Flora,  Folklore,  Food

Bael sherbet: The summer cooler

Just behind my house, is a Bael tree. It caught my interest last year, when I found a pair of yellow-footed green pigeons making a nest in its branches. This year it is the koel’s favourite haunt. But today, I’d like to focus on the bael tree, instead of the birds.

The bael or the wood apple tree (Aegle marmelos) bears round fruit with a woody shell, which are initially green and later turns yellowish. Summers are the time when these ripened fruit are sought as they are used to make Bael sherbet which is a refreshingly cool drink in the heat. The shell needs to be cracked open and inside you find a very aromatic sticky pulp. This is diluted in water, and then flavoured with rock salt and sugar to make the sherbet. In Odisha, on new year’s day Bela panna is made with chhena, milk, water, fruit pulp, sugar, crushed black pepper, and ice.

The bael tree is considered sacred by Hindus. As a child I remember my mother, offering leaves of the bael tree (also called baelpatra or tripatra or bilwa leaves) on each Shivratri during the puja. These leaves are supposed to be Lord Shiva’s favourite. Typically trifoliate leaves are offered on the Shiv linga. The number three is repeatedly associated with Lord Shiva- remember his three eyes (trinetra), or his weapon, the trident or the trishul? The three leaves perhaps represent the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Other versions say they represent the three gunas or qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. Still others say they stand for the the three syllables that make up ‘Aum’, the primordial sound that resonates Shiva’s essence.

Bael has been said to have several medicinal properties, as an antidote for sunstrokes and for constipation. But a cursory internet search showed me that it has been under the scanner for some side effects too. An extract from the plant, aegeline, had been used to make weight loss dietary supplement. However it was found to be associated with liver damage.

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