The Tamarind Tree

tamarind

A man set out on a long journey, but his wife did not want him to go. So she asked the local guru how she might hasten his return. “Make him promise” said the guru, “to sleep every night under a tamarind tree on the outward journey, and to lodge beneath a neem tree every night on the way home.” The man kept his promise. But tamarind trees exude toxic vapours (or so it is claimed) and make you feel ill; while neem trees are restorative. So the farther the man travelled, the worse he felt; and as he got nearer to home again he felt better and better.

-ColinTudge The Tree – a natural history of what they are, how they live and why they matter, 2005, Tree Rivers Press, New York.

“[sleeping under or near trees] is not that much danger, but you will feel body pain. If you sleep under a Tamarind tree, you will feel such a heavy pain. Since the villagers of south India know about this truth, they always avoid to sleep under big trees unless there is a good wind flow through-out.”

-JegaNathan.

I remember the first time I ever saw a tamarind tree. I was in Pune, visiting the Empress Gardens. With an agility of half his age, an old gardener surried onto a shed roof to throw fresh tamarind fruit into our waiting hands. It is one of my favourite Pune memories, eating fresh the fruit I had only used as a paste in cooking. Yet, I now know there are deeper about the Tamarind. 

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The ancient In Sanskrit texts call tamarind the tintrini tree. According to legend, it is connected with Parvati’s daughter Usha. In her honour, tamarind replaces salt in the month of Chet.

In north India, tamarind is commonly called asimli, and Imli-tala (shade of the imli) and is sacred to Krishna. Considered an incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna with Radha personifies ideal love. When apart from Radha, it is said Krishna sat under a tamarind tree where he experienced her spirit permeating him. Later the 15th century saint and reformer Chaitanya, who some believe is an incarnation of Krishna, also meditated upon Krishna seated under a tamarind tree.

The Ghosts of Night

However, the tamarind has a more haunting reputation from evening. At night, the evergreen leaflets fold, and are believed to be haunted. Perhaps this is because it’s acid content eaves the ground barren of other foliage. People avoid it at night, and believe sleeping under it causes pain.

The strong, subtle and wind resistant tree is grown in the precincts of temples to the Mother Goddess who it is believed fights evil spirits at night. People avoid walking near tamarind trees in the dark.

sitaramalk

Lakshmana’s arrows

Tamarind leaves are many of tiny and delicate leaflets, and they make a beautiful tracery against the sky. There are many myths to explain its feathery foliage. For example, the leaves were split by arrows shot by Lakshmana, according to the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Shri Rama, Lakshmana and Sita had vowed to live as sannyasin in exile from Ayodhya for fourteen years. Clothed in garments of bark, they lived on stream water, and the roots and berries of the forest.

They had vowed to sleep upon no bed but green grass and fallen leaves and under no roof save that of the sky.

One night, as they slept under a tamarind tree. a great storm arose, howling like raging demon. But under the tamarind tree, they slept peacefully, since the rain could not reach them through the thick leafy roof overhead.

A crash of thunder woke Shri Rama who realized that, although the storm raged, under the tamarind tree they were as sheltered as in a house. So Rama woke his brother concerned that they were breaking their vow not to take shelter.

However, Rama had no heart to wake beautiful Sita sleeping peacefully.

‘She is asleep; I have no heart to wake her up. what can we do, my brother? If we remain here, we shall break our vow. And if we move, we must take her with us.’

‘My brother,’ he said. ‘I know a way.’ And rising, he took his bow and with carful aim he shot his powerful arrows upwards at the thick leafy roof overhead.

The arrows of Lakshmana went one by one through each tamarind leaves shattering them into a thousand tiny leaflets and the rain poured through them so that the ascetics were no longer sheltered sheltered and fulfilled their vow.

Dura and Ganga fight Adivasi style

Durg and Ganga fight

Durga and Ganga fight 

According to Adivasi legend the conflict between  Durga and Ganga was a verbal but fond abuse between two village women.

Why is Ganga perched in Shiva’s head, Durga wants to know.

