Rudraksha is a genus of large evergreen trees with more than 360 species distributed in the tropical nd subtropical regions of the world. The scientific classification of Elaeocarpaceae to which rudraskha belongs to is as follows:
Type: E. serratus Linn, Eganitrus, Roxb, etc.
These species are distributed in Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Myanmar, Tibet, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, northern parts of Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, Philippines, Southern China, Japan and Hawaii. The islands of Borneo and New Guinea have a large concentration of the species. In the late nineteenth century a botanist, Dr. William Roxburgh, had classified the most popular variety of these trees found in Nepal while studying the flora of India and Nepal in his capacity as Director, Indian Botanical Garden, Kolkata. He is considered as an authority on Elaeocarpus ganitrus Roxb. commonly called rudraksha, which match the broad specifications given in our old religious texts. The above species of rudraksha are mostly found in Nepal and Indonesia as of now, as at other places there has been no organized plantation work.
It is interesting to note that fossilized remains of rudraksha have been recently discovered from Upper Siwalik sediments (Kimin formations) of Arunachal Pradesh by Dr Subir Bera and others from the University of Kolkata. It appears they are carbonized fruits resembling modern taxon Elaeocarpus lanceaefolius Roxb. Occurrence of these fruits indicates a sub-tropical to temperate, broad-leaved to evergreen forest in the area at the time of deposition and also the fact that these trees appear to be originally from the Indian subcontinent. E.angustifolius is a relatively fast-growing tree, most common in secondary forests. It grows wild in tropical forests in Queensland, New Guinea, Malaysia and southern Nepal. It may have been introduced by Hindu missionaries and traders in some of these areas.
In Greek, elaei means ‘wild olive’ tree and carpus means `fruit’ and therefore the seed of fruit from wild olive-like trees have been classified as Elaeocarpus. In Sanskrit, Hindi and Marathi it is known as rudraksha, in Kannada, rudrakshi, in Tamil aakkam, in Telugu rudraksha halu and in Bengali rudrakya. These trees may be 14.60 metres to 29.20 metres tall depending on area (Nepal rudraksha trees are over 20 meter tall) and have trunks up to 1.22 meter in diameter. Its leaves are like mango tree leaves having length of around 17.78 cm and width of 2.54 cm to 4.45 cm. The leaves are light green in colour in the beginning and turn deep green at maturity and change to yellowish red before turning grey (coffee colour) and falling. This cycle of leaves continues all over the tree throughout the year. Flowering takes place in mid-November and bunches of white flowers grow from old leaf axils. The flowers enhance the beauty of the tree and they seem to have a mild aroma similar to raat rani flowers. The length of the flower bunch is smaller than that of the leaf. After nearly a month of flowering, fruits start appearing but this occurs only when the tree is seven to eight years old. Younger trees flower, but do not produce fruits. The fruits are 2 cm to 4 cm in diameter and green in colour. After maturity, the colour starts turning blue and then bluish-violet, then deep brown and finally black. The size of the beads varies according to the area where trees are located. For example, fruits of the Nepalese variety are largest in size and Indonesian variety the smallest. Rudraksha is the fruit (stone) of the E. ganitrus Roxb. The stony endocarp or the bead can be seen on removal of the outer epicarp and fleshy middle mesocarp. The outer skin of the fruit has several medicinal values and normally the local people of the area where these trees grow, make use of these by boiling them in water and drinking the water in case of fever, cough or cold. The leaves have antibacterial properties and are used in treating wounds. They are also taken orally to cure headache, migraine and mental disorders and for the treatment of epilepsy.
Inside the fruit is the stony endocarp, or bead, which is attached to the stem from the base of the stone. The bead has very hard rough surface having uneven grooves and a long cavity in the center from the point where it remains attached to the stem. The bead contains seeds inside and receive their nourishment from the central cavity. From this central cavity vertical clefts remain attached. While each cleft has separate compartment having one internal seed, the joint of these clefts protrude outside the body of the seed. This joint, visible from outside, is known as mukhi or dhari (facet). To understand it in a simple manner, a five mukhi bead will have five clefts having five internal seeds, a nine mukhi bead will have nine clefts and nine seeds, etc. The number of internal clefts should be the same as the number of mukh in any rudraksha. This is a good test to recognize a rudraksha having several facets (mukhi). However, in this procedure, the bead usually gets destroyed. And in many beads, particularly those beyond six mukhi, it has been observed that the seeds often get overlapped or in a few cases some of the seeds do not attain complete growth. A lot of practice and closer examination through x-ray are required in order to do a perfect job of seeing the compartments and counting the internal seeds. It is, however, certain that the number of clefts inside remains equal to the number of facets. A combination of internal study and outer examination of the surface should be employed to determine the number of facets or mukhi’s.
The protrusions are thorny when the bead is unripe and as it starts maturing, the thorny surface becomes smoother. Seeds tend to be lower in density if plucked before maturity. Rudraksha up to 21 mukhis have been found, and documented. In the crop of the year 2005, some higher mukhi beads like 22, 23, 25, and 29 mukhi have been obtained. This has happened after a long time. In Indonesian varieties, higher mukhis beyond 21 are common and in some instances beads up to 38 mukhis have been obtained. Older texts like Shivapuran mention up to 14 mukhis only. Some of the beads get joined on the trees naturally if the seeds grow side by side they are known as Gaurishankar rudraksha (Twin Beads). In some extremely rare cases, even three beads get joined and such unique bead is called Trijuti or Gauri-Path or Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh. Only a few natural Trijuti’s are found in a particular season in different shapes and sizes. A balanced Trijuti with nearly equal spacing and uniform bead size is an absolute rarity. Any Gaurishankar and Trijuti beads should be subjected to tests to bring out any artificially created joints, which may not be noticed even by using magnifying glasses. The technique of joining has been improvised so much that traditional tests like boiling the beads in water for a few hours do not separate these glued pieces. However, some skilful tests may establish the authenticity of the beads. One mukhi rudraksha from Nepal (round in shape) is mythical and many resourceful people, are willing to bet for its existence. Some traders whose family business is rudraksha for the last few generations have also not seen a perfect eye shaped* one mukhi rudraksha from Nepal. One mukhi rudraksha from Indonesia is also rare but it is available. However, care should be taken to procure it from a good source. One mukhi rudraksha from Indonesia is 8 mm to 10 mm in length and 4 mm to 7 mm in central diameter. It is elliptical in shape.
