Faith and tradition

In certain hilly areas of Jammu, trees are worshipped. They are believed to be resorts of gods and ancestral spirits. Not a branch can be cut without performing proper rituals, writes Suraj Saraf

Tree trunks on which images of spirits have been carved. Placed next to them are stone idols of gods and goddesses
Tree trunks on which images of spirits have been carved. Placed next to them are stone idols of gods and goddesses Photo by the writer

THERE are frequent references to devaranyas (sacred forests) and chaityavrikshas (sacred trees) in ancient Indian scriptures. Indian epic literature had strictly laid down that not even a leaf of the chaityavrikshas be destroyed because these leaves are resorts of gods, yakshas, nagas, apsaras and ancestral spirits.

In some northern mountainous pockets of Jammu, there are banis or mini tree patches in the forested areas where, if someone requires timber or leaves, he has to perform proper rituals with a hereditary bani priest, supplicating the tree spirit to allow him to have the required material. It was done so that the spirit of the tree may not be offended, putting the offender to severe misfortune.

Numerous seals have been found from the Sindh Valley Civilisation wherein trees with a deity and worshippers had been depicted. The late KN Shastri from Jammu, who had been curator of the Harappan museum for 22 years, right since its discovery, had shown many such seals in his two-volume book, New light on the Indus Civilisation.

In The Wonder that was India, A L Basham also refers to a number of such seals wherein tree deity is shown deterring a predator animal coming near it (tree).

As regards anthropomorphising the tree deity, Basham had pointed out an interesting allusion to the tree goddess Arani Devi in Rigveda:

Lady of the forest;

Who seems to vanish from sight in distances;

Why do you never come to the village?

Surely, you are not afraid of man;

Now I have praised the lady of the forest;

Which is perfumed with balm and fragrance;

Who is well fed, although she tells not;

The mother of all things of the wild.

Many deities in the vast Hindu pantheon decreased or increased in importance over long time. Arani, or the forest goddess, also decreased in importance in the post-Vedic times though she continued to be represented on some temples. Two most important of Arani sculptures that had become world famous are the Sanchi Stupa, eastern gate, and the other in the Gwalior museum, which Stella Kramrisch had displayed on the cover of her book, The Art of India. Out of this long-held cult of sacred trees, also grew the concept of kalpa vriksha, or wish granting. Tree images of kalpa vriksha had been carved copiously on temples and even on earlier coins.

In his Indian Art, Vasudeva S Agrawala says: "Kalpa vriksha was the symbol of mind where kalpa signifies thought or idea. What one wishes under the kalpa tree, one can get. Life itself is a kalpa vriksha. It has been described in The Ramayana, The Mahabharta, Buddhist Jatkas, Puranas, Jain texts and classical Sanskrit literature. It is depicted in detail in Bharhut, Bhaja and Sanchi sculptures, shown with ornaments and textiles and other objects of food and drink.

Regarding the highly sacred character of trees, John Irwin had underlined: "As a symbol of cosmic life, the most important component of a stupa would be an axial pillar, symbol of the axis of the universe itself, which religionists call Axis Mundi. This commonly takes the shape of a pillar but was the image of the world tree mythologically conceived as both separating and uniting heaven and earth. In the Vedas this tree is called Vanaspati; in Buddhism it becomes Boddhi tree, beneath which the Buddha achieved enlightenment."

Basham has also mentioned: "Trees, common the world over among ancient people, were worshipped in India where each village had its sacred trees or grove."

The great Indian philosopher, Dr Radhakrishnan, opined: "The human mind craves for something definite and limited. So it uses its resources for bringing down the supreme to the region of the determined. We cannot think of God without using our imagination to express our vision."

This idea of significant metaphysical transformation from offering prayers to trees in the open to creating stone idols in temples has been tellingly highlighted in the banis. First, trees were worshipped and not a branch could be cut without performing proper rituals because these were believed to be resorts of gods and ancestral spirits. Then, spirits were carved on tree trunks and prayers offered to them.

In some cases such carved tree trunks have been kept in single room wooden temples. But as figures on the tree trunks faded too much over time, these were replaced by stone idols. Wooden temples were also replaced by a more durable material, mostly tin sheets. There were also bigger idols placed in the open in the banis.