Forests, jungles, groves, trees and plants have been sacred for large sections of humanity. First, in many animist religions and, later, when ritualistic religions invested them with greater significance. Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens, tells us how, through a quirk in the wiring in their brains, humans developed a crucial feature that differentiated them from other creatures. This was the ability to create ideas, concepts, myths and systems of functioning, weaving together whatever the imagination could conjure. Humans became aware of their ability to create imagined ideas to bolster facts each needed to know for their survival amongst other creatures, which they communicated through words, symbols or images. Harari writes, “Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’” This ability to create fictions is the most unique feature of human language.
As forest dwellers, hunters and gatherers roamed the earth, they learned of the value or dangers that lay within the swathes of dense forests that covered the planet, and the large and small creatures that dwelled within them. They also began to discover the nutritional and medicinal benefits of plants and trees. The concept of “sacredness” would have developed as a fictional rationale to protect and preserve those plants and trees for their own benefit. The worship of snakes, and the existence of sacred groves for snakes in Kerala, are examples of the ritualistic processes that evolved from the lives of forest dwellers who were lower in the food chain than most animals at the time. They would have felt the need to accord sacredness to all creatures so that those that could harm them could be avoided or propitiated through prayer and ritual.
This capsule history might indicate how forests, sacred groves and medicinal life-restoring plants attained a special place in literature, art, poetry, traditional health systems and mythology. These are repeatedly and prominently reflected in the works of one of their largest preservers and disseminators—the traditional practitioners of India’s heritage arts, crafts and textiles. It is often the unlettered or unschooled artist, craftsperson or weaver who creates multiple expressions of plants, trees and forests in his or her work, either as design motifs, embellishments to a central subject or as the primary subject itself.
Most art forms in this part of the world revel in storytelling. Art forms also emanate from a spiritual realm, where the practice of art is an act of worship, in which the work is dedicated to a higher being. In Islamic art, calligraphy, decoration and the celebration of flora merge to celebrate the words of the Prophet. In others, a god or goddess is invited to enter the spirit of the object, or bless it for the wearer’s benefit, if it is a textile piece. Most artists will not put their signatures to their work as personal identity is never as important as the sacred being to whom the work is offered. Every human figure is a character in a religious epic or a folk tale. Stories are populated with animals, birds and even insects like scorpions and spiders. Each of these is infused with symbolic meaning and has a characteristic quality or specific role to play which builds up a picture of the universe and the integrated nature of all life forms.
Within this framework, the tree holds a special place. Sacred groves and forests are very much a part of the existing spiritual landscape in many parts of India. In Hindu belief systems, trees represent important deities. The pipal tree,also called Ashvatta, has the significant botanical name Ficusreligiosa, indicating its deep links with religion.Krishna is supposed to have said that he was the holy fig tree, making the pipal a manifestation of the god himself, who is often depicted in his child-like form lying on the heart-shaped pipal leaf with its pointed tip. The tree is also said to contain Brahma at its roots, Vishnu in its trunk and Shiva in its leaves. In Buddhism Gautama Siddhartha obtained enlightenment under the pipal, or Bodhi tree. So highly revered is the Bodhi tree that the Sri Lankan Buddhists took a shoot of the divine tree from Gaya and have been protecting the younger tree in their country for 2,200 years.
The story of Hanuman carrying an entire mountain in the palm of his hand, as he could not identify the medicinal plant in a forest needed to revive Lakshmana from his grievous injury, is the subject of art works, dance dramas and numerous storybooks. Songs that survive from ancient times, when simpler forms of animistic beliefs existed in Ladakh, a high-altitude desert with little vegetation, show how people are exhorted not to collect firewood by cutting branches off trees but to gather only what has fallen to the ground, ostensibly to protect the divine spirits that resided in trees.
The presence of forests and trees is incorporated in every kind of craft skill, ranging from traditional painting, textiles, wood, stone and metal icons and artefacts. Works can be seen within different locales and in religious legends or folk rituals and tales, often depending on the varied cultural traditions and flora and fauna of different communities. Forests play an important role in the lives of tribes whose work depends on acquiring resin, roots and other organic materials that are needed for colouring and dyeing from plants in the vast forests of Jharkhand, Odisha and other states. Lac from resin is used to colour wooden items that are turned on a lathe. Dyes for Adivasi shawls are made from Indian madder, Rubia tinctorum, made from the roots of the plant Rubia cordifolia. Depending on the quantity used and its reaction to the minerals in the water in which the textile is washed, the colour can emerge a deep red, pink or even a brownish purple. Most weavers and dyers depend on tribespeople who go deep into the forest, and know exactly where plants for colouring and medicinal needs are to be found. The artisans’ dependence on forest produce is centuries old.
In accordance with the importance given to forests, animals, water, the sun and even the seasons—everything that is part of the cycle of life, required for the sustenance of life, becomes part of the wondrous image that is known across the world as the “Tree of Life”. Significantly, a terracotta fragment from the Indus Valley Civilisation has a tree indented on it. Its worldwide acceptance as being sacred because of its properties of offering shade, shelter, food and clean air, its lasting qualities and its quiet towering presence make it a powerful icon across many art forms. In Islamic art, it is a symbol of divinity and growth. Chinese and Celtic art have their expressions of the Tree of Life and India has its own interpretations. There is something magical about the way the Tree of Life is depicted. It seems to exuberantly transcend the quotidian world and go into a space that reaches out to all beautiful living beings, offering shade, protection and joy.
Each artist tries to capture this metaphysical quality in his or her own way.In works created during exhibitions and projects over a period of over three decades, the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of crafts people, has found many examples of trees and forests in the vast body of art and craft works that get seamlessly incorporated into its works. They are an almost inevitable addition to a larger canvas, clearly becoming second nature, an emotional internalisation, and an almost compulsory addition to complete or ornament a work.
For Indian Quarterly Journal, July- September Issue 2018