Cardamom, Tulsi, and Sandalwood

The Ethnobotany of Ritual at the Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore, California

by Deepa Natarajan

People have been bringing plants with them as they migrate and travel for as long as we have records for (Taylor and Anderson 2014), and probably long before that. Urban ethnobotany is a rich and dynamic facet of ethnobotany that aims to study the use of traditional plants among migrant communities in dynamic city environments (Pieroni and Vandebroek 2007). The intersection of migration, urban ethnobotany, and lived religious experience is where my research of ritual plants in transnational Hinduism resides.


The Interconnectedness of plants, the environment, and religion

Hinduism has a long tradition of being ecologically friendly, utilizing plant resources and venerating trees and landscapes. There is a difference, however, between sacred plants and ritual plants---sacred plants are themselves venerated, while ritual plants are necessary for the devotee or priest to venerate the deity being propitiated and thereby enable the fulfillment of dharma. In certain cases, such as with holy basil or tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum**), the plant is both a ritual plant and a sacred plant. In Hinduism, plants play a role in nearly every sacred act, so that the use of plants is so interconnected to ritual that their function has almost become invisible, something that becomes obvious when speaking to priests about plant use at temples.


Shiva-Vishnu Temple, Livermore California

The Shiva Vishnu temple in Livermore, California was established in 1977. The temple was constructed on a 4-acre plot of land purchased by eight families committed to preserving "Hindu culture on American Soil" (Palmer 2006). As you turn into the gated parking lot, view the towering gopurams (temple towers), and take in the peaceful and tropical landscaping, you are transported to a 'little India.' Once you enter the main hall, the atmosphere is both chaotic and serene. Bells are ringing, priests are chanting, and the smells of incense, flowers, and sandalwood immediately greet you. Each shrine in the temple is maintained through daily ritual, prayer, ablution, and ceremony. Temple visitors or devotees are actively engaged and take ownership in their visits. They bring with them items such as milk, flowers, grains, and other fresh plant materials for the priests to use in rituals. A large portion of the plants used in the temple are dictated by what devotees have and choose to bring with them to donate to the temple.



Plants can be found in every part of the temple, from outside to inside, within the shrines, in the kitchen and gardens. Plants are also used in many of the daily temple practices, such as adorning the deities with flower and leaf garlands, offerings by the priests as they recite holy mantras, and as prasadam (food offerings) to visitors after they have been blessed by the deities. Morning rituals include the preparation and distribution of holy water, offering of leaves and flowers to the deities while reciting chants, distributing prasadam, which includes fresh fruits, and blessing the daily annadanam - the food prepared by the temple kitchen that is blessed by the deities over the course of the morning rituals and then offered to visitors.

Fresh plants that are used daily in rituals includemango leaves (Mangifera indica), vilva leaves (Aegle marmelos), tulsi leaves (Ocimum tenuiflorum), betel leaves (Piper betle), arugampul (Cynodon dactylon), and flowers for malas. Dried plants used daily in rituals includecamphor (Cinnamomum camphora), sambrani (Styrax benzoin), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), sandalwood (Santalum album), saffron (Crocus sativus), and turmeric (Curcuma longa). The food that the temple prepares daily as a part of its rituals and annadanam always includes rice (Oryza sativa) prepared in multiple ways, such as lemon rice, tamarind rice, coconut rice, and yogurt rice, each with a host of spices and herbs.


Plants as adornment

Plants play a critical role in the adornment and preparation of the idols. Idols are washed ritually via abhishekam, ritual bathing and purification of the idol. This involves bathing the idol and applying sandalwood (Santalum album) and turmeric (Curcuma longa), and pouring milk and honey over the idol. Any of these items that have touched the idol's body are then offered to devotees. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) paste is applied to the goddess Parvati's (the consort of Shiva) face, and then before her abhishekam, it is removed and left in a small bowl at her shrine, to be taken by visitors coming to receive blessings. Devotees then apply this same turmeric paste onto their forehead or neck. Similarly, Murugan's face is adorned with sandalwood paste, and this paste is then offered to the devotees.



Garlanding the deity is one of the most important aspects of ritual at the temple. The flowers and leaves used for malas (garlands) represent some of the widest diversity of plant species used in the temple, and there is an entire volunteer group dedicated to making the fresh flower garlands that are essential to the daily veneration of the idols. There are fourteen shrines at the temple, each housing a deity. The shrines are arranged primarily by families of deities. Shiva and his consort Parvati with their sons Subramanya and Ganesha are grouped together, while Vishnu and his consorts Andal and Lakshmi along with his incarnations of Krishna and Rama are on another side of the temple.

Hanuman, the monkey god, has garlands made from the widest diversity of materials: kumquats, raisins, dried kiwis, apricots, cardamom, freshly made vadas (fried lentil dumplings, and many, many more. Ganesha is almost always wearing a garland of Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), recognized as a pernicious weed in California, but one of the most valued ritual plants in India.

Clove (Syzygium aromaticum) garlands and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) garlands may adorn Shiva. Shiva is always wearing a rudraksha mala, a garland made from the stony endocarp of Elaeocarpus serratus. On one occasion a volunteer brought vilva leaves (Aegle marmelos),and so Shiva was adorned with them. This plant is sacred to Shiva. Because of the difficulty in obtaining this plant, the temple only sources it for the annual Shivaratri (night of Shiva) festival. Dakshinamurty is adorned with a sprouted chickpea (Cicer arietinum) garland. Lime garlands are linked to the goddess Durga. The garlands in the temple represent some of the widest plant diversity and also demonstrate the botanical improvisation required to maintain religious ritual in a new environment.


Ritual Plant use in Silicon Valley

Religion appears to be a domain in which traditional ecological knowledge is conserved, protected, and kept alive for reasons associated with maintaining belief and value systems that transcend judgements often associated with the 'backwardness' of indigenous practices. For Indians in America, one of the most highly educated and financially successful minorities (Chakravorty et al 2017), who may have abandoned traditional herbal remedies in favor of allopathic ones, the use of plants for ritual is still central, important, thriving, and free of the types of education-related judgments that exist in the realm of plant medicine. In the era of iphones, technology, the internet, and social media, ethnobotany, thriving here in Silicon Valley, proves a deep source of connection with plants and culture.


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  3. Pieroni, Andrea and Ina Vandebroek, Eds. (2007). Travelling Cultures and Plants: The Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacy of Human Migrations. Berghahn Books.
  4. Taylor, David W. and Gregory J Anderson. (2014). Key Plants Preserve Elements of Culture: A Study over Distance and Time of Fresh Crops in Puerto Rican Markets in Hartford, Connecticut, " A Moveable Feast." American Journal of Botany 101(4): 624--636.