This week I sat in a car strongly scented with just one fresh champaka flower and also read in the papers that the year's big khon (classical dance) production of the Ramakien (Thai Ramayana) will be the episode of Jong Thanon, 'The Building of Rama's Causeway' or Raamkaaj as we'd call it in Hindi. The excitement was about how more young Thais auditioned this year to take part in a classical production that gave no quarter and asked for none, it was a straight case of love it or leave it, it could be good but it couldn't be hello-kitty.
The fact that the 'Epic of Asia' never seemed to lose its grip was vivified by the intensely sweet and somehow heartbreaking scent of the champaka, its yellow petals like knife blades, its long buds elegantly shaped. Even its botanical name, Michelia champaka, was nice and a fragment, ill-learnt, of the Ramayana, came up for air, chiribilva madhuka cha vanjula vakula tatha champaka tilaka cha eva nagavriksha cha pushpita, generally meaning 'How charming they look, the bilva and madhuka; and the vakula, champaka, tilaka and naga, blossoming…' from Valmiki's Ramayana, Kishkinda Kanda, Chapter One.
We must factor in here that Rama was a prince and spoke posh even when grieving and the sad situation is that Rama and Lakshmana have just come to Pampa Lake in the kingdom of Kishkinda and everything looks so beautiful, the breeze blows so pleasantly, the trees and flowers are so vivid and fragrant that Rama is overcome by memories of lost Sita - which raises another issue, is the role model of all nayikas burned by the fire of separation actually Sri Rama? Also, champakas grew around the cottage in Panchavati by the Godavari, so they were witness to terrible things like Surpanakha's disfigurement, the golden deer and Sita's abduction.
It's intriguing that champakas are worn or offered sparingly even today, just one or two, perhaps because they can take you somewhere else rather like how too much raw powdered cardamom smells of laundry detergent, I'm not sure why. Nor do I know the genesis of this Hindi fragment that also came up suddenly: "Champa, tujh mein teen hai, roop, rang aur baas/Karan tujh mein kya hai bhanwar na jaaye paas?'
'Champa, you have the three qualities of form, colour and scent/Why then do bees never come near you?"
Why does this sweet and beautiful flower inspire such dark chocolate thoughts?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture