In ‘Cracking the Sundal Tree Code,’*, I stated that the Sundal Harum Malam from Malay folklore was without doubt the Chempaka tree – Michelia champaca or Magnolia champaca. The sundal harum malam achieved notoriety for being the haunt of the Pontianak, the female vampire of the same Malay folklore. The distinguishing feature of this tree is the fact that it bore pale, overpoweringly sweet, night blooming flowers.
Apparently, I spoke too soon. Nadine Gregory, originally from the state of Kerala in India, informed me about a tree which grew in Kerala called the Pala tree. This tree bore night blooming flowers and had the reputation for being the abode of evil spirits; children were warned to stay away from the tree at night.
I thought, “Interesting, but the Pala is probably endemic to southern India.”
I then found out that the Pala, is also known as Ezhilampala, Sharada, Yakshipala, Daivapala, Sapthaparna in Sanskrit, and of all things, Devil tree in English!
More importantly, the plant is found throughout India and the Indomalaya region – all the way to Southern China (Hoa Sua), the Philippines and Queensland, Australia. In Thailand it is known as Phya Sattabahn. The scientific name is Alstonia scholaris. A member of the dogbane family, the milky sap of the tree is saturated with poisonous alkaloids.
The tree grows to a respectable 20 to 30 metres in height and bears masses of night blooming flowers, twice a year. The small greenish-white flowers give off a very strong fragrance, similar to that of Cestrum Nocturnum, the Night Jessamine or Raat Ki Rani, which was my initial suspect for the title of The Sundal Tree!
According to Nadine, the fragrance of the Pala blooms is strong enough to produce headaches in susceptible people.
I thought, ‘This is it!’ The local name of the tree itself, Yakshipala, conjures up images of a blood thirsty seductress! In southern India, the Yakshi is envisaged as an alluringly beautiful young woman, who lure men to their death.
Nadine Gregory’s story:
Ezhilampaala. A seemingly innocuous tree with such a heady fragrance when in bloom at night that it invariably gave me a headache. It never helped that I’d heard hundreds of stories about beautiful long haired women in white who’d lurk under these trees asking young men for a match to light a beedi. Yes, you read it right. Beedi smoking femme fatale who’d morph into a vampire and suck young men’s blood = yakshi. Women were always safe. Thank you, Malayalam movies for scarring me so deeply.
The traditional version of the story:
A man (usually from the upper castes) walking home at dusk, sees an extraordinarily beautiful woman who asks him for help. To add to her allure, the heady scent of a strange exotic flower fills the air around her. She is alone and afraid to walk home by herself. The man gallantly offers to escort her home. When they reach her house, which looks quite well appointed, the woman offers him a betel quid and asks for lime. They chew a betel quid each and enter her home. Once inside, the man is shocked to see her transform into a red-eyed fiend with claws and long nails. Even more terrifying, the house has disappeared and he is actually on the branches of a Pala tree (in some cases, palm tree, but I dismiss that idea offhand). In the morning, passersby are shocked to find teeth, nails and hair, all that is left of the man, on the ground below the tree, plus shoes and blood soaked clothes, of course.
Does the story sound familiar? Exactly like the Pontianak tales known throughout Malaysia, Singapore and probably Indonesia too – just replace the Yakshi with the Pontianak and the Pala with the Sundal Tree.
The Yakshi from Kerala is a vengeful spirit of a woman who has been wronged, probably by an upper caste man, and who probably died before marriage or before childbirth. The Pontianak is the vengeful spirit of a woman who died during childbirth. In more modern times, she is the vengeful spirit of a woman who has been through a tragic love affair. However, the Pontianak, being a vampire, only drains the blood of men (in olden times, they feast on the afterbirth) while the Yakshi actually devours them whole. Only one other creature in folklore has an appetite like that, the Wendingo of Native American folklore.
However, we should note that in northern India, Yakshi and Yaksha (the male counterpart) are envisaged as nature sprites or tree spirits, closer to forest elves and dryads than to malevolent bloodthirsty vampires. They are fertility symbols and described as the ‘fragrance under the bark or in the blossoms of flowers,’ and completely vegetarian of course. Yakshas and Yakshis can even confer boons and blessings on the humans they favour.
Why is there such a discrepancy in the Yakshi of the south and the north? Another friend, Jeeks Raj, mentioned that the Pisacha (literally ‘eater of raw flesh’); a demon sometimes associated with night-blooming trees. This creature of the night is described as the vilest and most malignant order of malevolent beings. The Pisacha haunts charnal grounds and cross-roads and feeds on human flesh and blood. Is it possible that the Yakshi of south India is in fact a Pisacha, disguised as a Yakshi? Quite possible as the Pisacha are shape-shifters as well.
Finally, is there any way to defeat or should we say, vanquish the Yakshi/Pisacha? Apparently they are undone by iron. An iron nail or dagger will render them powerless, if not kill them outright. Oddly enough, this is also in line with Malay folklore; it is believed that an iron nail, embedded into the nape of the neck of a Pontianak will turn the vampiric creature into an ordinary woman.
So, is Alstonia scholaris the Sundal Harum Malam tree of folklore? Very likely!
* published on 8/5/2013.
Tutu Dutta has a B.Sc. from Universiti Putra Malaysia and an MPhil from the University of Malaya. As an undergraduate, she won a scholarship from Japan Airlines, to attend Summer School at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, which was a life changing experience. She is the author of eight books, including Timeless Tales of Malaysia, Eight Treasures of the Dragon, and the middle grade series The Jugra Chronicles. Based partly on folklore and partly on history and imagination, The Jugra Chronicles is set in 17th Century Borneo. Her latest book, Phoenix Song, is a picture book commissioned by Lantana Publishing (UK) and illustrated by Martina Peluso; scheduled to be released in September 2015.
Lady in the Moonlight (1889) is a painting by Raja Ravi Varma and is in the public domain.