“It is Shiva himself who has folded me into his long tresses” says Ganga but Durga demands to know why Ganga qualifies for the honour.

“My water is supposed to be purifying”, Gaga replies. This only makes Durga furious to hear “That Old windbag”, muttering “So Mahadevi, the god of gods, needs her purifying touch. is it?”

“Who am I to talk of pure and impure? Why don’t you go and ask your husband?’

“Hold it” shouts Durga “you think I should bother Shiva over such trifles?”‘

“Well, bless yourself that I have not begun to sing your praises!” says Durga

Durga retorts “Killing eight new born’s, a blot on motherhood, that is what you are, don’t you question my reputation”

“The infants tat were born to me from king Shantanu were Ashta vastu and I had to kill them to lift the curse of them, otherwise which mother would do such a thing? So easily you abuse me, yet the world knows me as Triok-tarini. What about you?”

“None can equal my virtue” says Durga. “The world trembles at my power.”

“Well done, virtuous lady, married your own son? In the beginning you alone as Primordial energy permeated the world. Shiva himself was born of you. With this knowledge, how could you take him as your husband?”

“Your dumb, how would have creation happened otherwise?”  replies Durga. “Besides, I had already taken 108 births and rebirths before I married Shiva.”

…..  And so back and forth the debate continues unravelling the many myths of Durga and Ganga until each must admit the power and virtue of each other that strikes the chord of friendship.

Here the myth is painted and sung by the Patua painters of Bengal. The artists Manimala Chitrakar and Shri Gurupad Chitrakar are from the Midrapur region of Bengal. The art work is painted on a sora, or terracotta plate.

The Crisis of Modernity post socialism

indiragandhi

 

Since Indira Gandhi India is officially a socialist Secular state. Not that it ever was, even though Nehru held informal socialist sympathies. Third World was a term that meant non aligned with NATO (First world) or Communism (Second World), and as a leader of the non-aligned movement, leaders such as Nixon were sceptical of India falling to Russia.

I suggest that India’s diversity illustrates what was one of the biggest problems in Socialism. Governments have been forced to sink or swim in the maelstrom of the world market modernist critical culture keeps free imagination alive.As long as they are they are, as Octavio Paz put it “condemned to modernity” we will see the Third World marching to its chaotic drum.

Although during the Emergency Indira Gandhi altered Indias Constitution to describe the nation as Socialist as well as secular, I don’t ever think India truly has been socialist.

It seems social theorists, including Marx, have often called on myth, usually Grecian, as metaphor of their world view. In a land that defies any definitions, perhaps this is why neither Socialism nor Capitalism seem to quiet fit here.

Herbert Marcuse and Hanna Arendt criticised Marx for celebrating the value of labour bur neglecting other aspects of the human spirit – for a lack of moral imagination.

In his Eros and Civilization  Mercuse attacks Marx culture hero Prometheus  as “a culture hero of toil, productivity, and progress through repression … A trickster and (suffering) rebel … Archetypal hero of the performance principle.”

Marcuse prefers the image of Orpheus, Narcissus or Dionysius who “stand for a different reality … Theirs is the image of joy and fulfilment, a voice that does not command but sings, the deed which is peace and ends the labour of conquest”  he said.

Marshall Behrman in his wonderful All that is sold melts into the air – the experience of modernity, admits Marx imagination lacked the joys of peace but qualifies this adding Marx fetish is “the free development of physical and spiritual energies” ; “development of a totality of capabilities in the individual themselves” and “the free development of each will be the free development of all.”

Marx wants to embrace Prometheus and Orpheus says Berman, he says differing with Mercuse.

Mercuse and the Frankfurt school promoted the goal of harmony between man and nature. The problem was it would require an immense amount of Promethean energy to create it. The endless task would turn mankind into Sisyphus cursed to push a boulder to the top of a hill only to see it role down and be forced to return it for eternity!

Hanna Arendt in The Human Condition suggests another idea relevant to my view of India – the problem of Marx is not draconian authoritarianism but that that Marxism lacks a real basis for authority.

