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Holy Trees

Words by Monisha Raman
Illustration by Vidya Vivek

The practice of nature worship prevalent in an Indigenous community in south India signifies the interconnected kinship of all life forms on Earth.

In the lush greenery of the Nilgiri mountains in south India, a few Indigenous communities have preserved their culture for many centuries. The largest among them is the Badugas. They live in more than 300 villages, referred to as hattis, spread across the hills. Growing up in one such hatti, on the banks of a freshwater stream, I was always fascinated by the large Ficus tree adjacent to my village, which is considered sacred.

The most distinctive feature of Baduga villages is the presence of large trees in the vicinity of the settlements. These trees are mostly species that belong to the Shola vegetation that is native to the Ghat mountains and commonly belong to the genera Elaeocarpus, Syzygium and Ficus. The trees are commonly seen on a raised platform with a stone or two perched at the base, and these structures are known as suttakal in the Baduga dialect. The folklore involving the Ficus tree in the neighbourhood was a prominent part of my bedtime stories as a child.

I have seen old men take the blessings of the tree before an auspicious occasion and I have seen brides prostrate at its base before they left their birth home. The suttakal dates back to an era that precedes the modern concept of religion. Even after the introduction of practices like idol worship, the holy trees have not lost the reverence accorded to them. The tree in the vicinity of my village has witnessed my great grandad’s boyhood and my childhood. Like the Ficus tree, many holy trees by the Baduga villages have survived centuries and withstood the calamity of changes, both cultural and ecological.

Nature worship in the form of tree worship is a cultural practice of the Baduga community. The elders in the community proclaim that the holy trees are the abodes of the sacred spirits of the land. The trees may also have served other purposes. Primarily relying on an oral culture of knowledge transmission, the community did not have the means to document the true meaning of their rituals and practices and their importance. While the essence of these practices may have been lost over time, many rituals continue even today.

Staying true to the old customs, the sacred stones at the base of the tree are garlanded every Monday, the holy day for the Badugas. During the annual festivities for the community deities, the trees become the point of assemblage for people from near and far. On such occasions, the spirits of the land are invoked and when the priest asks for signs, the tree responds. Many a time, I have seen a flower perched on the stone dart into the air and land a few feet ahead of the stone.

This form of nature worship, a pantheistic belief, is common in many Indigenous communities in India. The trees, land, and stones are the deities held in reverence. Animism does not endorse the idea of God as a separate being, rather, any being - like a tree - that is seen as sentient is believed to have a positive vibe, a life force that penetrates the believers, even if the force cannot be felt.

As such, the tree is often a totem to a village. Every Baduga village, like the one I grew up in, is inhabited by people who are descendants of the same ancestor. The tree by the village is often a spirit being with whom the villagers have a mystical relationship. In totemism, believers see the spirit animal or plant as protector and companion with powers and is therefore respected, and to some extent, feared. It is taboo to destroy the totem. It was these sentiments that assured the survival of these trees for many generations.

A deep understanding of the ecosystem and the human intimacy with the Earth are some of the Indigenous ideas that are slowly being erased by capitalism. For Indigenous communities, the Earth is the mother for whom her children have utmost regard and her love is reciprocated constantly through their practices. Land ownership and the conflicts that arise from it have dominated history and these things are not new to the current generation. Worshipping nature, an entity that is common to all species, races, countries, and classes is a way of emphasising the unity of all life forms. The Baduga belief system says that in nature, no species is supreme and we humans are just one part of a cycle in the natural world. As a prominent part of the cycle, humans must modify our practices and adjust to fit into this rhythm of kinship and not change the cycle to suit our needs. This belief in the interconnected kinship is the faith of my ancestors who have safeguarded the mountains for centuries.

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