Parijata 1, From the Travel Journal
Parijata -- The Wish-Granting Tree
by Christopher McMahon
Part 1: Collecting Parijata
This January (1998) we (Ramakant Harlalka and I) were on our morning walk in the Matunga section of Mumbai. Along a busy thoroughfare we spotted a beautiful parijat tree (Nycanthes arbortrisis) growing near an apartment complex. As it was the sunrise hour, the delicate flowers were gently falling to the ground and covering the pavement with elegant beauty. We carefully collected a few of them and placing them in my palm I inhaled a lovely bouquet that reminded one of the essense of orange flowers and jasmine. It had a slightly sharper penetrating note but the overall effect was soft and sweet. We decided to collect a small basket of them so we could photograph them in the small studio we had set-up in the flat I was staying. As we picked up one ethereal flower after another, I felt as if I was joining hands with generation after generations of Indians who have collected them for offering at home alters or in the numerous temples that are to be found in countryside, town and city. In ancient Hindu literature the parijatak tree appears as one of the first gifts to humankind hence its sacred status. It was a simple, pleasurable activity that did not harm the tree and gave us a lot of joy because we could come close to the plant and appreciate a little more what a special role it played in the lives of the Indian people.
The tree we were collecting flowers from was located on a main street and even at that early hour the constant flow of buses, trucks, scooters, and cars with their accompanying noise had commenced. The enviroment in which the tree was living was far from ideal both from the viewpoint of air and sound pollution and the neglected soil in which it was growing yet it gave of its fragrant essence for one and all to enjoy. Its concern was not for caste, color or creed but only to serve the purpose for which it had been created. Its scattered fragrant flower, for the most part, were neglected and trod underfoot as the people rushed to their various jobs, unaware of the refined beauty and aroma within easy reach of their hands. I found in its example a very good lesson for my own life in that a person should always strive to do good no matter how adverse the outer circumstances may be. It is not an easy lesson to learn but one well worth considering as through it nobility of character is built and inner peace is attained.
The parijatak tree is known in Hindi as harsinghar and Bengali as shifali. It bears the botanical name of Nycathus arbortristis. It is a hardy large shrub or small tree sometimes reaching a height of 30 feet. Its bark is green is grey to greenish-white in color and a bit rough in texture. It has a thick branching structure with green oval-shaped leaves. Its 4 to 8 flower petals are arranged about a vibrant orange tube in a pinwheel pattern. These highly fragrant flowers open at night perfuming the surrounding area with an intensely sweet floral aroma. The morning following the night bloom, the flowers fall to the earth carpeting it with their fragile beauty. In the ancient times sages and seers noted each intesting quality of individual plants and in order to teach the people to closely observe their life cycles they created beautiful stories.
Part 2: Stories of Parijata
With regards to the parijatak tree this story is often narrated in certain communities.
Once a royal princess fell in love with the sun god-Surya Dev. She was enamored of his brilliance and beauty as he daily passed through the sky from east to west in his fiery chariot. Her devotion attracted his attention and for a while he favored her with his attention but after awhile he was distracted with other interests and she was deserted. In despair she killed herself and from her cremated ashes the parijatak tree arose. Since she was rejected by Surya Dev, the flowers of the tree only bloom at night. Then before the sun rises the flowers fall so its rays will not strike her. Based on this story the tree was given the species name ëarbortristisí which means ëtree of sorrowí.
Another story surrounding the tree's origin is found in several ancient Indian scriptures called the Puranas. It is said that when the celestial beings, at the behest of Hari-the Preserver of the Universe, churned the cosmic ocean to obtain certain boons that would help alleviate suffering and protect the powers of good from the powers of evil one of the parijatak tree appeared as one of the divine treasures. Its perfume was said to permeate the entire universe. Because the tree holds such a elevated place in Indiaís sacred lore, the tree is revered by devote Hindus. The story, on one level, clearly illustrates that trees, flowers and fragrance represent some of the finest boons for humankind.
After the parijatak tree emerged from the ocean of existence it taken to the heaven worlds and planted in the pleasure garden of Indra- the lord of the gods. One day a great sage of ancient times named Narad Muni visited this garden in his meditations visited this garden and saw this lovely tree emitting its divine perfume. Using his yogic powers he gathered up some of these ethereal blossoms and brought them back to the physical plane and gave them to Rukmini, the favorite wife of the renowned avatar of Vishnu, Lord Krishna, who was at that time dwelling in Dwaraka in north India. The flowers were so lovely and the fragrance so delicate that Satyabhama another wife of Lord Krishna became desirous of possessing that celestial tree and having it planted in her own garden. She was jealous of the attention Krishna was showing to Rukmini and wanted him to give more time to her. She implored him to obtain the tree for her. To satisfy her desire he entered into a state of deep meditation and in that state plucked up the tree from the garden. Before leaving that place he was accosted by the keepers of the garden and was told he would incur the wrath of Indra as the tree belonged to his wife Sachi. But Satyabhama would not be put off by any obstacle and said that the tree was the common property of all and had as much place on earth as it had in the heavens. As a result Krishna waged a great war with Indra and his celestial army. In the end Krishnaís strength prevailed and Indra was forced to retreat. At that time Satyabhama taunted him as being a coward but decided to give back his celestial tree. Krishna also consented to return the tree to its celestial abode. But Indra said that there was no shame in being defeated by the avatar of Vishnu and that the tree should be taken to earth and planted in Dwarka where its fragrance could be enjoined by all the people of the earth. Thus the first parijatak tree was planted and its divine fragrance was said to spread for three furlongs. Its aroma was charged with so much power that it would help people enhaling it to remember events of their past lives. In this instance also we can see that the sages were explaining to the people that fragrance was a valuable means of accessing stored memories. In the East memory has a much more comprehensive meaning than in the West as it can include past lives as it is believed that the soul takes countless births on its journey to perfection but the same basic principal is explained in this story as is encountered in western literature regarding how fragrance stimulates memories of past events in ones life.