“Marx predicted correctly, though with unjustifiable glee, the ‘withering away’ of the public realm under the conditions of the unhampered development of ‘the productive forces of society’.”

Communists find themselves “caught in the fulfilment of needs that nobody can share and which nobody can fully communicate.” The depth of Marx individualism can lead to nihilism.

In a society where the free development of each is the free development of all, what will hold them together?

If they share a common quest for infinite experiential wealth  this would be “no true public realm, but only private activities displayed in the open”. It risks a sense of collective futility: “the futility of a life which does not fix or realise itself in in any permanent subject that endures after its labour is past.”

Arnedt doesn’t get closer to solutions but is  unclear what right action is supposed to be. She does distinguish the political and day to day production “the cares of the household” which is in her mind devoid of the capacity to create human value. She does rightly note that Marx did not develop a theory of political community this is the problem of modernism nihilistic thrust is unclear of what or who modern man can be, explains Behrman.

Ironically Behrman points out that those who criticise modernity the most need it the most. He suggests Marx is not  away out of life’s contradictions but a way back in.

 “He knew that we must start where we are: physically naked, stripped of all religious, aesthetic, moral haloes and sentimental veil, thrown back on our own individual will and energy, forced to exploit each other and ourselves in order to survive; and yet, in spite of it all, thrown together by the same forces that pull us apart, dimly aware of all we might be together, ready t outstretch ourselves to grasp new human possibilities, to develop identities and mutual bonds that can help us hold together as the fierce modern air blows hot and cold through us all.”

But I wonder is that completely true? Yes Modern India risks losing some of its charm in the rush to globalise.  However, India’s  deep religiosity could take it in (atleast) two directions.

Indian life is in many ways sacramental, daily life is elevated by rituals that offer meaning to the mundane. Could this be India’s saving grace? Or will religious nationalism pollute the search for inner meaning and tear the country apart?

I have never been a Marxist, yet suggest Marx idealised society was a gestalt not individuals but the sum of the interconnections between them. The whole was meant to be greater than the sum of its parts.

The focus seemed to be both the surface effects and the internal relations that produce them.

In India there is the conflict of class, especially caste, but we do have an agency greater than our natural needs.  We labour for some structure in a changing, contradictory and some fear self destructive modernity. But Marx could have never for seen how Capitalism and labour would mediate new forms of social independence.

In the 19th century, Newtons laws of Thermodynamics were the metaphor of change.  Now a protean transformative energy now fuels the world with chaotic quantum speed.

The philosopher von Weber’s metaphor was the power of rational ideas. Yet seems most discourse is illogical. The ‘argumentative Indian’ that Amartya Sen writes of, seems to want to argue for arguments sake. As long as he has a voice he will speak, but forget to listen.

But as Ilya Romanovich Prigogine reminds us that systems become more chaotic and either form new levels of order or collapse. So, It is up to India to decide if her new unleashed energy will create an new world or collapse into chaos.

What Weber succeeds in explaining – and matters for India today – is that the even in a religious society a prophet succeeds when he can articulate rationally his message and systematise the  living conditions and forces of his time. Then his charm is seen as genuine.

In the diversity of India who has a clear vision big enough? Markets have delivered prosperity but at a cost of the deep yearning of soul that fires the nation.

Perhaps India needs another Gandhi like figure. What if life becomes an art form or sacrament? Could this be India’s saving grace.

An Ayurvedic prescription for Individuality in tradition

navratri 082res

The Way to do is to be.

- Lao Tse

People should not consider so much what they are to do, as what they are.

- Meister Eckhart

I think the purpose of religion is to live life like a poem, To look carefully and see life, not to possess it, but to be it. To make life a sacrament. It is expressed in different way in different traditions. Traditions can seem to weigh people down, and yet the great sages of may traditions are uniquely individual.

In their uniqueness shines a perennial philosophy or sanatana dharma, which has always and everywhere been the metaphysical system of the prophets, saints and sages.

