By Sharon St Joan
To read parts one and two first, click here.
Always fascinated by plants and trees, Amirthalingam has thought deeply about them. “The plant can observe. It can’t talk but it can observe. Whenever there are natural calamities, it knows. It has an indication of what is happening. Sometimes plants shed their leaves when they are upset. Some have premonitions of disasters like earthquakes. If you keep on looking at a tree, you might learn a lot.
“Like dogs that cry and run just before a flood or an earthquake, the tree senses impending disaster. We may not notice their behavior at the time, but afterwards, we may look back and realize that they knew.”
He remarked that he knows this from studying trees and from observing them and the animals. He noted that plants suffer when the natural world around them is disturbed – or if they are taken out of the soil and transplanted. The condition of the soil is also a factor in the response of the tree.
People often take a vow to plant a tree. At a sacred grove run by the Meenakshi Temple near Madurai, one of the first sacred groves restored by CPREEC (the C.P.R. Environmental and Educational Centre), people can plant a tree that matches their own constellation. (In Indian astrology, each person belongs to a constellation.) Amirthalingam provided the list of trees that match the constellations from a book, Kumaraswami Desikar, written as a guide to choosing plants to go with the architecture of buildings. He felt that people would more willingly give for a tree to be planted if they felt a connection, and hoped to receive a blessing, from their own constellation.
Every temple in India has a sacred tree. In fact, the tree came first before the temple. Amirthalingam described the way this happens. In the countryside, there will be “a self-created lingam” under a tree. A lingam is a symbol that represents Shiva. It may be a natural stone, i.e. “self-created” rather than man-made. When a lingam stands under a sacred tree, it will be worshipped by the devas, that is the gods or the shining spirits, and also by the local people. Perhaps after several centuries, a king will come along. Seeing that this is a sacred site, he will want to build a temple there. As kings tend to do, he will clear the forest, but he will not harm the sacred tree, which will remain standing beside the temple, as the sacred temple tree. These trees are still found all over India, next to every temple. When the tree becomes extremely old and dies, the dead tree is kept respectfully and still worshipped, and a new young living tree of the same species will be planted in its place.
These are a few of the temples and their sacred trees: A bamboo tree at Tirunelveli Temple; a kadamba tree at the Madurai Temple; a thillai (mangrove) plant at Chidambaram; a banyan tree at Tiruvaalangaadu; a panai (Indian palm tree) at Tirupanandhal; a punnai (Alexandrian laurel) at Kapaliswarar Temple.
Now M. Amirthalingam is working on environmental history, collecting information all the way from 3500 BCE until today, on floods, famines, earthquakes, epidemics, and other disasters.
Simultaneously, he is researching ecological history and the sacred sites of India. This is for a series of books, the Ecological Traditions of India, published by CPREEC. He has just completed the eleventh and twelfth books of the series, on Gujarat and West Bengal. He does two states at a time.
He noted that, “You have to be dedicated to the subject you are working on. That is what is important – that and having good relations with other people in your field – academicians and scientists.”
In all his inspired work for the C.P.R. Centre for Environmental Education, as a brilliant botanist and scientist, M. Amirthalingam remains a poet at heart, sharing his wisdom and his depth of understanding of the natural world.
To visit the website of CPREEC, click here.
Top photo: Forrest and Kim Star / Wikimedia Commons / This file is licenses under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported license. / Calophyllum inophyllum in Hawaii.
Second photo: Bernard Gagnon / Wikipedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported 2.5 Generic 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / M. Amirthalingam at the 2011 Conference on Sacred Groves, C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation.