Visit to Mysore and Bangalore 2, The Sacred Grove
Visit to Mysore and Bangalore 2 -- July 1998
The Sacred Grove
Today I am going to take up a different but related subject to the great aromatic traditions of India. As you already know the past 6 or 7 newsletters have concerned themselves with individual aromatic plants like Pandanus odoratissimus, Lawsonia inermis, Vetiveria zizaniodes, Jasminum sambac etc.
This newsletter is going to present how these plants and many others were combined in ancient times to create sacred gardens where a very special type of healing took place. By very good fortune there is still at least one person in India who is creating such sacred places. His name is Mr. Yellapa Reddy. He is the retired Chief Forest Officer for the state of Karnatika in South India. It is the visit to the garden that this account describes. Meeting with he and his dear wife was also a tender and precious experience that illuminated the subject in a personal way. They were people of the highest quality with a special connection to the plant world that allowed their hearts to become sublime ambassadors for the gentle messages sent by the lovely botanical creations.
Visit to the Sacred Grove, Ramanagar
Having completed our visit with Philip Samuel, we prepared for our trip to Mysore where our aim was to meet with several prominent manufacturers of incense. Bangalore and Mysore were once the major centers for incense production but now, with the easy availability of synthetic perfume materials into which bamboo sticks coated with a natural absorbent medium can be dipped, incense is being made in every corner of the country. It was our hope to find out just how the modern incense industry started and also to discover something of its ancient roots. The tree-lined road to Mysore was superb.
The day was fresh and cool as we proceeded toward the city that was once the capitol of the kings and queens of Mysore. Before leaving for India I had located an internet site which referred to a garden called the "Sacred Grove" which had been constructed by Conservator of Forests, Mr. Yellapa Reddy during his years of service to the government. Unfortunately, this site had been taken off the internet by the time I reached Mumbai and so the only clue we had was that it was near the village of Ramanagar which was about half-way between Bangalore and Mysore.
Ramakant had made enquires among his friends as to its whereabouts but nobody had heard of it. So outside of Ramanagar we begin making enquires from local people as to its location. After several unsuccessful attempts we were told that it was just a little up the road and soon we reached the entrance with the Sacred Grove signboard above the gate. Entering into the garden we were enchanted to see many mature trees and shrubs that were laid out in separate areas honoring various gods, goddesses and sages of Indian religion tradition. Through carefully studying India's ancient scriptures he found that from the very beginning the Indian people had a high regard for certain plants and in the course of time they associated them with the different cosmic powers of creation embodied in the Hindu pantheon. In the early days of Indian civilization temples were not mere edifices in which these deities were worshiped but were surrounded by gardens containing aromatic and medicinal plants whose flowers and leaves were offered according to the season of the year in which their beauty or medicinal value were at their height. The real purpose of such offerings were to teach people reverence for botanical wealth in their respective areas so that they could use these plants for their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. The sages and seers realized that each and every plant had some healing virtue so they were keen that proper botanical identification be part and parcel of every persons education. They invested certain plants with even greater sacred value because they were found to be essential for maintaining the health of the community.
As I wandered through this wonderful sacred garden, I was delighted to see several aromatic trees and shrubs that have been central to our research. Huge kadamba trees (Anthocephalus cadamba) gently arched over the path graced with their deliciously fragrant golden/orange globe shaped flowers that are affectionately called "Krishna laddu's" in some parts of India. I had seen ancient specimens of the tree last year in Rajasthan but these were young and in splendid health and vigor. Champa, heena, bakul, jasmine, kewda, sandalwood, parijata, gardenia and many other aromatic specimens were interspersed with other trees and shrubs of great medicinal virtue creating a benign atmosphere where the power of nature was deeply felt.
Along with various gardens constructed in honor of gods, goddesses, and sages, Mr. Reddy had also introduced a Nakshatra vana, a "star garden" which was based on the concept of the sages that the twenty-seven stars mentioned in the Hindu astrological almanac exercise their influence on individuals according to the place the sun was in these constellations on the day of their birth. ("nakshatra: "Star cluster." Central to astrological determinations, the nakshatras are 27 star-clusters, constellations, which lie along the ecliptic, or path of the sun. An individual's nakshatra, or birth star, is the constellation the moon was aligned with at the time of birth." --from Dancing with Shiva Lexicon Page. ) These stars were felt to have their counterparts on the earth in the form of various plants. These plants when properly placed in a garden according to a particular alignment determined by astronomical calculations, were considered of invaluable help in healing a wide variety of diseases particular to the person whose sign they were associated with. The healing or balancing occurred on specific days of the year at sunrise or sunset if the person where to sit in the garden and be in the shadow of those particular plants. The sages felt that during such auspicious times the plants emanated particular invigorating essences which directly influenced the mind of those inhaling them triggering a healing process that would remove the disease of the person influenced by those particular planets and plants associated with them.
