Representing purity, beauty and divinity, lotus flowers can be found extensively throughout Thailand : in ponds, canals, on lakes, and especially in and around temples.
This flower is related to heavenly beings in Thai literature and is accorded a special place in religion.
Lotus flower is call bua in Thai language. But the Thai word has a broader meaning; it is used as the common name for three main varieties of water-lilies. First, bua
luang or pathum (Nelumbo nucifera), which is the lotus as we see it in Thailand; secondly, bua sai or ubon (Nymphae lotus), another kind of water-lily whose leaves float on the water surface and whose stern is edible; and thirdly, bua kradong (Victoria sp.), whose round leaves, also floating on water but turning upwards at the edge, are as large as a dining table and whose flowers have a stronger fragrance than the other two varieties.
In Buddhism, the lotus flower is the symbol of purity, faithfulness and spiritual awakening. The flower germinates in the mud and lifts itself towards the light, representing the act of rising above the water of desire and attachment - the key for achieving spiritual enlightenment.
Though the flower has its roots in the mud, it grows upwards toward the light, representing the aspiration to rise above ones failings and develop greater enlightenment.
This unblemished flower is considered to symbolise enlightenment; art works of the Buddha frequently feature him seated on a lotus flower. The “Noble Eightfold Path” —the Buddha’s guidance for righteous living— is believed to have been based on the eight-fold petals of the sacred flower. The different colours of the lotus flower all have associated symbolism: white represents a state of spiritual enlightenment and mental purity; red symbolises love and compassion; pink is reserved for the supreme deity: Lord Buddha himself.
Lotus flower is also important to other cultures; in ancient Egypt, for instance, the lotus was a symbol of rebirth. It has the power to renew itself as it loses old blooms and adds new ones in a daily cycle, therefore it was commonly used for wall and tomb paintings. In Hinduism, the lotus flower stands for eternity, purity and peace. The national flower of India, the sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is admired by Hindus who use it among other puja offerings to their deities. Artists often include a lotus in paintings of the gods Brahma and Vishnu and the goddess Lakshmi.
Apart from its flowers which are used as offerings in Thai temples, almost every part of the lotus is edible:
- lotus leaves, which are too tough to eat are sometimes used to wrap rice which, when steamed, has the subtle aroma of the leaf, they’re also used as (biodegradable)
- embedded in young lotus pods are young lotus seeds which when young can be eaten raw like popcorn. In addition to peeling off and discarding the skins before eating, you also have to remove the green sprouts inside the seeds; they are very bitter.
- after having all the seeds popped out of them, mature lotus pods can also be dried out and used as decoration. Dried seeds can be boiled in syrup, sometimes with crushed ice added; it is a popular sweet.
- the lotus flower stem (not the leaf stem which is too fibrous) can be eaten raw as side vegetable for relishes. They can also be cut into bite-sized pieces and turned into either a simple stir-fry, or a classic coconut-based soup with Thai mackerel.
- the roots, cut into thin slices and boiled with pork ribs, make a delicious soup.
- lotus pollen can be used to make a home-made herbal medicine which supposedly treats everything from fainting spells to hair loss.
- the petals, stamens and roots of certain varieties have medicinal values. They are the major ingredients of various recipes prescribed by traditional herbalists. The roots of lotus flower are used to treat a variety of ailments including skin rash and diarrhoea. Their large leaves act like cooling sheets to reduce fever.
- in the old days, dried lotus petals were also used to make cigarettes. You must certainly have heard about the lotus position – a way of sitting during meditation. It is an important position in Buddhist meditation and also in yoga practices. The lotus position seeks to represent the deep spiritual meaning with the form of the human body – legs crossed and tucked in a way that makes the bent knees look like the petals of a lotus. It is important that the soles of the feet are tucked away, so that it is a respectful position to sit in when visiting a temple where exposing the bottom of your feet is considered rude.
When visiting Chiang Mai, make sure you stop at the flower market, along Ping River (see city map G3) to see the beautiful lotus flowers and probably vendors artistically
folding the petals into elegant designs. You can also visit the Botanical Center, on Mae Rim-Mae Ram road, to discover each categories of lotus flowers in their pleasant and natural surroundings (read article page 34).