About the Book
Trees and plants have long been held sacred to communities the world over. In India they feature in our myths, epics, rituals, worship, and daily life. There is the pipal, under which the Buddha meditated; the banyan, in whose branches hide spirits; the ashoka, in a grove of which Sita sheltered; and the tulsi, without which no Hindu house is considered complete. Before temples were constructed, trees were open-air shrines and many were symbolic of the Buddha himself.
Sacred Plants of India lays out the sociocultural roots of the plants found in the Indian subcontinent, while asserting their ecological importance. Informative, thought-provoking, and meticulously researched, this book draws on mythology, botany, and the ancient religious traditions of India to assemble a fascinating account of India’s flora.
About the Author
Nanditha Krishna is a historian, environmentalist, and writer based in Chennai. A PhD in ancient Indian culture, she is the director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre. She has pioneered the documentation of the ecological traditions of India, restored over fifty sacred groves, and established schools, the C.P.R. Institute ofIndological Research, and the Shakunthala Jagannathan Museum of Folk Art. Her published works include Sacred Animals of India, The Book of Demons, The Book of Vishnu, Madras Then Chennai Now, Balaji-Venkateshwara, Ganesha, Painted Manuscripts of the Sarasvati Mahal Library, Arts and Crafts of Tamilnadu, and The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana, besides numerous research papers and newspaper articles. She is a professor and research guide for the PhD programme of the University of Madras and has received several prestigious national and international awards.
M. Amirthalingam is a botanist and environmental education officer at the C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre. He has researched and published the books Sacred Groves of Tamil Nadu, Sacred Trees of Tamil Nadu, Temple Tanks of Chennai, and Flora and Fauna of Valmiki’s Ramayana, besides research papers and articles in various journals, magazines, and seminar proceedings. He is currently working on the All India Coordinated Research Project on Sacred Grove Ecosystem Service Assessment in the inland plains of Tamil Nadu sponsored by the ministry of environment and forests, Government of India.
India is a highly biodiverse country and at least four major factors are responsible for our rich endowment of plant and animal genetic resources. These are: cultural diversity (including spiritual values), culinary diversity, curative diversity (a wide variety of medicinal plants), and ecosystem diversity. Among these factors, spiritual values have contributed much to saving many important plants and trees. This book contains a fascinating account of numerous sacred trees and groves. The book also describes the efforts made from ancient times to invest on selected trees a sacred aura. The sthala vriksha is a good example of this tradition of celebrating our biological heritage.
While reading this book, I was reminded of the following poem by Joyce Kilmer:
I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
In 1976, I undertook a study of the oldest trees of India. I wrote to the Chief Conservators of Forests of all states and requested information on the oldest living tree in their state. Most of the replies related to banyan trees including the famous banyan tree of the Theosophical Society, Chennai. Several of the famous banyan trees were also associated with saints and temples. Temple trees such as Excoecaria agallocha of the famous Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram have probably been worshipped because of their importance to life and livelihoods. For example, the temple tree of Chidambaram, which is a mangrove, might have been chosen because mangroves serve as bioshields against coastal storms and tsunamis.
My study of the oldest tree of India revealed that a tree belonging to the species Morus serrata may be the oldest one (over 1200 years). Adi Shankara meditated beneath this spectacularly large mulberry tree in the valley of Joshimath. The age of this tree could be measured only from the year when Adi Shankara preached under it. Thus, there has been a strong correlation between our spiritual history and the history of sacred trees (Indian Farming, February 1977). We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam for capturing the wonderful biological and spiritual heritage of our country in this beautiful book.
Sacred trees form an important part of the ecological heritage of India. Most temples, towns, and villages-and sometimes even Sikh temples and Muslims dargahs-are associated with trees. Some plants are sacred to the individual deity; others are sacred to the place. Sometimes, the tree is an integral or even larger part of the sanctity of the shrine; towns and cities and dynasties have been named after sacred trees.
