Sunday, 29 July 2012

Lotus

Lotus plants are spectacular. Their huge leaves, bigger than dinner plates, proliferate over massive areas of shallow water, and their fantastic bright pink blooms burst open in summer and then later leave behind those very distinctive seed pods. Although slightly resembling oversized water lillies, they look quite alien to European eyes, almost as if they're not real.

These plants are common throughout East Asia. In China, I was particularly struck by the plants at the Old Summer Palace (圆明园), Beijing, where they have been allowed to take over vast lakes. Japan, too, has some lovely places to see lotus plants, including Ueno park (上野公園)in Tokyo. In Korea, the small but beautiful Anapji pond (안압지) in Gyeongju is a scenic spot to wander through the pink and white blooms in summer, and elsewhere you can find them providing serene backdrops to palaces and temples.

While I've only seen lotus plants in the places I've travelled to in East Asia, there are no doubt even more beautiful locations to see them throughout the rest of Asia, and even further afield too.

Masses and masses of lotus stretching into the distance at the Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China


High rises beyond a swathe of lotus at Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan
Old Summer Palace in Beijing, China
Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan


Slightly scraggly but still impressive, Incheon, Korea
History and symbolism

When looking at these aquatic giants, it's easy to understand why they have been so mysticised in religion, and why they have inspired artists for centuries. They are both bold and graceful, with a kind of elegance that seems almost unnatural.

In Korea, images of lotus flowers are associated with Buddhism. In particular, the 'Lotus Lantern' festival held every May is a Buddhist tradition in Korea that is still celebrated today, with street parades and the opportunity for people to make their own lotus flower shaped paper lanterns. The festival is held in celebration of Buddha's birthday (부처님 오시는날).

Lantern outside a Buddhist temple near Seoul
Lotus lanterns similar to ones typically made during the Lotus Lantern festival


Painted walls in Suamgol village (Sorry to my mates in this pic! The walls are just so pretty!)
Annual Buddhist Lotus Lantern festival parade in Seoul

Culinary uses

In Korea, sliced and cooked lotus root (연근조림) is eaten as a side dish. The root has distinctive holes in it, and has a brown colour when served. It's semi-crunchy, and doesn't have a strong flavour - a little bit sweet and a little bit salty, but that's more from the seasonings than the root itself.

Language

The traditional Chinese character for 'lotus' is  . This is the character used in Japanese (Hiragana: はす), and also in traditional Korean Hanja (Hangeul: 연). In simplified Chinese, it's (pinyin: lián)

'Lotus flower' is 蓮花 in traditional Chinese and Hanja,  '연꽃' in Hangeul, and 莲花 in simplified Chinese.

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