Friday, January 14, 2011

The trees I have known (in India)...

Arriving a few days after Christmas in Bangalore, I was happy to find festive seasonal decorations decking the halls of my Christian friends.  Even in India, no noel would be complete without snow covered pine trees and santa clauses!  I found this real live Christmas tree (which I’ve never seen growing anywhere in this part of India) in the library at Christ University, a Catholic college which serves students of various faiths,  the majority of which are probably from Hindu backgrounds. 

 The nativity scene next to the Christmas tree included the traditional wise men, sheep, cows, camel and St. Nicholas visiting the baby Jesus.  Mary and Joseph took refuge in a cave stable that had been elaborately decorated with shiny CD ROMs.  Natural grass and a lotus blossom pool completed the scene.

Outside the library an interesting art installation featured a fake tree, under which sat a guru and his students.  Traditionally in India, teachers met like this with their pupils (devotees) out doors to discourse and examine sacred texts.  This stylized representation of the historic student/teacher relationship struck me as very powerful.  The characters are stone and solid, stern and serious.  Two stumps sit on either side of the leafless tree that overshadows the learners.  A large thick heavy tome sits open before the teacher who sits elevated above his disciples.  All are men, cast thick and heavy in stone.  There are no leaves on the trees.  Everything is hard and cold.

Having written quite a bit about the Neem tree before arriving in Sadhana, I was delighted to see how many are growing all around us here on the ashram.  Neem leaves float in our bum wash water in the composting toilet areas here (to fight bacteria and keep our bums happy) and young people roam about the huts chewing on Neem branches for dental hygiene.  Today, while visiting the Mantrimandir, our guide asked to take a seat on a bench located between two noble Neem trees.  They gave us shade and comfort while he talked about the history and mission of Auroville.  Our guide told us that all the plants, flowers and trees in the gardens (including the Neem) were put in specific places, as directed by the Mother, so as to maximize the vibrational energies each exuded.  In the peace garden, specific flowers like hibiscus were meant to bring each person who entered there vibrations of tranquility.  The Mother spoke of the space between the Neem trees where we were sitting as a powerful place where people could begin to connect to the Divine.  They call this space “Spiritual Atmoshphere” and it was lovely to, once again, find myself connected with Neem.

This little girl, born in Sadhana Forest was named "Sadhana" by her parents.  She is a ball of energy and joy!
Many of the village children here don't have 'toys' in the Western sense of the word, the
forest is their playground and leaves like this become the focus of play.

In the temple at Tiruvanamalai, a gnarled old tree sits serves as a shrine for pilgrims in the outer courtyard near the Ganesha mandapam.  Small stone altars, snake symbols and turmeric covered statues have been erected around the tree.  Lord Ganesh sits smeared in ash and bedecked in flowers there, too. Perhaps hundreds of  years old, this sacred tree emanates a life force that draws women devotees from all over the region.  The women come in search of blessings from the Divine tree mother.  They light small camphor fires, circle the tree three times, and ask the god to bless them with a good husband (if they are unmarried) or a baby (if they are infertile).  The small sacks of cloth are meant to symbolize cradles -- the cradles of the unborn children, especially sons, that the women desperately desire.  While we were there we saw a woman come perform the pooja ritual with two small girls in tow.  I couldn't help but wonder if her prayers were for a boy child, as she circled round and round the tree, head bowed, eyes close, intent in beseeching the gods.

 At the center of Auroville stands an ancient Banyan tree, just beside the Mantrimandir.  We visited the spot today and I was quite struck by the sacred energy of this place.

Banyan trees are sacred in India.  They grow quite large and often cover acres of land.  Unique in structure, bangyans have ‘aeriel roots’ that grow down from the branches and into the earth.  The roots thicken and over time become supports for the center trunk.  Indians say the supporting root system is symbolic of the Indian family – children grow, root themselves, and become the support for their parents who gave them sustenance when they needed it. 

The Auroville banyan tree is over 100 years old and has great spiritual significance to the community.   When the Mother and her community decided to start the universal city – an experiment of human unity and heightened consciousness – all the land that is green and forested today was at the time desolate, dry, barren and empty.  Except for this one banyan tree, everything in a 20 square mile radius was red, dry, clay.  Before even seeing the land, legend says that The Mother asked the town planner to bring her a map of the region she and her devotees wished to purchase.  She closed her eyes and put her finger on the map where she said the Divine wished them to build the temple.  When the planner drove out to the spot he saw that the place she had identified on the map was the location of the Banyan.  No other vegetation appeared for miles.  They discovered there that an old Indian woman lived under the tree and had been protecting the banyan tree for years from firewood seeking villagers who had often tried to  chop it down. This woman had said God wanted her to protect this tree because something great was going to happen in this place.  Indeed it did!  For years, devotees claimed that the Mother had a very intimate and spiritual connection to the tree.  It was said that whenever some harm came to that tree – if anyone tried to nail a sign to it or break one of its branches – the mother could feel the pain of the tree and would immediately send someone out to investigate. 