For example, in Hindu thought, the ultimate reality is the word principle (shadba-tattva) from which the whole cosmos manifests. Even for Westerners this should not be hard to understand. In Judaism words do things (“In the beginning God said, then it was so.”Genesis 1) and Christians claim Jesus is the Word “all things were made through him” (Jn 1:2).

In Hinduism the word is imperishable, the first born of truth. Mother of the Veda, hub of immortality.

The first creation is mahat, the intellectual principle, the seventh the creation of humans. The word is measured in four degrees (pada),  three kept closely hidden (guhu nihita) and  men speak only of the fourth degree of wisdom. This perception guides human life and culture.

But knowledge does not remain static. It multiplies  like the deposition of knowledge like the layers of matter caused by a flood, and becomes a tradition, or Paramapala.

Tradition is extremely important in India, there are 18 classes of texts, expressed in samhita, or revealed hymns, Brahaman , a human composition of  ritual acts, and Aranyaka, or rituals as symbols of hidden truth. The Upanishads mostly  debate the aranyaka.

But Parampala is derived from pauranika the appearance and disappearance of knowledge. Perhaps some things have been buried under the weight of millennia of history.

At times it seems the individual has no part in Indian culture. Individuality seems alien and disruptive in a culture with scant regard for privacy where tradition forces a “correctedness” with others and an ever widening circles of family. However, in all social forces we find an equal and opposite reaction.

The great sages were very unique.  So does tradition frustrate or inspire individuality?

Every tradition (paramaara) cycles through periods of ascent and decline. Sometimes because of contact with other cultures. The sages reveal that self awareness can recharge paramapara through the awakened individual. Greatness of a unique individual in the Gita is not his individuality in himself but the supra-individual that radiates through him as a channel of a greater energy.

While not a perfect fit, in the West one may think of the artists muse, or the divine spark within, speaking  out.

But as the poet Jaishankar Prasad reminded us in the poem Kamayani, an ego centric and unrestrained individualism is the worst enemy of the person himself.

Or as the Gita says “Whatever a great man does, people will imitate, they follow his example.”

Which is why traditions grow and decline. A civilization can also stagnate in the weight of tradition.

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An Ayurvedic Prescription: Individuality Vs Community

Ramesh Chandra Shah  in Parampara and the individual,  explains the word Vyashti does not quiet mean by individual person, (but is now used that way today) but contrasts with samashti, the monocentric human collective. He prefers the word abhivyakti to describe the modern worlds individuality.

Shah writes “Whereas Western civilizational values were threatened by the consequences of its own over-adventurism – by its own calculative enterprise of conceptual control of the universe, Indian culture, on the other hand, seemed to be threatened by its inertia and loss of creative self confidence.”

After the psychic onslaught of colonialism Indian paramapara has become congealed and dependent on defence mechanisms against the other, he suggests. Modern Indian Parampara is a response to secular western thought on tradition and modernity.

Shah tconsiders the Hindi poet, Agyeye, with his adaptive rather than a literal renderings, and T.S. Eliot who used the word Tradition closer to parampara,  inclusive of the gifted individual. What is needed, he argued,  is more the spiritually artist individuality to inspire Indian tradition. So Agyeye upgraded individuality to the principle of creativity and adventure or  maulikata. To build a nation of critics. As Yeats described: “In dreams begin responsibilities.”

The secret is balance. A very Ayurvedic prescription. The disease of the West is an over active rajoguna.In the East, their is a  weakening of the rajas and a preponderance of tamas. There is Uthi – a mere tradition hardened into a defence mechanism.  Post mediaeval there is stagnation, what Sri Arobindu called “great poverty of life”  in his “The Life Divine”.

Thousands of years earlier, in chapter 4 of the Gita, Krisna states he  taught the tradition  to Vivasvat who taught Manu but that over time it was lost.

But, a brighter side is possible if western ideas catalyse India’s own native capabilities.

In 1929 K C Bhattacharya spoke of a shadow-mind resistance to  the “svaraj in ideas’ or what Mahatma Gandhi later called ‘our hard-hearted  intelligentsia’. Looking at the virus of politicisation of every aspect of Indian life, with its unprecedented corruption, they seem right.

