Mawphlang Sacred Forest – A Photo Story

Its no secret that India’s northeast is treasure-trove of many fascinating places. Ranging from varied natural wonders, age old archeological remains, living cultural sites of various tribes to religious places of mythological importance, India’s incredible north-east has it all! While on my trip to Meghalaya, I got an opportunity to visit one such interesting place – the Mawphlang sacred forest or Lawkyntang in Khasi. It is approximately 27 kilometers away from the state capital – Shillong.  Local Khasi people of Meghalaya, although now converted to Christianity have always remained nature worshippers. An important aspect of Khasi culture is their reverence for sacred forests. These sacred forests have been preserved and nurtured by the Khasi tribals for ages through strict religious sanctions.

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The road from Shillong to Mawphlang is quite scenic, winding its way through pretty hamlets along the road. After driving for about 40 minutes, the landscape dramatically changed, and I could see green hillocks all around covered with tiny green grass and a dense forest popping out from nowhere! The surrounding area is bereft of trees so this forest looks like an oasis in the grassy desert.

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We took a local guide with us and entered the forest through a small entrance formed by the natural canopies of Rhododendron trees. Just at the entrance, there were a few menhirs; our guide quickly told us that the standing menhir signifies a male while a horizontal stone slab supported on small stones signifies a female.  He was quick to tell us about the ‘strict’ rules of sacred forest that scared us a bit. One can sit on the female menhir for some rest but no one can or should climb a male menhir; the person who dared do so would get elephantitis! Not sure whether he was joking, we reluctantly nodded and entered the forest.

What we saw at the entrance was just a trailer, as inside the forest there were an infinite number of menhirs and funerary mounds / Dolmens, housing relics of the long dead ancestors. Menhirs were often erected in the memory of the dead elderly people who were highly respected in the society for their knowledge. But one can also find other menhirs, smaller in size, perhaps used for sitting while performing ceremonies and some used as platforms for ritualistic animal sacrifices. Khasi tribals visit these on many occasions but especially before going to war. 

Read more about menhirs and dolmens here

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The male menhir

 

 

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Menhir used as a platform for animal sacrifice

 

 

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A group of monoliths

 

 

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A Dolmen

 

 

 

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The forest seemed more of an overgrown megalithic site teeming with Menhirs than a sacred forest. But for the Khasis, the nature spirits and their ancestors are sacred

 

Once inside the forest, we were flabbergasted by what we saw. Such a beautiful sight that it could compete with best of the Hollywood movie sets! We were surrounded by so many different kinds of trees and plants as if it was a live botany lab! The forest got denser as we went further. Owing to the density of the foliage, sunlight could hardly enter except filtered through the thickets of leaves and branches making the gloomy interior of the forest even more mysterious.

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As we walked on the humus carpeted soft forest floor, our guide started giving us information and the scientific names of the plant species we were encountering along our path. Many species of parasitic Orchids, Rhododendrons, and mushrooms of various types could be spotted in abundance all around us. Other plant species that are common in the forest are Rhus Chinensis (Chinese Sumac or Nutgall), Schima Wallichi (Needlewood tree), Lithocarpus dealbatus, Engelher diaspicata (introduced by our guide as butterfly plant as when ruffled, its dried leaves appear like flying butterflies), Myrica Esculenta (box myrtle or Bayberry) and various Lichens. However the star attraction in the forest is the Castanopsis Kurzii trees as well as Khasi pine trees that form the dense canopy and also acts as a host to parasites like orchids, ferns, mushrooms, pipers, climbers and variety of mosses.

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There are so many unusual things in the forest fallen all around that we were tempted to pick them up and take them back as souvenirs especially the seeds of Elaeocarpus Ganitrus or as we know them commonly; Rudraksh. Why not- anyway it is just lying around; I thought. But our guide warned me not to take anything that belongs here outside the forest as these forests are protected by spirits locally called as U Ryngkew U Basa. These are believed to be sent by the Gods to protect the forest from human abuse. To convince me, the guide narrated a past incident when the army officers tried to take out wooden logs from the forest. But the truck carrying the logs refused to move from its place until the logs were unloaded and put back into the forest.

Carrying any of the forests’ belongings outside is believed to anger the Gods and the protective spirit here, which results in a poisonous snake being spotted by miscreant resulting in injury or death. Good behavior and no ill intentions while entering the forest is rewarded by being protected by a tiger or a leopard! Call me superstitious or whatever but not wanting to hurt their sentiments I dropped everything I had collected before leaving the forest. Thank God our guide at least allowed me to take the pictures I had clicked inside in my camera to be taken outside. Jokes apart, I have never seen something this awesome in my life before. I strongly suggest everyone to come here and visit this stunning biological museum of the Khasis whenever you make it to Meghalaya.

