Bael (Aegle marmelos), sometimes erroneously called wood apple, is a fruit of Indian origin. It grows all over India, except in the hills where the climate is too cold. This tree also grows in a number of Southeast Asian countries besides the Indian peninsula. Bael, however, is only important commercially in India where it is cultivated as an orchard fruit.
Bael fruits are spherical to pear-shaped, pale green and enclosed by a very hard shell. They may vary from 400 to 1600 grams depending upon the variety. The pulp is yellow, seedy, highly fragrant, sweet and also mildly astringent. The size and fruit quality vary, as most trees are of seedling origin. Some named cultivars sold in nurseries are propagated asexually by shield or patch budding and then planted in orchards. These varieties usually have larger fruits and a thin shell. In the case of some varieties, the shell can be broken by hand.
Fruits are not eaten fresh because of their astringency and the mucilaginous nature of pulp, but they are widely consumed in processed form all over India. A very refreshing beverage (sherbet) is prepared from bael pulp simply by mixing it in water, straining the seeds and then adding sugar, salt, or something acidic according to taste. This beverage is considered to be very healthy, especially for the digestive system. To save people the hassle of mixing, it is also available in the market as bael squash which can be used after diluting with water.
Bael fruits, when slightly unripe, are cut into pieces and made into a preserve in sugar syrup. This preparation is called murabba and is a popular indigenous Indian fruit product. Use of bael murabba is considered effective for dysentery and other similar ailments.
Bael in Hindu Mythology
Bael has been known in India since prehistoric times. It is treated as a sacred tree by Hindus who associate it with Lord Shiva. According to Shiv Purana (शिव पुराण), an eighth century AD Sanskrit scripture, the bael tree is the manifestation of Shiva himself. Bael occupies a high position in Hindu mythology, and there are several stories about it in Hindu scriptures.
Bael has trifoliate compound leaves. Each lobe is said to signify three functions of Lord Shiva, i.e. creation, preservation and destruction. They are also believed to represent three eyes of Lord Shiva. Their offering to Lord Shiva is considered effective in removing sins of the last three births.
Offering prayers under a bael tree is considered beneficial, and the one who does it is said to become happy and prosperous. Taking a bath while sitting underneath a bael tree is as good as bathing in the holy river Ganges or the sacred ponds at scores of Hindu holy places.
Bael tree has also been called Shreebriksha (श्रीवृक्ष), the tree of prosperity and good fortune. The ancient Sanskrit scripture Banihipurana (बाणिहि पुराण) says that Lakshmi (लक्ष्मी), the Hindu Goddess of wealth, was born as a sacred cow and the bael tree arose from her dung. Due to this association with the goddess of wealth, it is believed to bring prosperity.
According to another legend, Lakshmi and Saraswati (सरस्वती), the Hindu Goddess of learning, were both wives of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu loved Saraswati more than he loved Lakshmi. Enraged at this, Lakshmi started the worship of Shiva. Lakshmi was engaged in meditation of Shiva for a very long time, but Shiva did not appear before her. After a while, Lakshmi became the Bael tree and now Shiva dwells in the tree.
The Bael Tree
Bael belongs to family Rutaceae, to which also belong oranges and lemons. It is medium sized, deciduous and up to 8 meters high. It has straight, sharp, axillary thorns; yellowish-brown, shallowly furrowed, corky bark and pleasantly aromatic compound trifoliate leaves.
Bael flowers are greenish white and sweet scented. The fruits are covered with a hard, woody, yellowish rind. There are numerous oblong, compressed seeds. The pulp is sweet, highly fragrant, yellow to orange-brown and mucilaginous. The fruits take about 10-11 months to reach maturity. The trees, especially in subtropical parts of India, also shed their leaves for a brief period.
There is a considerable demand for bael fruits from the fruit preservation industry. There is also a demand for dried fruit pulp, called Bael giri, from the textile industry because it is used in finishing processes by textile mills.
Dr. Chiranjit Parmar is currently on his 46th year as a professional horticulturist and is a published author. Dr. Parmar specializes in the study of wild, unexploited, lesser-known fruits and multipurpose plants. After working all over the world Dr. Parmar resides at his home in Northern India.