The individual can be thwarted by the shadow of  tradition congeals into rurhi. On the other hand an overactive value- blind (mulya-marh) indviduality will cost the community and nation.

While initially helpful, the loosening of rurhi has turned against us and become counter productive.

However, as much as India has been maligned  for her passivity , she is showing she does absorb new ideas.

navratri 089resishu

How will we bring back the poetry to tradition and life?

Erich From in “To Have or to be” describes how Tennyson picks a flower and describes it, Basho sees it but does not touch it, and Goethe,” the great lover of life, one of the outstanding fighters against human dismemberment and mechanization” picks up the plant root and all and transplants it in his garden.

Each poetically describe a flower, Tennyson must have it, but kills the object he describes, all Basho does is “look carefully” to “see” it .Self knowledge gave the West Rilke and Holderline who sung of departed gods and mans homelessness. We want more than the rootless changing technology of the marketplace.

This deep experience being is central to Indian paramapara. Could it offer the West a sacred centre?

“It is the nature of wisdom to be illusion-proof and clear sited. It does not claim immortality for itself, but for that from which it emanates” writes Shah. It is what Yeats called “the great memory”.

 Who has this inspiring Parampara?

The sages reveal that self awareness can recharge paramapara through the awakened individual. An individual self or jivatman who is illuminated through either intuition or discipline may realise the unity of being .

This is the unity sought by religion and civilization.

But there have been many modern sages. Yet we don’t say they gave us parampara, they revealled  a parampara called a yoga and revolves around meditation. This contrasts with Heideggers descriptve metaphor s that nuclear fission is logical consequence of the West’s objective, calculative  thought. It is atomistic. Individualism rather than individuality.

“What is the experience of the self where the duality between subject and object is lost and the individual artist becomes empowered to transmit the quintessence of a parampara in ever renewing forms of contemporary relevance?” writes Shah  “The answer, it seems, is contained in the question itself, because it appeals to that highest common factor of all religions, that perennial philosophy or sanatana dhama, which has always ad everywhere been the metaphysical system of the prophets, saints and sages. “

Then he quotes Aldous Huxley from his Introduction to the his translation of the Gita:

“It is only in the act of contemplation when words and even personality are transcended, that the pure state of the Perennial Philosophy can actually be known. The records left by those who have known it in this way make it abundantly clear that all of them, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Taoist, Christian, or Mohammedan, were attempting to describe the same essentially indescribable Fact.”

Navratri Bhopal 2012

Navratri Bhopal 2012

That is the source of Paramapara?

 “But the struggle of the individual towards this paramparika wisdom – the live process as well as attainment – is nowhere better exemplified than in the work of the artists and the poets. It’s this kind of internal evidence that speaks directly to us in our confusion and distress, because it’s the poet, the artist, who shares not only our aspirations to Unity of Being, but also our fragmented existential condition.”

 

As William Butler Yeats wrote:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

(Among School Children, from The Tower, 1928)

Wendy Doniger: When Westerners say what Indians tell me in private

doniger

Recently I found a forum debate about the relationship between Karna and Drapaudi suspended. It was considered too controversial. I thought this odd because the Mahabharata is full of ambiguity, “dharma is subtle” it proclaims, as each character has his shadow and shining light, her aspirations and secrets.

But why? There are hundreds of recessions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that often contradict. To some Ravan is a demon, in Sri Lanka a just king. It seems to me that the contradictions tell us something of India’s colletive psyche?

Then I remembered the reactions over Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, pulped by Penguin Books rather than go through a long drawn out legal battle.

I believe the Hindu faith is strong enough to withstand criticism without having to resort to legal challengers. Legal action reveals more about the emotions of the complainants than the diverse broad spectrum of ideas expressed under the Hindu umbrella.

Indeed, as a reader of history, I realise one of the best ways to spread an idea is to ban it. (Look at Islam, now the fastest growing religion on earth, in part, I suggest, in response to  negative media publicity since 911). I know I had ignored The Hindus until I heard it was pulped.