 

It is heartening  how nature holds utmost importance in Khasi culture and despite modernization and rampant abuse of nature elsewhere, these forests remain protected by men for whatever reasons. The way these beliefs are deeply embedded in the minds of the people truly speaks how constructive religious sanctions can be at times resulting in the continual development of a responsible society. Some traditions are worth keeping and following

 

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Free and wild growing roots of the trees have spread far and wide for there is no human to interfere here

 

How to reach: Hiring a taxi from Shillong (27 kilometers) to reach Mawphlang is the easiest way to reach. Shillong is less than 2 hours by road from Guwahati – the biggest city in Northeast with regular domestic flights to all major cities in India.

Where to stay: Although staying in Shillong is the most convenient option, a more adventurous traveller can opt to stay in the traditional Khasi huts constructed in Mawphlang village. Adventurous for the reason considering its remote location overlooking a valley, electricity is often a luxury here with not even small shops anywhere closeby!

Best time to travel here: Avoid monsoons for obvious reasons! Mawphlang village is also venue to an annual 3 day festival known as the ‘Monolith Festival’ in March.

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be reached at onkaar7@gmail.com

Mandapeshwar Caves – Isolated Remains Of A Tumultuous Past

4 kms in an hour. My bike can go faster but not the rush hour traffic and crowd of Swami Vivekanand Road in Borivali. Does not matter if its a sunday today for in Mumbai every waking hour is a rush hour. Exhausted but finally in front of Mandapeshwar caves. How I wish I could go back in time when the Buddhist monks used the Dahisar river to travel between Kanheri- a 5th century Buddhist university and Mandapeshwar- a Hindu rock cut cave complex that the monks had made their home.

Centuries have gone by and a lot has changed, including the course of Dahisar river that now flows at least 300 meters away to the east of the caves and is reduced to a dirty nullah. A far cry from a navigable river that was a nodal point of a wider trade route.

facade of Mandapeshwar cave

Nevertheless, I was very happy to see the caves being preserved and protected well with a compound wall and a large open breathing space in front of the caves contrary to Jogeshwari, Magathane and other such rock cut caves that are choked by illegal urban settlements mushrooming all around them.

Mandapeshwar is rather small for a cave complex and has just two caves, one much smaller than the other. The bigger cave, as is apparent was meant to be the main shrine for Lord Shiva while the other one- which is largely unfinished, plain and devoid of any sculptural traces was meant to be the living quarters.

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The caves start capturing your imagination from the entrance itself where four completely worn out frontal pillars of the Mandapa flanked by two pilaster in a fairly good state at the extreme ends, greet you.

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There are evidences of claws of an animal- most probably lion on both the sides of the entrance steps. As one enters the mandapa, we see more refined and fairly intact pillars. This cave has a total of five cells of which two are at the extreme ends and facing each other while the middle three cells are along the rear wall. It has a large Mandapa spread across five cells, most likely the reason why this cave shrine came to be known as Mandapeshwar- hall (Mandapa) of the lord (eeshwar).

L to R (nataraja cell, Pashupata cell, Sanctum, another cell, and the cell from where i have clicked this picture- a total of 5 cells)

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Entrance to the sanctum cell in cave 1

 

The central of the five cells is the sanctum sanctorum of the cave- the abode of lord Shiva. The entrance to the sanctum is flanked on both the sides with pilasters. These pillasters are designed in almost the same way as the rest of the pillars in this cave are, with an Amalaka as a capital. A quintessential feature of many rock cut caves of this period that are dedicated to lord Shiva, be it Mandapeshwar, Elephanta or as far as Badami in Karnataka.

Newly installed lingas in sanctum

 

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The interior of the central shrine is largely plain except for a couple of niches carved in the walls housing remains of withered sculptures. The sanctum is occupied by two Shiva lingas that are clearly a later addition to the cave.

