The flower of the pomegranate tree

A quick word about my pen-name.

Anarkali means pomegranate flower, a beautiful pom-pom-like delicate deep orange blossom on a graceful tree. Pomegranates have featured in the myths and legends of every culture, very often symbolising fertility. Anarkali was also the name of a probably fictional dancing slave girl, immortalised in the 1960 Indian film Mughal e-Azam as the illicit lover of crown-prince Saleem, later Emperor Jahangir, and a bazaar in Lahore is now named after her.

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You probably know the Greek (and Roman) myth of Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter (in Roman times their names were Proserpine, Jupiter and Ceres the harvest goddess).  Persephone is abducted by Hades (Pluto) to be his wife and confined to the underworld.  Demeter neglects the earth in her despair, so that it does not grow or produce fruit. Seeing this, Zeus persuades Hades to let Persephone return,  but Hades tricks her into eating just six seeds of the pomegranate, and thus – having symbolically tasted death –  she can only return for half the year, and must spend the other six months in the underworld, creating the seasons of winter and spring.

But this is not the only pomegranate myth. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the pomegranate is sometimes considered to be the ‘apple’ of temptation in Eden, symbol of eternal life as well as forbidden desire. It often appears in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. To early Hebrews, pomegranates symbolised their faith. It was believed they contained exactly 613 seeds: the number of commandments in the Torah, and pomegranate images were woven into priestly robes and decorated the Temple of Solomon. It is one of the seven sacred plants mentioned in the Bible.

In Islam, pomegranates grow in the gardens of Paradise. They are mentioned in the Qur’an as signs of the goodness and generosity of God and are seen as the symbol of wealth and well-being. Pomegranate as a medicinal food and as a symbolic plant is interwoven in Islamic belief systems. It is said that eating pomegranate cleanses the eater of evil aspirations and that the light of God will be in the heart of whoever eats the fruit. 

Its abundant seeds also represent fertility, and feature in ancient and modern wedding rites  and feast days in countries such as Greece, Iran, China, Armenia and some Arab cultures to signify long life, fecundity and abundance. In ancient Persia pomegranates were believed to bring invincibility in battle.

But the pomegranate is also associated with blood and death. In Buddhism, the pomegranate is one of three sacred fruits, and in legend it was used to persuade a demoness, Hariti, outof her habit of eating children. In Japan, Kishimojin, ‘mother goddess of the demons’, is called upon to cure women of infertility, and represented as suckling a child and holding a pomegranate. In Hindu mythology Kali/Durga’s teeth were said to be like pomegranate flowers (red with blood) after devouring demons. They also appear in funeral rites, including in ancient Egypt.

The pomegranate also appears to ‘bleed’ when cut, associating it with menstruation in many tales. The wife of Orion, in Greek myth, tried to compete with Hera in beauty and was punished, being made to believe she had caused the death of her own children. She threw herself from a rock and the first pomegranate tree grew from the place where her blood spilled on the ground.

So. Death, forbidden love, light, life, blood, fecundity, seduction and temptation. Not much to live up to.

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Dilip Kumar and Madhubala as Prince Saleem and Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal e-Azam.

ps: I have done my best to check out these myths but take no responsibility for the accuracy of things I may have found out via Google.

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