The Bilva (or Wilva) tree (Aegle marmelos) grows in almost all parts of Southeast Asia. The Bilva tree is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, especially worshipers of Shiva.
In the Atharvaveda it is described as being so sacred that its wood may not be burned for fuel. In the Shiva Purana it is mentioned: “Adored by all the Gods, its significance is difficult for anyone to comprehend”.
The name of the Indonesian Majapahit empire comes from the words maja (bilva, or wilva in Sanskrit) and pahit (‘bitter’). This is why Majapahit was also named Wilvatikta (‘Bitter Bilva’) in Sanskrit. A whole empire was therefore named after Shiva’s fruit!
The trifoliate form of leaves mirror the Trimurti and the triadic nature of Shiva. They are used in the worship of both Shiva and Devi, and form an essential ingredient in Dharmic rituals. The Bilva tree is found in most Shiva and Devi temples.
The lighting of a lamp before this tree is said to bestow knowledge and enables the devotee to merge in Shiva consciousness. It is also sometimes called Sivadruma.
The leaves have a very pleasant aroma, emit positive energy and absorb negative energy. Try keeping some fresh Bilva leaves at your desk to see the results for yourself.
It is mentioned in numerous scriptures, such as the Yajur Veda and the Charaka Samhita (an Ayurveda treatise from the 1st millennium BC). Shaivites commonly offer Bilva leaves to Shiva, especially on Shivaratri – this is why Bilva trees are so common near temples.
The Shiva Purana, Padma Purana, Skanda Purana and Devi Bhagavatha Purana detail the rituals involving the Bilva tree. In contrary to popular beliefs, no scriptures state any restriction about where to plant the Bilva tree.
The famous Bilvashtakam extols the virtues of the Bilva leaf and Shiva’s love for it:
“I offer Bilva Patra to God Shiva. This Bilva Patra is a form of the three human qualities. Good Virtue (Satva), Passion (Raja quality) and Irascible (Tama quality). This Bilva Patra is like three eyes, Sun, Moon and Fire. It is like three weapons. It is destroyer of sins committed in earlier three births. I perform pooja of God Shiva with such Bilva Patra.” – Bilvashtakam
According to the Shiva Purana, the Bilva tree is a manifest form of Lord Shiva himself. The scripture states that one who worships the Shiva Linga while sitting under a Bilva tree, attains the state of Shiva easily. Washing the head by this tree is said to be the equivalent of bathing in all the sacred rivers.
“To have darshan of the Bilva tree, and to touch it, frees one from sin. The most terrible karma is destroyed when a Bilva leaf is offered to Lord Shiva.” – Bilvashtakam (v. 6–7)
The Bilva Tree and its Fruits
The Bilva tree resists to any harsh conditions. Bilva wood has sharp thorns and a resinous gum. However, even a fallen Bilva tree is never used as firewood.
The tender leaves and shoots are consumed as salad greens. This fruit contains white seeds and a tenacious transparent gel. It is both a sustaining food and a curative medicine. The pale green leaves are aromatic. There are sadhus who sustain themselves on Bilva leaves alone.
The fruit is said to resemble a skull with a white, bone-like outer shell and a soft inner part, and is sometimes also called Sriphal (head-fruit) in Sanskrit. It takes about 10 months to ripen. The shell is so hard it must be cracked with a hammer or a large knife.
Dried Bilva fruit for steeping in tea
The Bilva fruit tastes sweet, tangy, sometimes a bit astringent. Some Bilva cultivars may be sweet, while others are too sour to eat without honey. Because of Bilva’s genetic diversity, the fruits have no uniform flavor.
The soft-shelled fruit is usually sweeter and easier to open, whereas the sour, hard-skinned variant has more medicinal uses. Each fruit has approximately 10-15 seeds. Removing these small, hairy (yet edible) seeds are advisable but not necessary.
The pulp inside can be easily scooped with a spoon if ripe, then separated from the seeds and eaten. The pulp can be mixed with honey or jaggery, or blended with coconut milk and palm-sugar syrup and drunk as a beverage, or frozen as an ice cream.
The fruit can be mixed into a variety of beverages and desserts, or preserved as jam. Bilva jam is very appreciated in India.
Indians make also sharbat (lemonade) out of the fruit pulp by mixing some fresh lime, honey and leaving it to stand for a while and straining it. It is served with ice and a dash of cardamom as an appetizer. One large Bilva fruit will yield 5 liters of sharbat.
If the fruit is to be dried, it is usually sliced and sun-dried. The hard leathery slices are then immersed in water to make tea.
Another easy way to take Bilva if you don’t have time or access to the fresh fruit, is to mix Bilva churna (powder) to your foods and drinks:
How to Open and Prepare Bilva
• Break open the fruit using a pestle or if you are adventurous, strike it against the floor or a platform till it splits open.
• Using a spoon scoop the pulp and place in a large bowl. Pour a glass of water and using your palms gather and squish the pulp to separate the seeds and juice the pulp.