Nandis in front of sanctum

Just outside the entrance of the sanctum, sits the original sculpture of Nandi bull- the vahana (vehicle) of lord Shiva, split into half with just the rear half still in place. Alongside the old and injured Nandi sits a younger Nandi with his ears in place to listen to the devotees. It is a general custom to whisper one’s wishes in the ear of the Nandi so that it reaches Lord Shiva and the same is granted. Look out for the inscription on the door jamb –  done during the Maratha rule as is evident from the devanagari script

Inscriptions on door jamb of sanctum

Moving to the extreme left cell, we see what can be termed as a treasure – a Nataraja panel carved with great details. A massive six armed figure of Nataraja takes the centre stage here surrounded by various other figures. On the right are the figures of Goddess Parvati along with two of her attendants. While on the other side is an artist beating a drum. The upper left corner is occupied by the three headed Brahma while the upper right corner has Vishnu. Just below Brahma’s sculpture is the sculpture of Lord Ganesh. Celestial beings are present on both the sides of the head of Nataraja.  The panel seems like some sort of a celebration, Henry Salt in his ‘Account of the caves in Salsette’ published in Transaction of literary society in Bombay Vol.1 1819 A.D, describes this panel as that of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. However few historians are of the opinion that the figure thought to be Parvati is just another attendant and the panel depicts the dance of Nataraja to the beats of a drum!

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The story of the creation of Mandapeshwar caves between 5th and 6th centuries and the ensuing events that took place is a tale of how structures bear a testimony of the struggles of the time and encapsulate it. 90 percent of the rock cut caves in Maharashtra are of Buddhist origin including the nearby caves of Mahakali & Kanheri, but what makes Mandapeshwar fascinating is that the construction of this Shaiva cave is also attributed to the Buddhist monks. What made the Buddhist ‘missionaries’ hewn a Hindu cave? Could it be that Buddhism- a comparatively new religion then considered itself to be a faction of Hinduism? Is it possible that the Buddha was still considered more of a saint than God while the Hindu Gods continued to be worshipped?

Lets compare the time periods of the construction of Kanheri and Mandapeshwar caves. Kanheri caves, cut as early as 3rd century BCE, attained the status of a Buddhist university between 4th and 5th centuries. At its zenith, Kanheri had a total of more than 125 different types of caves and structures including Stupas, cemeteries, Chaityas (prayer halls) and Viharas (residential chambers for monks) carved out of a single rock hill. There is a possibility that during those years Kanheri’s infrastructure could not handle the increasing population and they were forced to look for accommodation options for its visiting monks. Various historical texts confirm that Mandapeshwar was indeed used as a residential quarter by the Buddhist monks. Kanheri was situated very close to the mouth of Dahisar river and Mandapeshwar was along its banks making it very easy for the monks to access it by the riverine route. Dahisar river was a part of a bigger trade route that existed between Konkan and Sopara (today’s Nala Sopara which was an established Buddhist center back then).

Pashupata panel cave 1

 

Another sculptural link that connects the dots, is the cell between the sanctum and the Nataraja panel cell. This cell is apparently thought to have had a large sculpture of Lakulisha (a Shaiva sect reformist and often considered the last avatar of lord Shiva himself) in the centre sitting on a lotus flower, stem of which is held by two nagas, while the central nonexistent sculpture is surrounded by other divinities and celestial beings. The style in which the lotus is carved, anyone with even a little knowledge about Buddhist sculptural art would not miss the connection between this sculpture and sculptures of Buddha represented in rock-cut art of the same period. Although, much is lost in this panel and the central Lakulisha figure is destroyed beyond recognition, we can only guess (logically) that the Pashupata cult that Lakulisha is often associated with, was dominant during this period.

Plain interior of cell next to Sanctum (if Pashupata cell is on left then this is on sanctum's right side)

Looking out from Pashupata cell

The cell on the other side of the sanctum however is plain with no sculptures except for few on the pillars and so is the lateral cell next to it

Cell 5 (its not called cell 5 .. im calling it cell 5 so you know which one is in the picture)

Sculpture on a pillar in cave 1

As you step outside the main cave and walk towards the second cave, you notice a misplaced symbol on the southern facade- a rock-cut Christian cross. This seemingly small cross however is the only remnant of Mandapeshwar’s tumultuous past. The Portuguese chipped off what was thought to be an idol of lord Shiva and flattened it to carve a cross out of it.

Southern external facade of the cave (right side is the Portuguese cross, and left side is the entrance to Cave 2)

Every event that soon followed has two drastically opposite theories, one from the Hindus trying to portray the Portuguese and the Christians in bad light and the other claimed by the Portuguese blaming Marathas for destruction of sculptural art here due to the usage of heavy explosives to uncover the Hindu sculptures from the plaster used by Portuguese to hide them.