We sat under the banyan today and spent time absorbing its sacred energies.  Its shade was a comfort and its grandeur inspiring.  I lay my forehead on the thick, craggy, dark wood bark at the center.  I caressed the roots and allowed my fingers to linger, eyes closed, on the supporting structures that gave nutrients to the parent trunk.  After the white, cold, space ship-like perfection of the carpeted and marble orb (within the meditation room in the Matrimandir), the simple sacredness of the banyan tree felt true.

I wanted to stay longer but we were urged to move-on.  Later, I discovered on the Sadhana page that a seedling propagated from that Auroville Banyan has been planted here in our own corner of the forest.  I’m making it part of my quest today to go and find this amazing treasure.

Most of the Banyan trees in Auroville started their lives high up on the trunk of a Palmyra. Why? And how did it get up there? It was planted by a bird. A bird ate a fig and made a dropping on the Palmyra. Of course it could have landed on a temple roof or a rock or…

The dropping cemented the seed to the wall of the tree. If you observe carefully you might find a seed just starting to send out tiny hair-like roots.

These minute aerial roots will become stronger and thicker and cling to the trunk of the tree. Eventually the roots will completely envelope the Palmyra and can even strangle the host tree. But in the embrace of the Banyan the two can co-exist for many years, or until the Palmyra grows old and dies.
The Banyan grows wide spreading branches that send down aerial roots, like clumps of rope, until they enter the ground and become trunks. So the tree widens and covers a larger and larger area.

One famous Banyan was said to be 600 m. around. It was so big that 20,000 people could all shelter at once in its shade. The Great Banyan of Calcutta has one thousand trunks and a walk around the tree is almost a quarter mile long. It is one of the biggest trees in the world.

Lastly then, I should mention the palmyra.  It is a tree near and dear to my heart.  Much to my joy, it abounds in Sadhana and the region-- everywhere you look those little spiky palm fronds wave happily.  An Indian theologian and friend introduced me to the wonders of the sugar palm tree years ago, and the fascinating fact that over 300 products can be made from the wood, fiber, leaves, fruit, bark, sap and fluorescence of this mighty tree.  He had planned to develop a palmyra educational center in Kanyakumari, in southern Tamil Nadu, to teach people (or actually remind them) of the utility of this ancient tree.  

Knowledge once common among his community has long since been lost -- but he was hopeful people might return to Ways of Knowing about this sacred life force.  His caste, the Nadars, were famous historically for their connection to this tree.  They knew how to weave its leaves into intricate baskets, chairs, brooms, etc. and how to make medicines, jaggery (sweet syrup) and other delights from its sugary sap.   Traditional hand crafts and modern industrial brushes are still made in India from the fibers of the palm.  It is also found in other parts of Asia and Africa, and is increasingly used in medicines.

(For more info on palm its products:

Known as toddy tappers, the Nadars were also experts in shimmying up the tall palm trees and collecting the fermented alcoholic drink that could be drained from the base of the leaves high on top.  When Western missionaries arrived they tried to uplift this caste of people who had obtained a bad reputation due to their association with producing alcoholic beverages – and by and large most of the Nadars today are Christian converts.

Sadly, the palmyra tree's hundreds of uses are largely forgotten today.  People prefer plastic bags to palm leaf baskets.  They buy pills in pharmacies instead of nibbling palm bark and eating medicine made with the sweet juices.  Indians drink Coca Cola with cane sugar instead of carbonated palmyra cola (although it is delicious!) because the multi-national spends billions on advertisements throughout this country.  Still, many revere the palmyra and its proud history… and it is evident in the art of the country and in the ancient village temples (where people still erect shrines to the palmyra and build holy spaces around the all providing tree).  We can only hope that this sacred tree will one day regain its fame, respect and centrality in people's lives -- perhaps as people return to a more simple life, a life less dependent on plastics and petrol and poisons.

Shakuntala, painting of Hindu legend by Raja Ravi Varma featuring palmyra (1907)

1 comment:

  1. Whitney, a great post indeed! The "Christmas" tree is a Norfolk pine. A tree near and dear to my heart. Oh, and by the way, my name in Hebrew means palm tree (although really the date palm not the palmyra!) As always, thanks for sharing!