The above mentioned stories come down to us out of India ís rich cultural and spiritual heritage and are charged with tremendous meaning. The key to understanding can only be obtained by deep thought and contemplation and even this process may not totally unlock their secret is much is lost in translation or in change in the story over a period of time. Still, on a very basic level we can say that sages were trying to create in the mindís of the people a powerful remembrance of the plants that surrounded them so that they would learn to observe them minutely and learn to love and appreciate them. If a person could be encouraged to do this then they would definitely learn that every created object had numerous qualities that could prove beneficial in the form of foods, condiments, construction materials, cosmetics, and the like. Knowing this a simple hearted person would want to nourish, protect and propogate such plants so that their would be a constant supply of its beneficial products for one and all to use. It is in this way that a refined social consciousness was developed that did not depend on any external agencies but rather on the individuals efforts to keep the environment healthy and intact.
Part 3: Cultural Significance of Parijata
The parijatak tree is native to India and in its natural habitat is found growing up to an altitude of 1,500 meters. It adapts well to dry slopes and rocky ground. Because of its fragrant flowers it is cultivated in gardens throughout the country. Even when neglected it still produces fragrant flowers in abundance. Its greatest enemy is standing water which causes the roots to rot and die. If a little care is given to the plant in the form of periodic deep waterings, well rotted compost, and judicious pruning it can take on the form of a trully elegant specimen. Its flowering season is quite long, extending from August to December in most regions. It is an excellent selection for planting in semi-shady situations.
Aside from its esteemed position in the home garden parijatak has sometimes been planted in the precincts of temples as its fragrance creates a devotional atmosphere that aids in the remembrance of the sublime power embodied by the particular diety worshipped in that place. The flowers are particularly offered to Lord Ganesh, Satyanaryana, Samba and Swarna Gowri. In the Indian system of belief these dieties are embodiments of particular qualities or virtues which assist in the aspirants spiritual quest and so the offering of particlar flowers is highly significant. As with many of the ancient traditions the reasons for offering a flower with a particular shape, color and fragrance have been lost or is in the hands of a rare few individuals but one thing we now know is that specific odors can stimulate certain centers in the brain to act in a particular way. It is not an exact science as it can vary from individual from individual and from culture to culture. But in India the science of fragrance was highly evolved and could serve to evoke a particular response on a large group of people who commonly shared in the worship of a particular diety. That particular fragrance could bring the minds of those people a shared devotional aspiration. In that atmosphere fragrance along with several other rites and rituals could produce a state of profound concentration that would allow an openess to occur that would refresh a persons heart and mind and bring them into unity with the community in which they lived and with the mystery of life in which everyone was a participant. It is also possible that the sages knew that the perfume of a particular flower when inhaled could help stimulate the immune system against certain disease organisms prevailing at the season of the year in which it was blooming. We now know that natural fragrances do have some anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties so it is not impossible that ancient sages discovered these properties, not with technical instruments which they did not posses, but through the powers of keen observation which they had in abundance.
In India the parijat tree is planted in the precincts of temples because of the sublime atmosphere created by the aroma of its flowers. I know the fragrance of parijatak is dear to my wife, Suzanne and I, as we use fo go for a walk about a small temple in the suburbs of Bombay every evening during the month of January. A number of parijatak trees were planted in the shrines vicinity as we would inhale the delicious odor of the last flowers of the season as we slowly strolled about the complex. The refreshing odor helped sustain the beautiful time we had just spent listening create a mood of peace and relaxation that allowed us to quietly digest the words of a great sage whose discourse we had just listened too. To this day the memory of that time is quickly awakened when we smell the fragrance of parijat. The flower itself conveys a very special message to those who know how to read its language. If one closely observes its delicate beauty one will observe that it has a vibrant orange center. This color is a symbol of fire in the Hindu tradition. Fire, in turn, is considered that power which purifies a persons heart and mind so that all desires for the world are consumed. leaving only a pure consciousness which directly communes with the Hidden Power within that has been and is called by many names. The white petals which surround the orange center symbolic of that pure consciousness. In the ancient times Buddhist monks and Hindu ascetics dyed their robes a rich fiery color to show that they had renounced the world. This dye was produced from the very same orange centers of the parijat. When the flowers would fall to the ground, people would collect them and separte the orange tube from the white petals and dry them. Once they were dried they could be used for making this saffron-colored dye. At one time an attempt was made to commercialize this dye as it gave a fine color to cotton and silk but due to the labor intensive nature of its collection and the fact that a good means of fixing it were not obtained the concept was abandoned. Perhaps in the future the study of this dye will be resumed and a cottage industry developed where its beautiful color could be extracted.
