2021 Apr 16
Amongst the scented fumes of incense, the warmth of oil lamps and shades of white and gold, bunches and bunches of Blue Water Lilies are a common sight (Nil Manel as we Sri Lankans call them). These beautiful purple blooms are a staple at any temple and can be seen in shallow bodies of water. But did you know that they hold a story that runs deeper than just a pleasing sight to the eye?
Exploring the roots of the Blue Water Lily, we dive deep into its origins to find out why this flower is significant to Sri Lanka!
The Birth of the Purple Bloom
Botanically known as Nymphaea Nouchali or Nymphaea Stellata, the flower is native to Southern and Eastern parts of Asia. The second word is derived from the Latin word “Stellatus”, meaning star, a fitting description as these flowers in abundance in a lake are reminiscent of a star-studded sky.
There are three variations of the Water Lily in Sri Lanka, blooming in shades of pink, white or purple with a yellow centre. They each have a different name in Sinhala, namely Olu (white), Nil Manel (purple) and Nelum (pink). What is perhaps most distinguishable about the Nil Manel flower is that it blooms with the first rays of the sun around 7 am and remains in full bloom all the way until around 5 pm, being vibrant almost half the day. Nil Manel is found in all parts of Sri Lanka but grows best in pools of shallow water. They can often be found in natural wetlands and buffalo ponds. It is noted for its adaptable tendencies to life in water and is a highly valued part of aquatic horticulture in Sri Lanka.
Flowers and Their Symbolism
Flowers have been used symbolically since the 18th century, however, it was not until the 19th century that the term “Floriography” (Victorian Flower Language) was coined. Flowers were used to conveying messages that could not be spoken out loud or to express feelings. Widely popularised in Europe, this method of communication was mostly popular among women. Flower symbolism rose to even more prominence with the publication of “Le Langue des Fleurs” by Louise Cortambert, a dictionary on the language of flowers. Nature was viewed as the height of beauty, and that period of time was highly influenced by emotion. The language of flowers provided a tangible balance of both aesthetic pleasure and feeling.
In the modern-day and age, flowers still carry significant symbolism. Flowers are presented on both special and sad occasions or simply to please somebody. In popular culture, the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, chose to represent the 53 countries of the British Commonwealth by having the signature flower of each country embroidered on her 16-foot-long veil. It is also important to note that the flower, Nil Manel, was included in the veil to represent Sri Lanka.
So perhaps there is something to all this symbolism?
Significance to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an island that boasts multiple national symbols. We have a national anthem, flag, tree, bird, emblem, butterfly, gemstone, sport and (yep, you guessed it!) a flower. On 26th February 1986, Nil Manel was declared the national flower of Sri Lanka. These symbols are chosen to represent Sri Lanka’s people abroad, along with tradition, culture and history. The flower has made an appearance on the Government’s official website, stamps, school textbooks and much more. The crucial election of the national flower and tree was made by a three-member committee consisting of former University of Colombo Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nandadasa Kodagoda, and two botanists. It wasn’t long before newspaper advertisements were calling for suggestions from the public, with a ton of recommendations coming in, amongst which Nil Manel and Araliya (Frangipani) were popular options.
Now we take a look at what might have led to the Nil Manel flower being selected as the national flower of Sri Lanka.
Nil Manel in Buddhism
Buddhists in Sri Lanka make up approximately 70.2% of the population. Sri Lanka also has the longest ongoing relationship with Buddhism than any other Buddhist nation. The Nil Manel flower takes a place of importance in Buddhist lore where it is said that the flower was one of the 108 auspicious signs on Lord Buddha’s footprint. In the event of his passing, the flowers are said to have bloomed everywhere that he set foot on in his lifetime. In the Sigiriya frescoes, the beautiful maidens called “Sigiri Apsara” are also found clutching these blooms in their hands.
No dirt resides on the flower or its leaves when it blooms. Therefore, Sri Lankans honour it as a symbol of purity of the soul. When viewed as the national flower of Sri Lanka, it represents the purity and unity of the Sri Lankan people.
Nil Manel in Other Cultures
The deep-hued floral is also the national flower of Bangladesh. They also make an appearance on pillars, stone altars and other parts of ancient Egyptian temples. It is regarded as a symbol of the sun and of rebirth, which spirals back to Buddhism where reincarnation is a prominent theme. Ever heard of the name “Uthpala”? This is the Sanskrit word for the flower, one of the languages in which Buddhist chants are written.
So there you have it! Here’s everything we found out about the beloved bloom of Sri Lanka! We quite enjoyed discovering the links behind its history. Is there anything we should know about the Blue Water Lily? Tell us in the comments!