Several plants have been worshipped in India from time immemorial. Wherever the tulsi grows-from the Indo-Gangetic plains to the shores of the Indian Ocean at Kanyakumari-it occupies a position of pride in the central courtyard of the house, tended carefully by the housewife. Apart from the elaborate myths connecting it to Lord Krishna, the tulsi plant has several medicinal properties (Figure 1). The leaves are swallowed to prevent colds, headaches, stomach disorders and even heart problems, and are used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine. Tulsi is often powdered and drunk. as a tea, or just eaten as fresh leaves. To protect and revere this plant with so many medicinal properties, it was designated as sacred, a fitting tribute to its role in providing invaluable healthcare.
The worship of plants is an ancient phenomenon in India. It is probably the oldest form of worship. The association of a single tree with a sacred sthala or sthan is reflected in the chaitya vriksha andsthala vriksha (explained below) of literature and society. The plants that were sanctified reveal the socio-economic and health concerns of ancient peoples. Some were sanctified for their economic role, some for their produce, some for providing homes for animals and birds, and others for their medicinal and air-purifying qualities. The process reveals the people’s knowledge of their environment and its conservation.
Tree worship is documented in all ancient societies all over the world. The earliest form of worship was probably the veneration of the tree. When people turned to food production, the Mother Goddess or the Earth Mother became the chief deity. Fertility, creation, and the world of plants and animals became her blessings to her devotees. The worship of the tree was the adoration of her creative abilities, symbolizing fertility so essential for the survival of the early people. Spirits-good and bad-were believed to reside in trees. If the trees were worshipped, then the resident spirits were pleased. As sacred forests were replaced by agriculture, a single tree was left, which was designated as the sacred tree.
The earliest temples were little more than images placed under trees. Later, the tree and the image were enclosed by a fence made of wood, followed even later by stone. The temple was a later construction. Numerous references are made in literature to trees as abodes of gods. They sheltered the object of worship: a deity, a fetish, a weapon, or any other. As the open-air shrine beneath the tree was replaced by a shrine or temple for the deity, the tree became the sthala vriksha of the temple; the tree was associated with the deity and became an inseparable part of the local mythology. The sthala vrikshas of India constitute the single genetic resource for the conservation of species diversity. The sthala vrikshas once played a major role in local ecology and their worship celebrates our biological heritage.
The sacred tree had many names: kalpa vriksha (tree of life which grants wishes), chaitya vriksha (tree shrine), and sthala vriksha (tree of the sacred site). There are many places that are named after sacred plants like Vrindavan, forest of the vrinda (tulsi or basil plant), near Mathura in the north, or Kanchipuram, town of the Kanchi (river portia tree), near Chennai in the south. Clans likeKaushika, Pallava, and Kadamba were named for grass, leaf, and flower respectively.
Sacred trees are generally associated with Hindu deities, Jaina Tirthankaras, and the Buddha. During the medieval period, each temple had its sthala pur ana or story of the sacred site written, which emphasized the sacred characteristics of the tree and the water body associated with the temple.
Trees were revered for anyone of four primary reasons: for their medicinal qualities, such as the neem and the tulsi; for their economic value, such as the Alexandrian laurel which was used to build catamarans and ships off the Coromandel Coast; for their ecological importance, such as the mangrove in Chidambaram; and for their sociocultural role, such as the banyan, the meeting place of theBania or business community.
In the Beginning
Tree Worship in the Vedas
Tree Worship in the Epics, Puranas, Jainism, and Buddhism
The Woman and the Tree
Tree Worship outside India
Bottle Flower Tree
Castor Oil Plant
Clearing Nut Tree
Flame of the Forest
Indian Butter Tree
Indian Laurel Fig
Indian Blue Water Lily
Ink-Nut /Chebulic Myrobalan
Javanese Wool Plant
Krishna’s Butter Cup
Mangrove (Blinding Tree)
Needle Flower Jasmine
Prickly Chaff Flower
Plant Names in Indian Languages
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