• Press the juice through a siever to strain the fibers and seeds from the thick pulp. Scoop the pulp remaining in the sieve into a vessel and add more water. Repeat the squishing process and strain till all that remains is the fiber.
• Add jaggery to the strained juice and season with cumin or other powders. Run the juice in a mixer.
Flavor Complements: Tamarind, passion fruit, mango, papaya, raspberry, date, black pepper, turmeric, orange juice, lemon juice, limejuice, coconut milk, coconut oil, honey, jaggery, cumin, garam masala, licorice, mint.
Bilva Recipe Ideas
• Eat Bilva like a grapefruit by adding just a pinch of sugar. Many Indonesians traditionally eat a Bilva fruit in the morning for breakfast to start their digestive juices.
• Make Bilva toffee by combining the fresh or dried pulp with sugar, coconut powder, and vegetable oil.
• The fruit’s texture and consistency make it ideal for jam and marmalade.
• Make juice and shakes by blending the pulp with milk and sugar. You can add other fruits such as mango, papaya, or coconut meat.
Side effects: Eating too much Bilva can cause bloating, and gastrointestinal discomfort. Consuming Bilva leaves lower sperm count, and may induce miscarriages.
Image source: Isha Foundation
Medicinal uses of Bilva
• Take a teaspoon of dried and powdered Bilva leaves for 3 days to increase the appetite.
• For elimination of intestinal worms take 5 grams of dried and powdered pulp of the bilva fruit 2 times a day.
• Asthma can be controlled by daily consumption of a mixture of dry Bilva leaf powder and honey.
• Against irritable bowel syndrome, take a teaspoon of dried and powdered ripe Bilva fruit pulp mixed in a glass of butter milk or warm water 2 times a day.
• To manage diabetes and reduce excess urination
• Hypertension can be reduced by boiling a cup of water mixed with 1 teaspoon of dried Bilva leaves, cool and strain the solution and consuming it three times a day.
• Ripe Bilva fruit pulp with sugar and Honey after dinner for 40 days is useful in the early stages of tuberculosis.
• Leaves, bark, roots and fruit pulp are all used against snakebite.
• The seed oil of Bilva fruit is anti bacterial and anti-microbial. Bilva is also a highly potent antifungal.
• The root and bark of the Bilva tree is used as a decoction as a remedy for palpitations of the heart.
• The Bilva leaf is a preventive for diabetes by consuming 20 ml of Bilva leaf juice.
• Bilva leaf juice with black pepper helps in cases of jaundice.
• To heal hemorrhoids, crush an unripe Bilva fruit along with 1 teaspoon each of dried ginger and fennel. Soak this mixture in four cups of water and drink 3 to 4 times a day.
• A cup of ripe Bilva fruit mixed with jaggery once a day for 2 to 3 months will heal constipation and indigestion. (can take almost 70 grams a day)
• Against chronic diarrhea, dry the slices of an unripe Bilva fruit in sun and grind them. Take a teaspoon of this powder along with warm water 2 times a day.
• Bilva benefits in healing stomach and mouth ulcers. For this person has to consume the mixture of a cup of Bilva fruit pulp and a teaspoon of sugar in the morning on an empty stomach for 3 days.
• Against malaria, extract some juice of bilva leaves and flowers and mix 1 teaspoon of both these juices with 1 teaspoon of honey and take 2 times a day.
• Bilva leaf juice mixed with ginger, oil, black pepper and cumin massaged into the scalp helps with respiratory problems.
• Consuming Bilva leaves alleviates diseases caused by excess vata and kapha (mucus).
• According to Swami Sivananda, “The fresh juice of the leaves is given with the addition of black pepper in cases of jaundice, and when diluted with water or honey, this is highly praised remedy in catarrh and feverishness.”
• The flowers cure diarrhoea, vomiting and thirst, while the gum of the inside pulp of the fruit is an aphrodisiac (kama-vardhani).
• The root is the most important part of the tree medicinally, after removing the outer skin. A preparation made from the root with ginger and toasted rice cures vomiting. For the treatment of piles, dysentery and diarrhoea, a preparation is made from the root mixed with the tuberous root of Padha.
• The oil extracted from the Bilva root, boiled with the juice of Bilva leaves and applied to the head is excellent for nasal catarrh and diseases of the ear. The confection Vilvadi Lehiam is also made from this root.
A key ingredients in Dashamula and Chyawanprash
The famous 6000-year old Dashamula formula is made of ten medicinal roots: Bilva (Aegle marmelos), Agnimantha (Premna mucronata), Shyonaka (Oroxylum indicum), Patala (Stereospermum suaveolens), Gambhari (Gmelina arborea), Brihati (Solanum indicum), Kantakari (Solanum xanthocarpum), Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris), Shalaparni (Desmodium gangeticum), Prishnaparni (Uraria picta).
Other practical purposes of Bilva:
• The fruit pulp can be sued as laundry detergent and soap
• The gum coating of Bilva seeds can be used as an adhesive.
• When mixed with lime plaster, Bilva pulp doubles as a waterproofing agent
• The fruit’s oil is used in shampoo, in combination with amla.