* According to some people, one mukhi round rudraksha from Nepal should be having the shape of an eye. Its appearance has to be closer to 2 mukhi from Nepal.
There are naturally grown rudraksha having different shapes and looks and such rudrakshas are named according to their looks and shape. One such bead, which is considered very auspicious, is Sawar. It is a twin-bead like Gaurishankar but it differs in that one of the beads has only one complete mukh while the other is a normal bead with number of mukhs, mostly four to seven. Sawar in Hindi means a rider (one mukhi riding over another). Many people cut out the one mukhi joined seed from Sawar and wear it or use it as one mukhi rudraksha.
Although the cutting damages the bead, the faith is important, as the bead is considered as divine. The special rudraksha (including Gaurishankar, Trujuti, etc.) may not have any reference in ancient epics, but people regard them as auspicious because all rudrakshas have the blessings of the Gods. There are beads having no lines at all over the entire surface and these have been given the name of Gupta Mukhi (Hidden Facets).
The fruits of rudraksha are green in colour and are nearly round in shape for the common varieties (5, 6, and 7 mukhis). Its pulp, tasting sour, is eaten by the birds, when green. It turns to blue and then dark brown with aging. With such deep blue-(sometimes violet-) coloured fruits all over, the tree looks magnificent. It is often called “Blue Marble Tree”. Corner has reported in his article, “Wayside Trees of Malaya”, that the brilliant blue colour of the fruit is caused not by a blue pigment but by the structure of the cuticle, which reflects blue light; thin pieces of skin are green in transmitted light. The blue colour is normally caused by anthocyanins, modified by their association with metals or other flavonoid pigments. However, no such anthocyanins were extractable in acidic methanol from rudraksha fruits, suggesting that the basis for the presence of the colour may well be structural. Three physical observations produce colour in animals thin film interference, Tyndall scattering and diffraction. The basis of the blue iridescence in rudraksha fruits also appears to be thin film interference. The blue colouration of the fruits is not reduced by immersion in water; if anything, the intensity enhances. Colourations in fruits are generally regarded as an adaptation to promote dispersal by animals, particularly birds. Ripe rudraksha fruits fall on the ground; the colour persists even after the cortex decays; and the persistent colour may attract frugivore dispersers. While the iridescent blue colour is most striking in the fruits of rudraksha, the blue colour is prevalent in Eleaocarpus throughout its distribution.
In classical cultures of the world, the medicinal and sacred values of plants are frequently associated with the remarkable appearance of the plant what is generally known as “the doctrine of signatures”. For instance, the medicinal benefits of the ginseng and mandrake plants are suggested by the limb-like lateral roots. It is tempting to speculate that the spiritual significance of rudraksha fruits is associated with the striking blue colour of the wall. As Lord Shiva is blue-throated (Neelkantha), it will be an interesting study to compare properties (specially its medicinal values) with other fruits having identical colour. David W. Lee has done remarkable work to study the colour of rudraksha fruits and leaves and some of the observations given here are from his article published in “Current Science” Vol.75, No.1, July 1998. (Ref. 37) Elaeocarpus trees are planted for ornamental purposes as bunches of blue fruits all over the tree give a very scenic look. After maturity period of a month or so, it turns nearly black. The fruit falls off on its own in the ripened stage. Many times, planters pluck the fruits much earlier, particularly when they notice that the bead is of higher mukhis. In such cases the inner seeds remain underdeveloped and the stone may have lower density. Rudraksha’s outer skin is hard to remove. The seeds are buried inside the earth along with cow dung and table salt for couple of weeks for the skin to become soft. The beads can then be taken out easily. The farmers adopt different practices to remove the outer skin and for cleaning the rudraksha seed. For example, in some cases, the seeds are boiled in water and then allowed to get fermented so that the skin becomes soft, however, by this method the beads become darker. The trees give fruits during winter (around November) and after their cleaning and processing, the new crop reaches markets around January. In certain varieties, particularly in trees grown in the Sahyadri ranges and in Maharashtra, flowering takes place in February or March and the yield comes by October to November. There are species, which give two crops in a year. The July crop yields higher quality compared to the one, which comes in January. This phenomenon is specific to certain species and areas only and not to all plants.
The wood of tree is off white or grey in colour and is used for furniture making and as fuel. Due to this reason and since there is no protection from local governments in Nepal or Indonesia, the trees are felled mercilessly. Their numbers are dwindling. The good news, however, is that in the recent past, several farmers and big traders are into planting on a large scale and in organised manner in Nepal and North-East India (Bengal, Assam etc.) and in the coming years this will yield results — both in quantity and quality. I have visited a plantation (having 42 grown up trees) near Cochin and a few trees are also found scattered across the country.
References : Kamal N Seetha (2014) The Power Of Rudraksha