The Indian Thorn Apple - Datura metel - was first documented in Sanskrit literature. The Arabic physician Avicenna touted the importance of its medicinal applications as well as prescribed the exact amount of dosage to the Arabs, who categorized the plant as “mokederrat narcotica.” Ingesting too much Datura metel can be dangerous.
Indian Thorn Apple flowers are often depicted in Hindu Tantric art, usually in connection with incarnations of Shiva. The thorn apple also appears in ancient Tibetan and Mongolian texts, the existence of which demonstrates that Datura metel was indigenous to Asia prior to the fifteenth century. It is not known when the Indian Thorn Apple was introduced to Africa. Today, Datura metel remains a psychoactive plant of great enthnopharmacological significance, especially in India, Southeast Asia and Africa.
Datura metel is generally an annual plant, although sometimes biannual, that has an herbaceous, bushy appearance. It grows to more than twelve-feet in height and develops numerous branches. The soft leaves are a light, matte green color with slightly serrated edges. The plant has smooth, violet or dark purple branches and its funnel-shaped, fragrant flowers are either white, yellow or violet, depending on the variety, and jut upward at an angle.
The flowers open in the evening and emit a rich, luscious fragrance, then begin to whither and droop over the course of the next few days. The plant often produces double or triple flowers that grow within the main bloom, creating filled, layered blossoms. In the tropics, the Indian thorn apple blooms year-round and in Central Europe, it flowers from June to October. The fruit, which grows upward from the plant then begins to droop slightly as it matures, has short, round thorns that more resemble bumps. The seeds are kidney bean shaped and are a deep yellow-ocher color.
According to the Vamana Purana, the thorn apple grew from the chest of the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of inebriants. In Garuda Purana, it is said that Datura flowers were offered to the god Yogashwara (a.k.a. Shiva), on the thirteenth day of the waxing moon in January. In Nepal the plant is considered sacred to Shiva. Thorn apple flowers and fruits are among the most important offering gifts of the Newari tribe of Nepal. At every puja, meaning an offering service or ceremony, Shiva is offered Datura fruits in order to please the god.
In Varanasi, Shiva’s sacred city, metel fruits and rose flowers are made into sacrificial ceremonial garlands for the lord of inebriation and sold to pilgrims, then left as offering at the entryways to his temples. These Datura chains are then devoutly placed around the lingam, the deity’s phallic-shaped image, as fresh flowers are tossed over the top of it. The lingam is normally placed in a yoni, the cosmic vulva. Fresh metel fruits are placed into it as offerings.
In northern India, it is widely known that Datura metel can be used for inebriating purposes. Smoking the plant is regarded as pleasurable and not dangerous, whereas eating or drinking it is considered dangerous and is generally avoided. Yogis and sadhus in particular smoke thorn apple seeds and leaves together with Cannabis indica and other herbs such as Aconitum ferox and Nicotiana tabacum.
In Tibet and Mongolia, the thorn apple is used as incense in Vajramabhairava Tantra rituals intended to transform wealth into paucity and to drive out certain spirits and energies. The fruits or seeds are also used to induce insanity. In the Philippines, the Ingorot, a Malayan tribe from Luzon, boil the leaves to make an inebriating soup that is eaten communally in a ritual circle.
In China, the white blossomed variation of Datura metel, “alba,” is considered to be sacred since it was believed that glistening dew drops rained down from the heavens onto its flowers while the Buddha was giving a sermon. The Chinese Buddhists called it “man-t’o-lo” after a non-translatable passage from a sutra named man t’o lo hua. In ancient China, it appears that it was a popular practice to steep the aromatic flowers in wine or sake before consumption. Stories of an ancient traditional shamanic ritual describe it as if someone laughed while the flowers were being packed for use with wine, the wine would evoke laughter in all those who drank it. If the flowers were picked while someone danced, all those who drank it would be induced to dance.
In Africa, Datura metel is used for criminal telepathy and in initiations. The seeds are also used to poison victims so they can be robbed. The toxic and hallucinogenic properties of this plant are well known in East Africa. Seeds are added to the locally brewed beer to potentiate its effects. In Tsongaland, which stretches from Mozambique to the Transvaal, a variant of Datura metel known as fastuosa is utilized as a hallucinogenic ritual drug in the initiation of girls as they pass into womanhood.
This is much like the use of Datura wrightii which is used to pass boys into manhood. At their initiation ceremony, girls are painted with red ocher (a symbol of menstrual blood). One after the other, they are made to lie down in the fetal position on a mat made from palm fronds while others dance around them holding onto their hips. Special songs are sung. Afterwards, the girls are tied to a tree while others beat the tree with sticks until the white sap – which symbolizes sperm – starts to flow from its bark.
The next stage is a water ritual, through which the initiates are cleansed, as a symbol of casting aside their childish past. Before they ingest the thorn apple, the girls are required to stretch an animal skin over a vessel of water. Older women perforate the skin with sticks and stir the water. Following this symbolic defloration, a “school mother” covered entirely in Datura leaves, toad skins, and dog teeth bursts out from behind the bushes. She approaches the girls, spits on them, and tells them repeatedly that they will soon hear the voice of the fertility god.
The thorn apple drink, made by boiling the herbage in water and rumored to contain powdered human bones and/or human fat, is then carried around in a ceremonial seashell by the school mother and given to each girl to drink from. They experience visions that are shaped and influenced by ritual music and the singing of the school mother. Their path into womanhood is channeled through the ceremonial phase by the shaving off of their pubic hair pre-initiation, and by the placement of clay cubes with pieces of straw protruding from them in between each girls legs. These symbolize the fact that when their pubic hair grows back in, it will belong to a woman, not a girl. At the end of the initiation, the girls are freed from their ceremonial restraints and coverings, dressed in new clothes adorned with ornaments, and they dance and sing, now able to be married.
There is evidence that Datura metel seeds have been used in ancient Indian medicine, modern Indian folk medicine, as well as in Ayurvedic medical practices. In the Ayurvedic system, preparations of Datura are used to treat numerous illnesses and ailments, just as they are in Indian folk medicine. The most common medicinal uses for Datura are for skin conditions, anxiety disorders and respiratory ailments, among a litany of other conditions.