Explained: Why oleander flowers are banned in Kerala temples – A closer look


Team Udayavani, May 13, 2024, 9:53 AM IST

oleander flowers (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent development, two major temple boards in Kerala, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and Malabar Devaswom Board, have decided to discontinue the use of oleander flowers, locally known as Arali, in temple offerings. This decision comes after a series of unfortunate incidents involving oleander poisoning, prompting concerns about its toxicity to humans and animals.

What Happened?

The decision to ban oleander flowers stems from a tragic incident involving the death of a 24-year-old nurse, Surya Surendran, who accidentally consumed oleander leaves.

Surendran, who was set to leave for a new job in the UK, chewed on oleander leaves outside her house in Pallipad, Alappuzha. She soon developed symptoms of poisoning, including vomiting and uneasiness, and tragically collapsed at the Kochi airport, eventually succumbing to the toxicity.

In another case, a resident of Thengamam in south Kerala’s Pathanamthitta reported that her cow and its calf fell ill and ultimately died after consuming oleander leaves. These leaves were inadvertently mixed with grass collected from nearby areas.

The Decision to Ban Oleander in Temples

The recent incidents of oleander poisoning, including the death of a young woman and reports of animals being affected, have raised serious concerns about the safety of using oleander flowers in temple rituals. The TDB and Malabar Devaswom Board have taken a proactive step to ensure the well-being of devotees by discontinuing the use of oleander flowers in temple offerings.

In place of oleander flowers, temples will now use alternative flowers such as tulsi, thechi (Ixora), jasmine, jamanti (hibiscus), and rose for their rituals. This shift aims to maintain the sanctity of temple offerings while ensuring the safety of devotees and animals.

Understanding Oleander

Oleander, scientifically known as Nerium oleander, is a shrub commonly cultivated worldwide for its ornamental value. In Kerala, it is known as Arali or Kanaveeram and is often used for landscaping along highways and beaches.

Oleander, often called the “desert rose” in ancient texts, has been known for its healing properties for a long time. People used it to cure hangovers, treat cancer, and fight viruses. Both Romans and Arabs believed in its power to heal various illnesses.

According to the US National Institutes of Health, oleander can also help with asthma, epilepsy, painful periods, malaria, skin issues, warts, ringworm, and indigestion.

Toxicity

But, despite its helpful uses, oleander can be dangerous. Its raw extracts are very toxic and should never be eaten without being prepared correctly.

It contains toxic compounds, primarily cardiac glycosides, which can have severe effects on the heart and other organs. Ingestion or inhalation of smoke from burning oleander can also be intoxicating.

Poisoning symptoms and treatment

Oleander toxicity can manifest in various symptoms, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, rashes, confusion, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and slow heartbeat. In extreme cases, oleander poisoning can result in death.

According to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, symptoms of oleander poisoning may persist for one to three days, and hospitalization may be necessary, although fatalities are rare. Recovery depends on the amount ingested and the promptness of treatment, with swift medical intervention significantly improving the chances of recovery.

If someone ingests oleander, they should drink lots of water. Drinking milk should be avoided as milk can make the poison worse. Don’t try to make them throw up, and seek medical help right away.

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