprosy and are considered an antidote for poisons.”
Such are the medicinal and dietetic uses of the water lily which, to a good many of us, means nothing more than the aquatic plant, flowers of which form so many ornamentations in stagnant pools. In Buddhism the lotus has a foremost place. This flower represents spiritual purity and sends out the message that anyone can aspire to attain enlightenment. Lord Buddha is sometimes depicted sitting on a lotus flower, symbolizing the one who had overcome all the attachments and desires of the material world and became enlightened. The message is that just like the lotus flower which starts to grow in the dirty and muddy water but finds itself out the muddy water to reach out to the sunlight and bloom, produces a perfect flower. In Hinduism too, most of the gods and goddesses are shown either sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus in hand.