In this connection Mr. Reddy states in his book Sacred Plants:
"The various treatises on the subject including the renowned "Mantra Mahavarnava" give detailed descriptions of the characteristics of these stars and the names of the plants which vibe with them. But planning a Nakshatra vana, a "star garden" posed some problems in planning the layout. Since it is the earth which moves around the sun, a circular area was selected in the Vanadegula(Sacred Grove) with the help of experts , the scientific bearings on the movement of the sun was taken and the area coming under the influence of the respective stars was determined on the sun rays falling on it either at sunrise or sunset depending on the apparent northward or southward movement of the sun and the species mentioned as those akin to those stars have been planted in those places. For example if a visitor comes here on December 22nd at the time of the sun rise and watches the same he is sure to find the rays of the sun falling on the 'sarala' trees representing the star Jyeshta with the shadows of the tree trying to reach the visitor as the sun rises. Like this all the plants pertaining to each of the stars fro ashwini to revati have been planted in such a manner that depending on the movement the sun rays fall on them at the time of sunrise or sunset through these groups of plants."
As I continued to walk through the garden I realized that I had come to the place which held the answers to many of the questions that had been arising as our explorations of India's aromatic traditions deepened. In his own profound way, Mr. Reddy, had sought to recreate in one place a model of what was present in India on a national scale when the sages and rishis laid the foundation of Indian society. Here he was trying to reawaken in the hearts of the Indian people a longing to return to the wisdom of a time when people were engaged in simple living and high thinking and had thoroughly investigated the intimate link between humans and nature. Rather than construct another temple made of brick and stone of which the country is already full, he constructed a temple of nature's own making to show that our real inspiration must come from loving and appreciating our true natural resources of air, water, light, soil, vegetation, animals, insects, birds and all other denizens of the creation. In this serene environment, one had the chance to humbly open their hearts to a level of communication where the human story was only one small part of a greater story, the life and care of the world in which they lived. In this awareness the activity of receptive listening, seeing, feeling, smelling and touching to receive intimations of the secrets of nature were vastly more important than the tendency to want to control nature that has become the theme of modern society.
Here I began to sense that the knowledge of how to make incense, garlands, medicines, cosmetics, floral waters, etc. may have come simply by living in close proximity with nature and listening to what nature had to say about the use of her own gifts. When the hearts of people are gentle and in harmony with their environment, the joy they derive from simple activities is tremendous because they are receiving the highest aesthetic enjoyment from the richness of their inner understanding. They see with open eyes the subtle relationship between all things and therefore exploit none, which produces external and internal peace and joy. In that atmosphere, replenishing what was taken was the unspoken law, because people realized that the natural environment could only continue to provide for the needs of the human population if the resources were abundantly available. The cause and effect relationship was immediate as nature was the storehouse for all the essential necessities of life. If the resources became depleted, the community depending on it would be instantly impacted because nature takes time to replenish any item in short supply.
In that simple time, there was a deep awareness that all manifested life was dependent upon an unseen Power which was to be honored, appreciated and communed with. Fragrant flowers, leaves, herbs, roots, etc possessed of their own invisible aura of charm were seen as simple, elegant and inexpensive means of expressing one's sincere devotion for a Life Force which though hidden vibrated at the heart of all creation. Even today, India possesses a vast wealth of aromatic botanical treasures, though greatly strained by overpopulation, so what must have been the extent of these natural resources several thousand years back when comparatively few people populated the land? In those bygone times there was probably little need for elaborately made temples because near to every village and farm were forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds to which a person could retire to re-establish their contact with nature in her undisturbed beauty. It is well known that, in those sylvan settings, great sages and rishis lived dwelled teaching the people how to live in harmony with nature while probing into the deepest mysteries of life.
In his small but elegant book, Palpate Nature for Healing, Mr. Reddy explains what the sages recommended to the people coming to them for rest, renewal, and awakening.
"Our sages have recommended several live protocols to help humanity and to heal the mother earth and man. To get the maximum benefit from namas we have to adhere to the twelve mandates.
1. Align with Nature
2. Enter the place with a spirit of friendliness. Silent receptivity will give you rich dividends because nature will not respond to loud noises
3. Nature is terribly afraid of human beings mainly because he has become the main destroyer, so walk softly, gently, quietly.
4. Release fully and see every living thing with humility and respect. Beseech help.
5. Open your heart and mind and observe the creations of God and watch every tiniest creature pay their debt to mother Nature. Never despair or damage.
6. Use all your senses, such as smell, touch, sound and listen to the language of Nature's communication and try to learn their language by planting them, watering them, by writing about them and painting them
7. Look at the tree and imagine the size of the crown, size of the root systems, and their functions from root tip to the tallest branch, leaf, and tip. Enjoy the music of the rustle of the leaves.