I believe banning The Hindus reveals India’s sensitivity to Colonial attacks, more than the book itself. I also feel it reveals that the slowness of India’s judiciary is blocked by a culture of complaint.

Indian nationalism developed  British milieu that castigated sex. Hindus were effeminite and oversexed, proclaimed Britian, made weak minded by early marriage and the  British fear that Tantra and the image of Kali inspired the Independence movement. As a result Hindu reformers from Ram Mohan Roy to Dayananda Saraswati questioned what they saw as corruptions of Vedic truth which included the stories of Krishna’s amorous adventures.

For decades, Doniger has argued that sex was part of Hindu literature. The lignum as an erect penis, and that Krishna’s 160000 consorts reveal an India that Brahmin history ignored or suppressed. That Brahmins forbade a practive reveal there were people doing it.

You are welcome to believe Doniger misrepresents Hinduism. Some have even labelled her work “pornographic… Skewed and superficial”.

But many Hindu’s have argued Hinduism was corrupted. Ram Mohan Roy persuaded Britain to ban sati and Dayananda claimed the Puranas of being mostly unbelievable and false, but retaining a seed truth.

 “Now the life-sketch of Krishna given in the Mahabharat is very good. His nature, attributes, character, and life-history are all like that of an apta (altruistic teacher). Nothing is written therein that would go to show that he committed any sinful act during his whole life” wrote Dayandanda in Satyartha Prakasha (Light of Truth), “but the author of the Bhagvat has attributed to him as many vices and sinful practices as he could. He has charged him falsely with the theft of milk, curd, and butter, etc., adultery with the female servant called Kubja, flirtation with other people’s wives in the Ras mandal,* and many other vices like these. After reading this account of Krishna’s life, the followers of other religions speak ill of him. Had there been no Bhagvat, great men like Krishna would not have been wrongly lowered in the estimation of the world.”

Of course, Colonial Britain and the then USA had also sanitised many of the potentially erotic moments in the Bible. However, I don’t see much in Donigers book that is not suggested elsewhere, even by some Indian and Hindu authors.

It seems the objection to Doniger is who said it.  Is it because she dares to put it all in once place?

When as  a Westerner I speak what many Indians tell me in Private, it is politically charged with an over sensitivity to past Colonial pain. …. And at times there is good reason. Many non Indians are obsessed with a sexualised misunderstanding of Tantra or Khajuraho.

For example, In Tàràpíåh, Western Tantric writer Hugh Urban “tried to question one skeptical and worldly older Aghorí about the infamous “fifth M” of Tantric practice—maithuna, or sexual union with a female partner. After my repeated prodding, he finally lost his patience and exclaimed, “All you Americans want to know about is sex. Don’t you get enough of that in your own country? Go back home to your ‘pornography’ and your ‘free love.’” On the other hand, I also met a wide range of gurus who were quite proud of their powerful esoteric knowledge and seemed more than happy to “advertise their secrets” to a well-funded Western researcher.”  The other extreme I read a Muslim blog posts that described Khajuraho as “the Playboy Mansion”.

She may have found her book banned, but Wendy Doniger rightly reminded us that Brahmin writers winged about women because there have always been those who refused to buckle under. Gargi rather immodestly challenged the wisest sage of her time. Draupadi challenged the legitimacy of her husbands selling her to slavery miraculously reclothed by those seeking to disrobe her.

Khajurahos exude mystical allure is often misrepresented in western fantasy as an ideal feminist sexual Elysium. And for those who long for the days when society seemingly applauded such ostentatious displays of erotica, Devangana Desai‘s stern rebuff: “There were double standards – men could have sex with as many women as they could afford while women were confined to their polygamous husbands. In fact, I think today’s generation growing up in cities with nightlife is much freer now.”

India has been a land of moral contradictions: of Manu’s moral stricture and Chandelas ppolygamous culture that loved the delights of women.

However, one inherent value of Hindu philosophy is the search for truth.