Clicked from cave 2

It all goes back to the time when the Portuguese were ruling Mumbai with their main base in today’s Thane on extreme northern end of Sashti- the Marathi name for Salsette island on which the caves are located. Hearing about these wonderful rock cut caves, the Portuguese arrived here in mid- 16th century and chased away the Hindu yogis to set up their base in Mandapeshwar thinking of a larger role for it to be played in future. The Christian account of the same story however claims that the Portuguese arrived at Mandapeshwar wanting to meet the Hindu yogis but hearing of the news of arrival of the Portuguese, the Yogis got scared and ran away. However, both these accounts agree that a yogi known as Ratemnar was converted by the Portuguese priests and was given the village of Mandapeshwar.

Cave 2 & cave 1 and monastery on top of it

 

The Caves were soon converted into a shrine for Mary named as Nossa Sra De Piedade (roughly translating to Our Lady of Pity) with all its Hindu sculptures buried under a thick layer of smooth plaster and the Shiva shrine was hidden by a brick wall in front of it. Mandapeshwar was ripped off its identity and it came to be known as ‘Monapazer’ or ‘Mont Pesier’ by the Portuguese. As a part of expansion of the complex, a church and a monastery was constructed on top of the cave and was used to impart religious education to the recent converts and other Indian Christians. Another shrine was erected on the opposite hill and a graveyard in between the two.

 

Mount Poinsur church Graveyard

After about 180 years of functioning as a Christian shrine, Mandapeshwar returned to its original ‘faith’ and again became a Shaiva shrine when Maratha prime minister Bajirao Peshwa 1 defeated the Portuguese in 1737 in the battle of Bassein (Vasai). But Mandapeshwar soon exchanged hands when the Sashti island went to the British in 1774 under the treaty of Salbai with the Marathas. The caves again became a Christian place of worship. The Portuguese church, however couldn’t survive and what remains today are beautiful ruins evocative of a distant past. 

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Ruins of the portuguese monastery

The second cave at Mandapeshwar is very different than the main cave in many ways. There are no sculptures, no carved pillars, no idols, no niches but just a large plain hall. The only traces of carvings are found on the entrance pillars which form the southern facade of the main cave.

Narrow rock cut path to cave 2

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Cave 2 interior shot

Mandapeshwar caves remained a Christian place of worship till 1920’s and was possibly abandoned later. Around 1960’s the caves were declared a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India and continues to be a popular Shaiva shrine. Life seems to have truly come a full circle for Mandapeshwar!

a small devotee

A walk today in this area better known as ‘Mount Poinsur’ (a disambiguation of Mandapeshwar) of Borivali is a living reminder of its past. The residential area along the Laxman Mhatre Road and Swami Vivekananda Road are largely Hindu whereas to the rear side of the caves is IC colony; named after the Portuguese Immaculate Conception Church, a residential colony that has highest concentration of Christians in entire Mumbai. As a popular quote by journalist Edurado Galeano goes “History never really says good bye. History says, see you later”!

Author – Onkar Tendulkar 

He can be contacted at onkaar7@gmail.com      

Chikal Kalo – A Photo Story

“Jai Hari Vitthal” chant a hundred mouths in unison. The oil smeared participants and the audience are ready and so is the ground; slushy from incessant rains. Perfect for a hearty roll in the muck. You read that right ! This is exactly how the people of Goa celebrate Lord Krishna and his childhood games played during the monsoon

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On Ekadashi (11th day) of the hindu month of Aashad, villagers flock to the ground of Devki Krishna temple in the village of Marcel in Ponda taluka. This is the only temple in the country dedicated to Devki, mother of Krishna. After a sampak (continuous prayers / Jagrata) of 2 days, the celebration commences by invoking the local deity, Dad Sakhal whose shrine is opposite the scene of action, the Devki Krishna Temple. The participants, mostly men, in their shorts slather their bodies with oil to prevent infection or allergy from the slush.

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After oiling their bodies, all the participants enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and dance in a circle while chanting “Jai Hari Vitthal” to the tune of cymbals. The pace quickens and the chanting gets louder till it reaches a crescendo. Then they symbolically smear the oil from the lamp, burning in front of the idol of Devki holding the baby Krishna, on their bodies. A signal for the games to begin

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Everybody troops out of the temple and Chikal Kalo begins by throwing each other into the mud. Chikal Kalo literally translates to play in the mud

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Why should the kids remain behind. In fact, they have the maximum fun

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Girls join in the fun too along with the boys

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Traditional games such as running catching, blind man’s bluff, frog and the mountain, passing the parcel etc are played; all in a slushy muddy amphitheater

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What.. stop .. for food … naaaaa we are not going home … today we eat sweets and savouries  lovingly made for us by the villagers. The participants of Chikal Kalo have the honour of first tasting the sweetmeats made for the day before the others in the village.

