Recent offerings from the bookshelves take us back to our roots
Trees and plants mingle with religion and medicine
Sacred Plants of India, by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam, is a fascinating account of tree and plant worship in India from time immemorial. Worship of trees, some of which were believed to be home to spirits good and bad, was probably the oldest form of worship in India. The authors say the earliest temples in the country were little more than images placed under trees which, over time, turned into formal places of worship.
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata make several references to the worship of sacred plants and trees. Even if one looks at the Ramayana only as a myth, the fact is that Valmiki’s botanical information is authentic. And tree worship was not confined to Hindu religion alone.
Based on oral traditions and extensive interviews, the book delves into the history of sacred plants in India. The hugely informative introductory section is followed by a wealth of details on 81 sacred plants/trees, with their spiritual and religious linkages and their highly valued medicinal properties. These include ashoka, bamboo, banyan, Bermuda grass, champaka, coconut, deodar, lotus, mango, marigold, neem, pipal, plantain, tulsi (sacred basil), sandalwood and turmeric.
It is a common sight in rural India to see snake stones installed in front of trees, particularly the pipal, undoubtedly the most sacred tree in India. The pipal tree is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. The Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the pipal tree. Hindus believe the pipal is home to its trinity: Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Lord Shiva as Dakshinamurthi, the teacher, sits under the banyan tree. Both the Mahabharata and Buddhist texts warn against harming trees. Many Sufi saints also lived beneath trees and, when they died, were buried at the very spots that became dargahs or shrines.
Thanks to the intricate forms of worship in Hinduism in particular, tree worship remains alive in both rural and urban areas – from circumambulation to making votive offerings. Just as religious reasons played a role in saving animal species like the elephant and monkey from annihilation, Hinduism has wittingly and unwittingly helped protect many forms of trees, plants and herbs although, as the authors warn, reckless urbanization threatens the environment and some plant species in particular.
M.R. Narayan Swamy
Secrets of the dominant Hindu goddesses
Goddess Lakshmi massages Lord Vishnu’s feet; is this male domination? Goddess Kali stands on Lord Shiva’s chest; is this female domination? Lord Shiva is half a woman; is this gender equality? Devdutt Pattanaik, a medical doctor by education and a mythologist by passion, delves into these questions and more as he unveils the secrets of seven goddesses, including Gaia, the earth mother in Greek mythology, in his book 7 Secrets of the Goddess.
According to Pattanaik, the value placed on the feminine has been attributed to the popularity and influence of the village goddesses or ‘grama devis‘, which have been revered in settlements across rural India since the dawn of time. This is more so in southern India. So important are the Hindu goddesses that any attempt to worship god without goddess is discouraged. The Puranas underline that the essence of all male gods is female, but the opposite is not true.
Using photographs and calendar art, Pattanaik delves into the secrets of (besides Gaia) Kali, Gauri, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The author also writes about Vitthai, the ‘mother Vitthal’ in the eyes of Maharashtra’s sage Dnyaneshwar. Vitthal is the popular name of Lord Krishna in the state.
Pattanaik’s other latest book, Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, is all about queerness in Hindu tradition – Shikhandi who became a man to satisfy the wife; Mahadeva who became a woman to deliver his devotee’s child; Bhagirath who was born of two women; Aruna who became a woman when the sun passed; Ila who became a man when the moon waned; Samavan who became the wife of his male friend, and so on. The celebration of queer ideas in Hindu stories, symbols and rituals is in stark contrast to the ignorance and rigidity we see today in Indian society.
M.R. Narayan Swamy
Fictionalising Indian history: Setting a new trend
Indian history presents one of the richest tapestries that can inspire any writer of fiction. In this “fascinating mosaic”, the Mughal period is like an exquisite miniature, says author Aroon Raman, whose second book is a historical fiction set in this period.
“The main players and colourful personalities lend to this age the quality of high drama. I was drawn to it naturally and so The Treasure of Kafur is set at the height of the Mughal Empire under Akbar,” Chennai-based Raman told IANS.
“The wonderful thing was that the book offered me the liberty I could take with certain facts and characters. The result is a seamless blend of fact and fantasy – to take the reader out of himself or herself into a world that is completely believable, but without necessarily being subject to the tyranny of facts that non-fiction writers are subject to,” added Raman, whose first book, The Shadow Throne, came out in 2012.
Raman’s new book starts at a time when the Mughal empire is at the peak of its glory under emperor Akbar. But 20 years of war have made him many enemies, in particular the Deccan kingdoms, who expect him to invade at any time.
Against this backdrop, the evil king Asaf Baig hears of a fabulous lost treasure – the secret of which is known to an old woman on the southern border of his kingdom. He kidnaps her to force her to reveal the secret. Her grandson then embarks on a desperate journey to Agra to enlist the help of Akbar to save his grandmother – and the empire as well.
Along the way, there are many adventures when he meets strange characters and is thrown into the world of kings and princesses and faces down the forces of implacable evil as the novel builds to its climax.
Raman, who turned a family company into the world’s largest transformer board manufacturer with a presence in 25 countries before divesting it to start a material sciences laboratory in Mysore, found the researching for the book the most exciting and the most challenging.
“Contemporary records of the Mughal period are extensive, but not necessarily accurate. Akbar, however, is one of those monarchs about whom we know more than most – both in written record and in folklore,” Raman said.
“Hence the Akbar I have portrayed is I believe an accurate picture of the man. The geography of Hindustan of the time has also been preserved in the telling of the tale,” the author added.
Raman noted that the “pure Indian adventure-thriller” is still an almost unexplored category in Indian writing in English, which is dominated by literary fiction, so Indian readers of thrillers turn mostly to Western authors. In this context, writing this book, for him, was aimed at producing “a taut, fast-paced Indian story”.