The Muslim people, too, have an affection for the flower and it is said that it is planted in their grave yards. In the morning the ethereal flowers carpet the tombs with a natural aromatic floral display. The story that this tells is simple and beautiful. In nature, the parijat tree grows to a mature specimen which produces innummerable flowers. These flowers grow to maturity and for a brief time give off their fragrance for one and all to enjoy. When the perfume is exhausted, they fall to the earth, wither, and die having fulfilled the mission of their life. Our lives, in the ideal sense, should follow their example. We, as part of the human family, are like the flowers of the mother plant. In the beginning our innate beauty is hidden as it can only be developed through the experiences of life both good and bad. Through the ups and downs of life, if we are fortunate, we come to the point where out of the heart comes a sweet perfume of love and compassion for one and all. Having given of that perfume in a quiet, unassuming way, the time comes when the bodies resources are exhausted and we depart from this plane of existences and our soul essence reunites with the invisible essence from which we come.
Part 4: Parijata Attar
The delicate aroma of the flower did not escape the notice of India's original perfumers. This class of people were always trying to capture the fragrance of the countries exotic flowers by one means or another. They invented many unique ways of extracting the valuable essence of the plant and even today this art and craft is practiced Uttar Pradesh by the perfumers of Kannauj. The perfumers know all the places in the vicinity where parijat grows and they commission the local people to gather the flowers in the early morning. Whole families spend a couple of hours each day during the flowering season, collecting the fragile blossoms and bringing them to a person who weighs them out and pays them for their fragrant wares. Immediately the fresh flowers are placed in a copper still containing water in the ratio of 1 part fresh material to 2 parts of water. A standard still called a "deg"holds approximately 80 litres of water and 40 kgs of flowers. A clay snake then is placed upon the lip of the "deg"and the lid or "sarpos" is set on top of it. A flexible piece of metal with hooked ends called a "kamani" spring slides under the lip of the "deg"and over the "sarpos" A wedge is then driven between the lid and metal spring creating a tight seal between the still and lid. Meanwhile another long neck copper vessel called a "bhapka", acting as a receiver containing 5 kgs of sandalwood, is prepared and a bamboo pipe called a "chonga" wrapped with twine made from native grasses is inserted into it. A tight seal is formed by wrapping the pipes end with several layers of cotton cloth and forcibly inserting into the narrow mouth of the receiver. The other end of the bamboo pipe is affixed to the lid using cotton and clay. The receiver sits below the deg in a water bath. A fire is ignited beneath the deg using wood or cow dung and the distillation process is initiated. When the heat generated within the still is sufficient the aroma containing cells rupture and their volatile constituents mingle with steam, pass through the bamboo tube and condense in the water cooled receiver. In the receiving chamber, the sandalood ëfixesí the highly volatile aromatic constituents of parijat. The whole distilling process of one batch of flowers takes approximately 8-10 hours. Operations then cease and the mixture in the receiver is allowed to separate out during the course of the night. The following morning the water is drained out and the receiver containing the fragrance-charged sandalwood is reconnected to the "deg" A new batch of flowers is added to fresh water plus the previous days water obtained from the receiver and the same process is repeated. This cycle goes on for approximately 15 days or until the sandalwood achieves the proper concentration of aroma.
In the past these indigenous perfumes called "attar"or "ittar" were esteemed for their exquisite fragrance. But today it is virtually impossible to obtain a pure attar. Most are either adulterated with synthetic chemicals or are composed entirely of the same. A person wishing to use them in fragrance preparations should never even consider doing so unless he is 100% sure that his source is genuine and this must be backed up with modern techniques of testing the oils through gas chromatography, etc. Up to this time only one or two companies have attempted to develop a finger print for these oils. Perhaps, with the current interest in artisan perfumery, this trend will change and this art will be revived with full assurances of quality and purity. I mention this simply because it is a subject that interests me greatly and I know from personal experience that the shops selling these oils are not really telling the people the truth about their products. A person visiting India and purchasing the oils offered by the the attractive perfume shops like those found in Bombay and Lahore are truly asking for trouble if they are thinking that they are being given the genuine article. If, on the other hand, a person is only interested in the oil from a fragrance standpoint, it is possible to get a resonable fascimile at a nominal cost. A true attar of relatively high odor value will normally cost well over $1500.00 US per kilo and they can cost much more.