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And then again roll in mud ! Today we are Balakrishnas

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Whether young or old, rich or poor, today everybody is equal and we just want to have fun with our friends like Krishna had with his friends during monsoon. The sense of camaraderie and joi de vivre is infectious

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After an entire day of revelry, Chikal Kalo ends with the symbolic breaking of the dahi handi (pot of butter) by the participants.

Chikal Kalo is a unique festival celebrated only in Goa and a must see and experience if you are around this side during the famed monsoon of the land (check the hindu calendar for Ekadashi dates or just google). The mud festival begins in the morning by 10 am and finishes around 5 pm in the evening. If you are planning to shoot, do not forget to get protection for your camera lenses and if you wish to participate then just jump in the muddy slush and roll ! Goa has much more to it than beautiful palm fringed beaches and stunning sunsets.

Text – Zehra Chhhapiwala

She can be contacted at zchhapiwala@gmail.com

The pictures have been clicked by a young street photographer Rohanyuri Fernandes.

He can be contacted raulabrez@gmail.com

Himalayan Temples – A Himachali Sojourn

Growing up in Darjeeling and Kolkata, and being a regular visitor to the neighbouring state of Sikkim, as a child I invariably associated the Himalayas with gaily painted Buddhist monasteries or gompas, fluttering colourful flags that kept away evil spirits, and maroon robed monks. It was much later when I travelled to Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh that I realised these age-old mountains held many secrets amidst its high peaks. Some in the form of beautiful old temples carved in stone and wood.

My tryst with Himalayan temples started with a visit to Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Gangotri, during my school days. Despite the milling crowd, these places still

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Kedarnath temple (approximately 8th c. CE), Uttarakhand

retain a charm of their own, and a darshan of the evening aarti at the Kedarnath temple is a magical experience. Makes you realise why “the land north of Ganga-dwar is known to the wise as Paradise Ground” (Kedarkhand Skanda Purana).

There is a belief among the mountain dwellers that in the Himalayas there are as many deities as there are hamlets. Nothing could be truer than this especially in Himachal Pradesh where every hamlet has its own local deota and possibly a kul deota of the head priest. They are worshipped in kathkuni styled pretty shrines built with wood and stone

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Hatu Mata temple (newly constructed) dedicated to Mandodari, wife of Ravana, at Hatu Peak in Narkanda in Himachal Pradesh

. Besides the temples for the local deota that are often reconstructed or relatively new, there are also many early medieval (post classical era) stone temples with exquisite sculptural works on them. Most of these temples are functional, well maintained, and

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Shikhara of an almost 1400 year old temple within the Chaurasi temple complex in Bharmour, Himachal Pradesh.

often under the purview of the ASI. Yet, they remain unknown to most tourists that travel to Himachal Pradesh. While speaking to the locals I realised that this anonymity is a conscious decision for keeping the temples away from unwanted attention. The locals prefer to preserve them the way they have always been … standing in isolation.

Interestingly, besides the stone and wood temples, often trekkers come across small piles of stones at a particularly precarious bend or at a cross-point, with a flag or cloth tied onto them. These are holy shrines dedicated to the hillside spirits or deotas gathered up as an appeasement to avoid accidents. A custom that is as ancient as human civilisation and continues unabated through time.

The Kullu Manali circuit

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The Kullu Manali circuit, a tourist hub famous for its scenic landscape, is also renowned for its temples and often referred to as the Valley of Gods. The ancient name of Kullu was Kulut or Kulantapitha, and finds mention in old Vedic literature. The term Kulut is historically important as it denotes a place that was beyond the then dominant socio-political norms or kula- vyavastha. Around 6th c. CE, after defeating the imperial Guptas, Khashas became the dominant ruling class in this area (as recorded on the Salanu inscription from the Tirthan valley), and they established a Gana-rajya, a form of theocracy (Malana remains an extant example).  Few centuries later the Rajputs dispelled the Khashas and brought in the feudal system, forcing the Khashas to migrate to distant places. Interestingly, the Khashas, later came back as Rajputs and are still considered powerful in the outer and inner Seraj region of the Kullu valley.

