FOR about two weeks each year when the month of March leads on to April, I witness Kilmer’s charismatic epigraph in full play as two species of trees come into their peak-blooms, almost simultaneously. While one species is indigenous to India, the other was originally grown in South America.
The indigenous must surely rank as the most sacred of all our trees. Its name, ‘Sita-Asoka’ (Saraca Asoca) leaves little doubt of the tree’s association both with Indian mythology and history. But this compound name provides us no clue as to why the tree is also revered by the Buddhists. Though the Buddhist temple garden has been forgotten in the land of its birth but it still survives in Thailand.
The Sanskrit literature is rich with descriptions of Buddhist temples in India “located in peaceful gardens which are enlivened by charming Asoka trees.” Asoka flowers are considered auspicious by the devout for offering at the pagodas in Bangkok.
With its pendent leaves almost touching the ground, this evergreen tree forms the most perfect hemisphere. It is believed that to avoid Ravana, Sita would spend much of the daylight hours under these trees and in the process link her name in perpetuity with this botanical species.
We are told that Sita was simply charmed both by the thick set clusters of orange, yellow, and scarlet flowers as also their lingering, delicate fragrance. The purple anthers inside the crimson conical cup of the calyx and the six to eight bi-coloured, wiry stamens that burst out of each individual flower like a fireworks spray, is a divine sight. The new leaves form eight to 10 inches long, pink-purple tassels which dangle like wind chimes.
It is believed that where the Kosi river descends from the mountains to enter India, there was a huge grove of the Asoka trees which became Sita’s most favoured spot while on exile. According to text of the Skanda Purana, “Sita, charmed by the beautiful Asokas, said to Rama: “It is the month of Baisakh; let us stay in this wood and bathe in water of the river”. Little wonder, when they returned to Ayodhya, Sita yearned to revisit the grove which in due course became known as “Sitabani”.
Lakshmi, an artist from the art school at Lucknow, who in the 1950s created a matchless painting on the theme of Sita’s love for the Asoka blossoms.
The Buddhist connection with the tree arose from Maya Devi’s strange dream, during a siesta under an Asoka tree. Maya Devi dreamt that a white elephant had entered her belly from the left side of her body. When king Saddodhana consulted siddhas, they interpreted that the queen had conceived at that moment and that the child would be worshipped far and wide.
Some three centuries after Buddha, under the canopy of another Asoka in the province of Buddha’s enlightenment, was born another prince who became India’s greatest Emperor, Ashoka the Great, as also the greatest believer of the Buddha.
There was a time when Sita-Asoka trees grew in abundance in the western and eastern ghats and in the eastern Himalayas at the altitude band of about 50 m to 300 m. That was the time when tiger was also common in India. Sadly today, the former is confined to a few botanical gardens and a few inaccessible niches in the western ghats and eastern Himalayas just as the few surviving tigers can be encountered only in a handful of tiger reserves.
Regrettably, we know nothing of the myths or fairy tales connected to the golden tabebuia (tabebuia serratifolia). In the land of its forebears in Argentina and elsewhere in South America, it is aptly called the “Tree of Gold” for its golden yellow, bell-shaped flowers. In India, where it came perhaps a century ago, we ought to call it the “Basant Tree”, both for the purity of basanti colour and the time of its bloom.
Unlike the Sita-Asoka, its bloom is so abundant that one sees no evidence of leaves and branches at all. Its trunk arises vertically to about 15 ft before splitting into two or more forks. Its magnificent bloom (unfortunately too short-lived) is invariably mistaken for the Indian laburnum and the amaltas despite its unmistakable, prominent trunk with scabby slivers of brown bark, layered one above the other.