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Fact, fiction and that funny thing, faith

india Updated: Aug 22, 2008 23:13 IST

Hindustan Times
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Three years ago, I got an email from a Mr Ramanna of the US, asking what a kadamba tree was and why it’s so special in Indian culture. So I did some homework and wrote what I could about it. Recently, the kadamba of all things, bloomed in conversation with a black-gowned Russian priest of the Greek Orthodox Church in Damascus just last month. I had pointed out the blooming jasmine creepers everywhere in Syria and said how it was also such a beloved Indian flower. The Russian said something about lilies (the Angel Gabriel telling Mary that she would bear God’s own Son, was a favourite subject with European painters. Called The Annunciation, the image usually has Gabriel kneeling at Mary’s feet with a whacking great armful of lilies).

Meanwhile, here’s some of the stuff I was able to dig out then on the kadamba, as a butter-blob for Janmashtami! The kadamba’s botanical name is Anthocephalus cadamba and Nauclea cadamba of the Rubiaceae family (do you care?). It’s a leafy tree with wide spreading branches and yellow puffball flowers that scent up the air. You can propagate it from its seeds. It figures in medicinal listings because its bark is used for tonics and against fevers.

We shall never know exactly why our ancients gave it so much importance, but it’s right up there in scripture, especially in the Srimad Bhagvatam aka Bhagvata Puran (Sri Krishna’s life story) and it pops up again in verses that praise Devi, where She is described as ‘Kadamba-vana nilaye’ and ‘Kadamba-vana vasini’ (Dweller of the Kadamba Forest). Both north and south venerate the kadamba (its Sanskrit name), calling it kadamb, kadambam, kandambamu, whatever, with the interesting difference that the north associates it with Krishna while in the south it’s categorically known as the “Parvathi Tree”, which is also its trade name! I can report that I just saw a three-foot statue of Ganesha carved to order from Jaipur for a modest price of several lakh. “It looks so like sandalwood,” I said, knowing that sandalwood is protected but amazed at how sandalwood-like the polish made it seem. “Oh no, it’s kadamb – doubly lucky, as the sacred tree of both Shiavas and Vaishnavas!” said an expert.

Now this was a new spin on the kadamba. Like so many others, I had grown up knowing that Radha and Krishna are supposed to have conducted their love play in its hospitable and sweet-scented shade. It was something our gods did – make passionate love, I mean – and it’s interesting how we just accepted it all so matter-of-factly as kids and teens. The gods of the Indian Sub-continent were – are – ‘sexy’. Those dour Scots 19th century colonial missionaries who traipsed about here during the British Raj grumbled in their journals and diaries that they were making very poor headway in their attempts to convert ‘the Hindoos’ because “we cannot match their myths with our own.”

Ah, well. But to get back to the kadamba, don’t you think its truly immortal moment came that golden day on the banks of the Yamuna when the gopis went to fill their clay water pots at the river? Once they filled their waterpots, perhaps they looked meaningfully at each other and at the cool, laughing water: surely there was time for a quick bath? Shedding their skirts and veils, the laughing band must have then plunged into the Yamuna and enjoyed a pleasant frolic in her waters. When it was time to come out though, they found that a dark-skinned rogue in a yellow dhoti had hung their clothes out of reach on the kadamba tree that grew over the riverbank. How Krishna insisted that they shed their shame and come out naked to receive their garments is endlessly portrayed in song, story, painting and artefact. It’s mindblowing as a metaphor for how the human soul must shed all baggage and approach God with total surrender and vulnerability.

My favourite depiction is the Pahari miniature (Kangra, possibly by the artist Nainsukh). I wrote then that it is so vivid and charming that you feel you are in the scene yourself, perhaps as a curious songbird on a branch at Krishna’s own blue elbow, having quite forgotten how to chirp amidst all these strange goings-on. But certain themes never seem to lose their charm, do they? Is that the living magic of being Indian, do you think, that the old stories never go away but just pick up new stories en route and we go with the flow?