A somewhat definitive history of the Kullu valley can be derived  from the genealogical records of the Rajas of Kullu known as Vanshavali. From this record it is believed that Vihangamani Pal after being displaced from his seat in Haridwar (then known as Mayapuri; though there are some speculations that Vihangamani Pal came from Prayag) came to establish his kingdom at Jagat Sukh, with the blessings of the Hadimba devi. Thus, started the Pal dynasty that ruled Kullu until 1450 CE. From Jagat Sukh, Raja Visudh Pal shifted his capital to Naggar, and later the capital was again moved to Sultanpur (Kullu) in 1660 under Raja Jagat Singh.

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Inside the Naggar castle, the palace from where the Kullu kings ruled

The entire valley, covering Kullu to Manali that includes Mandi, is dotted with temples built predominantly in the Nagara style of temple architecture. The Nagara style, originated during the Gupta rule, shows the following basic characteristics: a cruciform base plan, a curvilinear/convex shikhara, a garbagriha and a mandap

  • The ground plan is square with gradual projections from the centre of each side giving it a cruciform shape. With a single projection from two sides, the temple would be a Triratha; two projections from two sides would make it a Pancharatha; three projections from two sides would be Saptharatha; and four projections  from two sides of the temple would make it a Navaratha. These projections often continue throughout the entire temple height and end at the skandha (shoulder course).

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    photo from wiki
  • The temples have a tall spire known as Shikhara that gradually curves inwards, ending at the skandha, above which is the griva (circular necking).  On this is placed a ribbed circular stone slab known as Amalaka, often carrying a Kalasha on top
  • The dieties are housed in an inner chamber called the Garbhagriha (sanctum)
  • A covered entrance hall or porch leads to Garbhagriha called Mandap

 

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From the book – Temples of India by Tarun Chopra

 

In Himachal Pradesh, owing to easy availability of wood from forests, another common form seen is the timber bonded style with a pent roof and a veranda. The other styles seen are:

 

  • The pagoda style (Hadimba temple in Manali)
  • The domed temples (Jwalamukhi temple in Kangra)
  • The flat roofed ones (Narbadeshwar temple at Hamirpur)
  • Satlej valley style (Bhimakali temple in Sarahan)

 

Bhimakali temple in Sarahan (Photo from wiki)

 

My article will focus on some of the temples in and around Naggar, which was once the capital of the Kullu kingdom.

Tripura Sundari temple

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This is a huge pagoda style three-storeyed wooden temple, similar to the Hadimba Devi temple in Manali. According to folklore, the temple was in the shape of a spider web woven by the Devi herself after turning into a spider. The original temple was built during the reign of Raja Yashodha Pal, while the current prettily carved wooden structure is largely a reconstructed one.

While inside the temple complex, I noticed many stone murtis , evidently older than the wooden structure that we see now. Some were kept free standing, while some were embedded into the newly constructed walls. Being a functional temple all  murtis are under worship, evident from the flowers and leaves in front and the red tilak on their foreheads. The murtis include Anantashayana Vishnu, Ganesha, Shiva-Parvati, and Mahisasurmardini. Sharhi yatra, an annual fair is held here in the month of May to honour the Goddess.

Wooden carvings on the temple wall showing a mithuna couple and floral patterns

Peacocks, Dwarpalas, and Ganesha on a door panel (left) and a devotee or a donor on the temple wall

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Stone murtis once part of the original temple (?) Lakshmi, Anantashayana Vishnu, and Ganesha (looks to be part of a broken panel, now cemented to the wall) kept together under a newly constructed shed

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A rather mossy looking wooden simha pranala: there are four such pranalas placed at four corners of the pagoda styled shikhara

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Footprints carved on stone, placed near the entry door to the temple

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Mahisasurmardini murti kept near the temple doorway

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Tripurasundari devi inside the garbhagriha

 

Gauri Shankar temple

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This beautiful 11th-12th c. CE temple stone stands right beside a village, yet holds a serene atmosphere. It was raining when I had reached the temple and there was not a soul in sight. As I stood in front of the centuries old stone structure, then wet and glistening in the rain, the feeling was ethereal and of supreme tranquillity.