Of course, even Gandhi seems to have seen fit to realise at times politics requires you publicly with hold facts. (Gandhi’s hiding the name of Sheik Mehtab, a disreputable friend who nearly tempted him to partake of a prostitute was, I presume, because it would have inflamed division between Muslims and Hindus).

But for Truth to be found, all ideas must be fairly debated. Hence, I believe Penguins decision to pup the book a mistake.  Had the publishers taken the issue to the supreme court I suggest the book would have won the case on grounds of freedom of speech. Asking questions of history is not the same as deliberately provoking public outcry or causing a religious riot.

beautiful and the damned

Perhaps Penguin gave up because they had been stung before.

For example, in India,  Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India is published without the first chapter.  ” A man who does not appear in the disputed chapter for the simple reason that I was unaware o f his existence” sought an injunction after this a chapter was published in on the first chapter the February 2011 issue of Caravan magazine.

Since cases can take a decade, it is cheaper to pulp than fight.

“There is a sad irony to the fact that a book about contemporary India, while available in full in most o f the world, appears only in partial form for Indian readers. But that in itself says something about the state o f affairs in India these days, where critiques o f the powerful and wealthy, no matter how scrupulously researched, are subject so often to intimidation. It is easy enough to find, in the media, outrageous claims by corporations and celebrities as well as their demagogic doubles, whispering in the social media about conspiracies and backroom deals. What is missing, too often, is the kind of essay or article or book that tries to make sense o f such phenomena without succumbing to their allure, and that tries, in its own way, to offer a semblance of truth.” said Deb in an introductory explanation to his book.

Of course the convenient abuse of religious sensitivity s used by all religious persuasions to get personal, social or political advantage.    Of course, I hear Musims and Hindu argue Christians would not allow criticism of Jesus. But a look at the Australian TV tells me different. Comedians regularly lampoon Jesus and the Church, at times there is outcry, that is soon forgotten.

Whether you agree with her or not,  i think it is important that female historians speak in the important debate of history.

The first Patua painter

Patua Painting Myths

Patua Painting Myths

In the Midnapur region of West Bengal it iis said that the primordial god, Maranf-Burung, summoned the crab, the tortoise and snake from the netherworld.
He asked them to restore earth to the surface of the water and put them to work.
Then he created first two cows Ain gaye and Bain gaye. The cows created two birds from their saliva who laid eggs from which came the first man and woman, Pichu Haram and Pichu Burhi.
Pichu Haram and Pichu Burhi had seven sons and seven daughters who married each other against the concerns of their parents. So feeling guilty and ashamed the parents departed the world.
The oldest son, Jadab Guru painted his parents portraits and performed Chokkhudan, the ritual of making eyes on the faces of a painting, or offering of the eyes.
Thus the first Patua painter was born and the tradition of Patua painting began.
Here the artist Smt. Manimala Chitraker paints two myths on either side of a 15 foot stone slab.

Could Holika Dahan damage the environment?

Holika Dahan-II (Burning of Holika) By: Sonali De

Holika Dahan-II (Burning of Holika)
By: Sonali De

At a bus stop across from the Nashik shrine Sai Baba of Shirdi, a fire tree reminded me of Australia. The deciduous Red Silk Silk cotton tree, bombax ceiba, is commonly called Semal, or the Indian Kapok tree, or shalmali in Sanskrit.  Mentioned in the Mahabharata  mixed into old myths and traditions, it is also found in Africa.

In Ayurveda it is admired for its healing properties, and for the strength and elasticity of its wood, the Semal is essential for the ecology and Tribal culture.  Called Holi-Danda by tribals, it’ is the thorny tree of Yama, and is burned as Wicked aunt Holika during Holika-dahan in numbers that threaten the trees existence in Rajasthan

In Ayurveda In Ayurveda  almost every part of the plant is used.

However, in medicine mostly the roots and flowers are used as a stimulant, astringent, haemostatic, aphrodisiac, antidiarrheal, cardiotonic, emetic demulcent, anti-dysenteric, alterative, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, analgesic, hepato-protective, antioxidant, and hypoglycaemic.

