Hidden Gems: The Melaka Tree

by Anne Deguerry Viala

We are all familiar with the legend of Prince Parameswara flying from Srivijaya to Temasek and then to a place named after the tree he sat under. Much less is known about the tree itself: the Melaka tree. Phyllanthus emblica, known as the Āmalaka or Āmelaki tree in Sanskrit, is very common in India, Nepal and South-East Asia and has given its name to Melaka city and the Straits. Its common name in English is Emblic myrobalan (Myrobolan emblique in French) and it produces a fruit called the Indian or Nepalese Gooseberry. When dried, the powder is known as ‘amla’. The importance of the Melaka tree is both symbolic and economic.

Myrobalan fruit

In Buddhist statuary art and sculpture, the Medicine Buddha is depicted, delicately holding the myrobalan plant between his thumb and middle finger.  This symbolic gesture stems from the healing properties of the myrobalan. It entered the Persian pharmacopeia from early times: myrobalan is mentioned in the medical handbook of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the early 11th century. It was also used in Europe. No later than during the Middle Age, it was a valued ingredient which apothecaries prescribed almost as a universal remedy. It should be noted that, apart from its use in traditional and Ayurvedic medicine, amla has recently aroused a growing interest from modern medicine where it is use in diabetic treatments and to prevent cancer, among other properties.

Buddha holding the myrobalan plant

All parts of the Melaka tree are full of tannins[1], which make myrobalan a very useful ingredient. In the natural dyeing process, myrobalan can be used either as a mordant (a substance which helps fix the pigments into the fibres) or as a dye itself, rendering blackish colours. In addition to dyeing, myrobalan has many other applications.  It is used both for tanning leather and also in the manufacture of Damascus steel.

It is clear that Prince Parameswara was wise to choose this place and this beneficial tree, to establish his new realm!

[1] Tannins are vegetable substances of the family of polyphenols, most often water-soluble, which have the ability to precipitate proteins and other chemical substances. For trees and flowering plants, this is a chemical defence against pests. Tannins can be found in some drinks such as tea, coffee, beer and wine.

Melaka Tree

 

References:

Bonnemain Bruno. Médecine arabe : Paul Mazliak, Avicenne et Averroès. Médecine et biologie dans la civilisation de l’Islam. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 92ᵉ année, n°344, 2004. pp. 650-652. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_2004_num_92_344_5736_t1_0650_0000_2

Gatellier Marie. L’image du Buddha dans la statuaire birmane. In: Arts asiatiques, tome 40, 1985. pp. 32-40. www.persee.fr/doc/arasi_0004-3958_1985_num_40_1_1178

Jazi Radhi, Asli Farouk Omar. La pharmacopée d’Avicenne. In: Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie, 86ᵉ année, n°317, 1998. pp. 8-28. www.persee.fr/doc/pharm_0035-2349_1998_num_86_317_4582

Halleux Robert. Sur la fabrication de l’acier dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Âge. In: Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 151ᵉ année, N. 3, 2007. pp. 1301-1319. www.persee.fr/doc/crai_0065-0536_2007_num_151_3_91356

 

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Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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