The Gauri Shankara temple is a perfect example of Nagara style, following the Gurjara Pratihara tradition that was once popular in the Kullu valley. It is considered the last temple to follow this particular architectural pattern in this area. It is tri-ratha in plan, has a square garbhagriha, with a vedibandha (the socle) showing kumbha and ardharatna motifs that include the mouldings of kalasa and kapotali . The jangha (temple wall) show bhadra niches on the three cardinal directions east, north, and south. The walls have square and rectangular recesses that depict dancers, musicians, warriors, deities, birds, purnakumbhas, and purnaratnas. The shikhara is curvilinear, with an amalaka at top, is decorated with chaitya motifs (chandrasalas), and the corners have bhumi amalakas marking the storeys. The mandapa is pillared with square bases and ghatapallava as capitals, while the sanctum entrance holds a Ganesha on the lalatabimba.

A beautiful stone nandi greets you as walk towards the temple doorway. Notice the little figure that is pulling its tail ( a closer look will reveal it’s  a little lady who dares to pull Nandi by his tail)  

The river devis, Ganga and Yamuna holding kalashas, along with dwarapalas, on two sides of door leading to the garbhagriha They wash away your sins and impure thoughts before you enter the sanctum

Left: A very happy looking Gauri Shankara light up the garbhagriha. Right: five receding panels on the door jamb show dancers, musicians, and geometrical and floral patterns

Carvings on the temple walls showing floral patterns, birds,  purnakalasha, and figures of deities

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Panels on the jangha showing a bird, a rishi (or devotee?) sitting with folded hands, purnakalasha, and a musician playing a dhol like instrument. Adjacent to it is the shikhara of a niche
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Jangha with the fluted pillared niche, and below it the Vedibandha with its ardharatna motifs and a pranala to let out the water from garbhagriha

A donor couple (or devotees) and a mithuna (an amorous) couple sculpted on the wall.

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Trimukha Shiva from part of a broken panel is kept in one of the niches. The pillars here are of the fluted type. A panel commonly seen on the Shikhara of the Himalayan temples. After all, Himalayas are Shiva’s abode

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Another broken panel of Shiva kept in a niche

Dashal temple

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This 11th c. CE temple sits amidst an enchanting setting, surrounded by thick forests and orchards. I came across it while walking aimlessly through the Dashal village lanes. The pretty roads take you around the farms, orchards, and you meet a gushing stream with a panichakki. After crossing the little wooden panichakki, you  take a turn and suddenly this temple is upon you. The rains had just stopped when I reached, and the clouds were slowly dispelling, when the sudden appearance of a temple from amidst the rising cloud cover made the entire setting seem almost unreal.

This pancharatha Shiva temple with a pillared mandapa is richly carved and figures of Vishnu, Brahma, and flying gandharvas are seen on the capitals. The door frame of the garbhagriha is richly carved with floral patterns and figures of dancers and musicians. Ganga and Yamuna with dwarapalas flank the doorway, while Ganesha sits on the lalatabimba. Above the lintel is a panel depicting the navagrahas.

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At the top we can see the three faced form of Shiva. Below, at the mandapa entrance can see figures of Vishnu on Garuda (left pillar head of the temple) and Brahma (right pillar head) on the pillar capitals
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Ganesha on lalatabimba and navagrahas on a panel above him

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Ganga and Yamuna with dwarapalas on pilasters flanking the doorway to the garbhagriha

the two figures one two sides of the wall as one enters the mandapa

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a worn out murti of Vishnu and Lakshmi on Garuda is kept on the left side of the mandapa
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Inside the garbhagriha

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Other stone figures inside the garbhagriha include Mahisasurmardini, anantasayana Vishnu, Shiva. 

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purnakalasha, floral patterns and mithuna couples on the temple wall panel

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 Left: A pillared  niche on the temple wall: Right: Two bharavahaks doing their eternal duty of carrying heavy loads

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Two beautiful Nandis, age-old and weather beaten, yet standing guard 

Erotica carved on temple walls have a deep underlying philosophy. During Vedic times, Purusharaths (human life goals) were propounded and one among them was Kama or physical pleasure. Mithuna couple sculptures on the walls of temples panders to ancient Hindu philosophy wherein yoga (spiritual exercise) and bhoga (physical pleasure) are the two paths that lead to moksha (final liberation), explains Tarun Chopra in his book ‘Temples of India’. Deep in the throes of passion they represent the transition from the physical to the spiritual plane of consciousness analogous to the walk from the mandap to the garbhagriha. One enters the sanctum leaving behind all worldly thoughts including the erotic represented by mithuna sculptures on the walls of the temple

Naggar and its adjoining areas areas are dotted with temples of various styles and times of construction. Among these, some temples and a unique custom that caught my eye are:

  1. A beautiful Shiva temple hidden amidst the surrounding houses, remains well maintained. I am especially fond of the mandapas of the Himachali temples with their little pillared entrances. Half way up on the plain shikhara, clearly visible are the three faces of Shiva, looking benevolently down at us

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Some sculptures that I  saw lying outside. These are all worshipped, and the temple is  a functional one with a deity inside the garbhagriha. 

