Kerala temples have enforced a blanket ban on using Nerium oleander in daily rituals. Why? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Kerala temples have enforced a blanket ban on using Nerium oleander in daily rituals. Why?

May 15, 2024 09:17 PM IST

Experts said different oleander species contain highly poisonous chemical substances that can directly affect the heart.

A 24-year-old woman died due to accidental oleander poisoning in Kerala's southern district of Alappuzha two weeks ago, triggering outrage and resulting in the ban on the flower from ritualistic use at scores of temples in the state.

Effects of oleander toxicity include nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes, confusion, dizziness, an irregular heartbeat, a slow heartbeat, and, in extreme cases, death.(Unspalsh) PREMIUM
Effects of oleander toxicity include nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes, confusion, dizziness, an irregular heartbeat, a slow heartbeat, and, in extreme cases, death.(Unspalsh)

Surya Surendran, a nursing graduate about to fly to the UK to join a promising job, collapsed at Cochin International Airport on April 28 before completing her boarding formalities. She was soon rushed to a hospital in her native town, Harippad, where she died two days later.

Before her death, Surendran told doctors and her parents that she accidentally chewed the leaf and flower of a plant that was later identified as Nerium oleander, known locally as Arali and widely used in temples as an offering to deities.

As it turns out, hours before heading to the airport, Surendra absentmindedly plucked the plant’s leaves and flowers just outside her home and chewed them without knowing how dangerous they were.

Doctors who conducted the autopsy believe she might have unintentionally ingested a small amount of the juice from the plant.

Livestock deaths related to the plant too reported recently from Thengamam near Adoor in the adjoining district of Pathanamthitta soon after. Autopsies on the animals confirmed oleander poisoning as the cause of death.

While these were accidental deaths, data available from the Kerala social welfare department indicate at least five dozen suicide cases are reported from across the state annually in which the poisonous plant is said to have been used.

Effects of oleander toxicity include nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, rashes, confusion, dizziness, an irregular heartbeat, a slow heartbeat, and, in extreme cases, death.

The incident which alerted authorities about the plant’s toxicity

Six years have passed since Kerala's tourism department issued an order banning planting various varieties of oleanders in parks, gardens, and other places within its purview.

The provocation was an attempt to die by suicide by a couple who were visiting the Malampuzha Gardens in Palakkad district, a picnic spot developed around the drinking water reservoir on the river Bharathapuzha. Following an argument, the girl plucked branches of yellow oleander found in the garden and consumed the leaves; The boy also chewed the leaves of the plant, apparently in a bid to die by suicide as well. Though both recovered from the poisoning, following the incident, authorities decided not to grow them in tourist and public places.

According to Kochi-based psychiatrist C.J. John, oleanders of different species and colours are widely available in Kerala and easy availability and lack of awareness about the plant’s toxicity remains a cause for concern.

"Look at the medians of the national highway stretches in Kerala. You can see enormous amounts of the plants being cultivated on them to prevent exposure to vehicle lights from the opposite sides. It's high time the national highway authority looked for other plants to grow over the medians," John said.

Part of sacred temple rituals

Arali has been a widely used and sacred part of rituals in temples in Kerala and has been grown in temple complexes for easy access.

In the aftermath of Surendran’s death, groups of devotees, for the first time, demanded steps to exempt poisonous flowers from the list of offerings at temples.

As a result, Travancore and Malabar temple boards, the government-controlled administrative bodies of temples in the north and south of the state, enforced a blanket ban on using the oleander varieties in the 2800 affiliated temples. With the Kochi Devaswom Board preparing to initiate a similar action, a complete ban on the flower is likely soon.

P.S. Prasanth, president of the Travancore Devaswam Board, said the organisation decided to ban the flower at its affiliated temples for a larger public interest and as part of its social obligations. The Malabar Devaswom Board (MDB), which manages around 1,300 temples, mostly in northern Kerala, made a similar announcement.

MDB president MR Murali told Hindustan Times: "Although the Arali flower is not widely used in rituals in north Kerala temples, its use is fully banned considering the safety of devotees. Studies have found that the flower contains toxic substances, and we wish to avoid the risks."

The Sabarimala temple authorities will also not allow the flower to be used from the next festival season as the temple is under the Travancore Devaswam's administrative control.

"Due to increasing need and the lack of enough places to cultivate, most temples in Kerala have depended on flower markets in Tamil Nadu to meet their daily requirement of the oleander flowers. The government officials have already informed flower markets in Tamil Nadu, like Ottamchathiram near Kodaikanal, not to supply poisonous flowers to Kerala. Government-level communications have also been sent to prevent farmers there from cultivating the flower anymore," said Kerala's temple affairs minister, K Radhakrishnan, when contacted by Hindustan Times.

Toxicity

According to Vijay V Pillay and Anu Sasidharan of the School of Medicine at Kochi-based Amrita Viswavidyapeeth, different oleander species contain highly poisonous chemical substances that can directly affect the heart.

"The species contains oleandrin, neriin, digitoxigenin and so on, of which oleandrin is the principal toxin. As it contains cardiac poison, its immediate effect is on the heart. Depending upon the quantity and the plant part entered inside the human body, its effect will vary," they wrote in a recent research paper.

“The types of oleander commonly encountered in India are pink and yellow oleander. Both are predominantly cardiotoxic. Most such cardiotoxic plants contain various cardiac glycosides that act similarly," they wrote.

Nerium oleander, or pink oleander, is also known by other names such as white oleander, common oleander, rose laurel, rose bay, rosa francesca, Laurier rose, and Adela. It is a large evergreen ornamental shrub from the Apocynaceae family. It features long, lanceolate, leathery leaves and clusters of white or pink flowers. The leaves produce a clear, thick sap. The root is sometimes used as an abortifacient in villages.

Curiously, in Indian traditional medicine, the roots and leaves are used to prepare decoctions that are said to be useful in treating various skin conditions.

"In the case of oleanders, all plant parts are poisonous, especially the leaves, stems, seeds, and roots. Oleandrin, neriin, folinerin, rosagenin, and digitoxigenin are the active toxins present in them. 15 g of the root or 5–15 leaves can be fatal if consumed," said Thiruvananthapuram-based public health activist SS Lal.

Support for the ban

The decision has not faced any resistance from religious leaders despite oleander, along with the lotus is a commonly used flower at many temples including at the famous Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. Its use extends to making huge garlands as well.

"The flower, extensively cultivated in neighbouring states, has rapidly supplanted local varieties like ixora shrubs (Chethi), jasmine, and holy basil (Tulsi) in performing pujas. However, due to widespread awareness campaigns highlighting its potential hazards, most temples have significantly reduced their usage even before our decision to ban it emerged," added Prasanth.

Curiously, the board had engaged in large-scale cultivation of pink oleanders until last year under its Devaharitham project.

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