It is also used in agro-forestry for livestock feed. The wood is strong, elastic and durable for ship building. The Kathodi tribe of Rajasthan uses wood for musical instruments such as the Dholak and Tambura. The Bhil use it to make kitchen spoons.

The edible oil is also a substitute for cottonseed for soap making and illumination. The fibres isolated from the fruits are used to make padded surgical dressings.

In myth bombax ceiba is the tree of the infernal imposition.

With its thorny appearance (kantakdruma), it is the tree of Yama , or Yamadruma. It is believed if the person dreams it, he will become ill and will soon die. In the Dungarpur district bombax ceiba  is considered inauspicious because the hooting owl nest in it. The Bhil of Udaipur believe the silk cotton from its fruit is not to be used in bedding because its plumed seeds are said to cause paralysis.

Also the ancient Brahamavaivarta Purana prohibits using it to clean teeth.

From Vedic times it was the Nakshatra tree of people in Jvestha constellation. It has been considered the home of the yakshis and was worshipped by women for the gift of children. For the semilia clan of the Bhil in Rajasthan it is a totem tree. The Garasia tribe in Bosa village near Sirobi district Rajasthan protect a tree in a sacred grove called Maad Bavasi and it is praised in song. They identify the tree with themselves.

Holika Dahann

Holika Dahann


Religious ritual and overuse

However, in Rajasthan the tree is under threat because of overuse, especially in tribal religious tradition.
The Kopak tree is popular among Tribals ritual, especially in Holika-dahan has caused a loss of trees loss of trees in Udaipur and Rajasthan.
Many know that during holika –dahan the flowers to develop eco-friendly colour. How ever in north India, especially Rajasthan , Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, there is a tradition – believed essential – of burning the tree.
The ritual of burning is considered as virtuous Prahlad . Poles are planted a month before the festival and an effigy of Prahlad and Holika are tied over the prepared Holi.
The whole silk cotton tree or a large branch is tied with sacred thread, coconut or vermillion and dry grass and fixed to the ground on Magha Purnima (the full moon day preceding the month of Holika-dahan) after the cleansing and worshipping of the land.
Among the Bhils, before cutting a pole, a coconut is tied on a bough. Liquor is trickled and vermillion applied. The tree is cut to have head and two arms and the pole is removed from the burning pile. The traditional two armed Holi is still prepared and planted.
In the Bhil villages of the Banswara district bamboo is also painted with red cloth tied to it representing Prahlad whereas the Bombax ceiba tree considered is the wicked aunt Holika. Amongst the Kathodi tribes five poles of five different species.
Whatever the tradition the focal point is the fall and destruction of the semal tree.

Need for sustainable use

A community in Manipur conserve it and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have conservation strategies to ensure the plant collected for medicine. However, those determined to perform the ritual have used songs to warn of upcoming forest guards.
In Udaipur city 1500-2000 trees were cut in 2007. The gravity of the situation listed 2351 villages in Udaipur district with an average 2300 young semal trees or twigs sacrificed.
Tree population has declined to the extent that other trees have been sold to a younger customer largely ignorant of the correct species.
The loss of the Kopak tree is damaging the environment, ecosystem and potentially loss of a very useful medicine and I wonder if the loss of the tree could have profound social implications. The Garasia tribe identify the tree with themselves in song. The moon and clouds are sung as father and mother, the village chief and his wife, brother and sister as the tree is praised as a relative.
Sadly, this same song is sung to warn the tree cutters of approaching forestry workers. As the Nakshatra tree of people in Jvestha constellation, a plantation of combex ceiba is something people expect. But if the tree is to continue to be honoured, then communities must be involved with in situ and ex situ conservation of the semal tree to preserve both the environment and this ancient tradition for future generations.

For further information:

Vartika Jain, S. K. Vernia, S. S.  Katewa,  Myths, traditions and fate of the multipurpose Combax ceiba L. – An appraisal  in the 2009 Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge Vol 8(4), Oct 2009, pp636-644