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The TREE where Spirits Dwell

Every year, just as spring touches the canopies of Bengaluru, I have a pilgrimage to make. On no particular Sunday in March or early April, I pack up a picnic, WhatsApp a group of friends, and head to Lalbagh, the botanical garden that’s the oxygen generator for the south of Bengaluru. Our aim is to spread a mat under one of the silk cotton trees. For in spring, the majestically tall deciduous trees, the oldest of which is 300 years old and counting, are canopied with a heavy mass of crimson flowers. The trees are alive with the buzz of bees, the hum of insects, the singing of bulbuls, barbets and koels, the scuttling of squirrels and the skittering of starlings. This majestic, wise old being, also called shalmali (Sanskrit), semal (Hindi), mullilavu (Malayalam), kondaburuga (Telugu) and buruga (Kannada), has its roots deep in the country’s folklore and legends.

The tribals call it the tree of Yama, The God of Hell. Inside its many folded, thorny trunk dwells spirits and demons and supernatural beings like Yakshis.

It’s beautiful, yes, but its beauty is not for humans to control or keep. For the tribals call it the tree of Yama, the god of hell. Inside its many-folded, thorny trunk dwell spirits and demons and supernatural beings like yakshis, female tree spirits who claim this tree as their own. The legend goes that if a person visualises the tree in his dream, he’ll become ill. The Bhil tribes in Udaipur district believe that if you sleep on a mattress filled with semal seeds, you’ll become paralysed. Instead, humans need to worship it and keep away. Like Murias, a forest tribe of Madhya Pradesh, who plant a semal tree to mark a new village for the spirits of the tree to protect the village.

The book Brahma’s Hair: The Mythology of Indian Plants mentions another heart-rending folk legend revolving around the semal. Once upon a time, there was a king from Odisha who had two queens but no heir. The king loved his two wives and didn’t want to marry again. So, he wandered from physician to shaman to try and find a way, but no help came. Once, on a hunting expedition, an ascetic came up to him and told him he had a solution. The king sent his queens to this ascetic’s ashram to work his magic. What no one knew was that that sage was no sage, but a demon in disguise, by the name of Kaliya Dano. As soon as the wives reached the demon, he killed the women and gobbled them whole. Days turned into weeks with no news of his wives. The king grew restive and headed to the forest to search for the ashram. He called out to the sage and when no answer came, he walked in and discovered his wives’ bones and jewellery. Angered, he cried for Kaliya Dano who ran up a smooth-barked red silk cotton tree, and as he climbed the tree, he pulled out his long, sharp teeth and stuck them onto the tree’s trunk, so no one could climb it. That’s how the silk cotton tree got its thorny trunk.

Ruskin Bond, in his book The World of Trees, retells an urban tale of two shikaris who rested between beats one hot May morning in a central Indian jungle under a tall semal tree and unwisely lit up a pipe right under a dozen great combs of the Big Bee that hung from its branches. Up went the pipe-smoke and down came the bees! They were soon buzzing around the two shikaris, who beat an undignified retreat, running over a mile across open country and jumping into a river. They were so badly stung that they had to remain in the river for hours, up to their chins in water.

The spirits of the semal protect the tree and keep humans away. But every year, like a pilgrim, I’m back. For if you’ve not seen its untouchable, other-worldly spread of red across the sky while lying on your back, you’ve missed something marvellous. Shweta is an author who tells stories of myths and magic, bringing them alive through novels, graphic novels, stories and conversations.

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