8. Close your eyes and use your inner senses and develop keen kinship with the most favorite part or whole plant
9. Lean against the tree and feel its energetic presence and adore its physiological functions of converting carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and chemical compounds with the help of Sun God and from the bosom of Mother Earth
10. If we open and remain sensitive to the fine feelings they will call out and attract us which will reflect our needs
11. Acknowledge its beauty, grace and strength
12. Be receptive and sensitive to commune with the living work of art of creating flower buds, their highly tender parts, myriads of color, fragrance, designs, etc. thereby mutually helping each other to heal the stresses.
The word heal means 'whole'; 'hale'; or 'hearty'. The concept of healing involves 'wholeness', 'wellness' and 'emotional integration'. Integration means walking in balance with Mother Earth."
We have to use our imagination to grasp what it must have been like to enter the forest sanctuaries under the sublime guidance of the sages who dwelt there in complete harmony with their surroundings. Their calm demeanor, no doubt, would have helped immeasurably in tuning into the beauty of the surroundings for the example of someone living any high ideal is always better than a written precept. Many times when we go to some place where the atmosphere is pure and clear we take in deep droughts air as if we are breathing for the first time. That experience in itself brings about a certain delight and exhilaration which is not dependent on any artificial man-created stimulation. So it may not be difficult to imagine what it must have been like to breathe in the forest air perfumed with numerous naturally growing exotic flowers. It is not difficult to imagine how the great sages may have instructed people who were inclined towards outwardly expressing their sense of respect and veneration for this experience to place a lovely fragrant flower at a simple forest altar. Then having brought their own mind into a receptive state by this simple ritual, to sit quietly and offer the fragrant flower of the heart for the service of all life just as the flowers of the forest radiated their ethereal essences on the air charging the atmosphere with rarest and finest of aromatic molecules, free of cost for all to enjoy.
We already know that the sages had excellent knowledge of the curative values of many plants and were keenly aware that they exerted part of their influence by the quality of oxygen they emitted. Perhaps it was in such natural surroundings that planned gardens were constructed like the Nakshatra Vana where very specific types of healing took place for people with imbalances that could not be cured by a simple retreat in forest environs.(Later in this report I will give an account of a personal meeting with Mr. Reddy which occurred at the end of our South India tour and the fact that in his retirement years he is deeply involved in planting such gardens based on his continuing investigations of the ancient scriptures.)
Here in the forest retreats, the great tradition of incense compounding most likely arose. Because of her great diversity of climates, soil types, and topographies India had unique variety of herbs, roots, spices, woods, gums, resins, and seeds possessing aromatic properties. At the very dawn of Indian civilization we find that agarwood, sandalwood, cedarwood, cinnamon, olibanum, myrrh, cloves, cardamon, and numerous other plants were being used in different religious ceremonies called homas, yagnas, and havanas. At that time the different aromatic materials were collected without any harm to the trees, shrubs, vines, annuals and perennials from which they were collected. In every case, a prayerful attitude was adopted in using anything taken for nature and genuine thanks was offered to the trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, perennials, etc. for their manifold gifts. Many of the aromatic substances for incense were procured from plants which had reached the natural end of their life. Care was taken to locate dead and down sandalwood, agarwood, and cedar trees and well as to obtain the resins and gums exuded from Indian myrrh and frankincense trees. Certain seeds, spices, and roots could be collected without harming the mother plant and care was taken to continually renew these resources by replanting new and vigorous specimens. Simple formulas evolved using these products of field and forest and these were seasonably burned to purify the air at such times and to benefit those inhaling the smoke. Interestingly, the beneficial aromatic properties of many of these plants could only be fully realized through the process of pyrolysis, decomposition of a material substance through heat. Realizing this the sages instituted communal festivals where they could impart valuable teachings about the sacred meaning of life while impregnating the atmosphere with beneficial aromatic fragrances corresponding to the different seasons of the year.
We spent several enchanted hours in that serene spot which had been created with deep thought and research. Being a horticulturist I could appreciate the work that went into bringing this sublime vision into practical manifestation. It is relatively easy to dream about such projects but quite another thing to plan such a garden, prepare the soil, locate the various plants as detailed in India's sacred scriptures and plant them in a way that would help the viewer to understand their importance within the Indian view of life. Here we were in a living manifestation of a vision. It was much more than just a physically beautiful garden but a veritable mine of ancient wisdom. The wisdom radiated from the heart of the garden giving us the key to a deeper understanding of India's aromatic traditions than we had known before. Here was substantial practical evidence that our research was proceeding in the right direction as in the very earliest phases of our project we became aware that we were exploring a sacred subject that had evolved out of a great sensitivity too and reverence for all created forms of life. The numerous aromatic traditions we had encountered in modern India, though often tainted by heavy commercial overtones, still seemed to point too a time when people clearly saw that the activities of burning incense, placing flowers at the altar, making perfume, weaving garlands, compounding incense, and preparing food were symbolic bridges to an inner life that once accessed would illumine a person's consciousness allowing them to understand the highest purpose for which they were born.