2. An old Chandi temple showing the the timber bonded style with a pent roof and a veranda. The small, solitary wooden structure in the second photograph, I was told, is a place where the neighbouring deities reside, when they come visiting.

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3. A roadside “ancient” village temple dedicated to a devi. What interested me here were the offerings made to the goddess. The masks were eye catching too.

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Noticed horns of animals as offering. My guide insisted this devi temple was an ancient one too, but now completely renovated and built over in a new style!

4. An interesting custom prevalent in the region is the worship of the local deotas that is distinct for every hamlet. While I missed the devta on his palanquin in this celebration in a village named Banjar, we met a couple of apdevtas roaming around in their broom stick gowns. We were duly blessed by them with dried floral twigs that was to be put behind our ears and kept for the day. A novelty to be blessed by the apdevta instead of devta!

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The apdevtas in their broomstick gowns
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This is how you wear your blessings from the apdevta!
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The smiling face behind the mask of an apdevta.

As I keep taking the roads less travelled in order to explore the interiors of Himachal Pradesh, lately I find myself agreeing more and more with the locals when they tell me that these temples and certain remote high altitude places are better off when kept away from tourist radars. The feeling of awe, the overwhelming sense of magic and enchantment, the sensation of an unspoken power radiating from these old temples when I stand in front of them, would all disappear like thin mountain mist, if hordes of disinterested tourists carrying their plastic packets of chips and water bottles descended upon them. Some paths better be left less travelled, except for the ones who truly love and respect nature and heritage.

 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com

                                                                                or at

Moni Gatha

Kalpavriksha and Its Depiction in Art and Architecture – An Overview

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

Ashwattha is synonymous with our country and its symbolism. The figs are the most commonly found trees in the country and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus Valley Civilisation but it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed the Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit for it can provide shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. They are tree shrines as idols were consecrated below these trees and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered the Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on the planet and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find groves that are held sacred. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of a few hundreds of years. How it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

sacred sycamore

Let’s begin with some of the oldest civilisations of the world. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of the sacred spirits. The dense, lush trees are one among the oldest species of trees and are known for their longevity and hardiness.  Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source

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Ficus religiosa on different Indus valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as :

The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.”

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis) that is both the Pipal and the Banyan. So next time you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under the roadside ficus trees along the streets of our country.

The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence it is associated with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata, and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types)are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over the wish fulfilling trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.

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Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 

 

A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins. (Picture source).

 

The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge, as it is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. While we can say the Bodhi tree depicts knowledge, the kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution to our daily lives and existence.

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Kalpavriksha in  Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad. Here we find  a kalasha bearing the kalpavriskha that forms a beautiful creeper like pattern (very reminiscent of the alpona that we draw during our pujas back home in Calcutta). Photos credit: Jitu Mishra

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.

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Worshipping the chaitya vriksha, a jack-fruit tree,  as we see at Sanchi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

According to mythology, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma, was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc. Interestingly, from simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavriksha that with their beautiful floral patterns make us wonder at their aesthetic beauty. On the other hand it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture – The deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a Badri tree, 5th c. CE Gupta period, Deogarh. Source

Thus we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and the 10 kalpavrikshas grant 10 different desires that include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery)

 

Interestingly  forms of Kalpavrisha are also depicted beautifully in the mosques of Gujarat. Left: Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad and Right: Ceiling of the Jami Masjid, Champaner. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

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Kumbharia Jain Temple, Gujarat. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra. 

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The tree of life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.

  

A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 

 

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Various depictions of the tree of life on Islamic monuments of Gujarat. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs on rugs and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.

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Beautiful curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see that a palm tree is depicted at the top. Pictures credit: Jitu Mishra. 

 

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Mughal version of the gardens of heaven as seen in Fatehpur Sikri. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.

       

Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Left: Tree of life on floor mosaic, 8th c. CE, Jericho. Right:Tree of life on an arched doorway. Both are likely Christian depictions.  Source Source

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world

 

Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Right above: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right below: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source

 

German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, or a mosque, or a church or a chaitya or a jain derasar, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is ultimately connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at Akbar’s Mausoleum in Sikandra. Picture courtesy: Self) 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Monidipa