Nymphaea nouchali is commonly known as the blue waterlily and has several names in Indian and Sri Lankan culture. This waterlily is often referred to as the “blue lotus of India”, although it is not a lotus but a waterlily of the Caerulea variety.
The blue water lily is a freshwater herbaceous perennial plant. For centuries it has been cultivated in South-East Asia, especially around temples as an ornamental plant. The plant is native to Borneo, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, New Guinea, Indochina to China, Taiwan and Indonesia. It is the national flower of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
It grows on the bottom of ponds or lakes, producing a rosette of leaves that float on the water’s surface. The roots and stems are submerged, as are part of the leaves. The submerged leaves are pale green in colour on top and pinkish underneath. The floating leaves are round and green at the top; they are water-repellent and usually have a darker underside. They have wavy edges with indentations. They are about 20-23 cm in size. They flower during the day, the flowers are violet-blue with reddish edges; it has four or five lanceolate sepals and 13-15 petals which have an angular appearance, making the flower look star-shaped. The cup-shaped calyx has a diameter of 11-14 cm.
Its flower has been mentioned in Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhala literary works since ancient times under the names of kuvalaya, indhīwara, niluppala, nilothpala and nilupul as a symbol of virtue, discipline and purity. Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka claims that this flower was one of the 108 auspicious marks found on Prince Siddhartha’s footprint. It is said that when Buddha died, Nymphaea nouchali flowers bloomed wherever he walked during his life.
In Sri Lanka, the blue water lily grows in buffalo ponds and natural wetlands. It was formerly used as a medicine, but it was very expensive. In the 1940s some villagers started to cultivate water lilies in rice fields which were left uncultivated during the monsoon season (the “Yala” season), resulting in a reduction of the price. Harvesting in rural villages takes place in the morning in wooden boats.
It is traditionally eaten boiled and in curries. The roots are also completely edible: during the dry season they consist almost entirely of starch and are eaten raw, boiled or roasted. In Sri Lanka, the starchy rhizomes are also made into flour for baking bread. It is very common to use lotus root juice to stop internal bleeding or for those suffering from anaemia. It is also considered a medicinal plant in Ayurvedic medicine under the name “Ambal”. The flowers are collected for religious offerings.
The Nymphaea nouchali should be valued for its cultural and historical value, it is also prominent during traditional and cultural festivals in Sri Lanka.