Mum has a vivid memory of her early childhood and I love hearing about her adventures. Her early days were spent in India and they sounded happy. Apparently she was a podgy little dumpling and abit of a ‘boss’ since local scallywags, kids that is, used to like following her around. They weren’t street urchins but might as well have been as she sounded abit like Dennis the Menace to me. Despite her tail of both kids and animals (including one Golden Retriever who used to unfortunately get sent to keep watch on her) she preferred to go out and about by herself, as far and as fast her little fat legs could carry her (her description not mine).
One of her favourite haunts was a grove of Banyan trees, a habit of hers that upset everybody. You see those trees, type of fig tree (very important symbolically and colloquially called the ‘strangler fig’), are legendary and mysterious in India and to Buddhists:
They represent immortality, in Sanskrit the banyan are called ‘bahupuda’ i.e. ‘one with many feet’ and it those feet/external roots that put a lot of people off, they’re creepy looking but respected the roots are cylical in nature – they’re roots yet also grow from the branches and support the whole structure, so seem to go on and on in support and renewal. In India the banyan is considered symbolically ‘male’ and the Peepal tree (the ‘sacred fig’) ‘female’ so they tend to be grown together if intentionally planted yet the banyan is also known as the Raja ‘King’ tree; RajaRajeshwari ‘King of Kings’ is actually feminine so in modern terms would be ‘Queen of Queens’ but still the ultimate and that goes with them also being known as the Bodhi trees i.e tree of knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom are also feminine terms and often represented/bestowed by goddess characters (Buddha & the rest of the original Buddhist pantheon were Hindu goddesses, the Indian prince who became known as Budda is not the Buddha, but a Budda in the sense of an enlightened person, or saint like Kristna who is claimed to be an avatar of a major current god but Krist-Christ is a title, not a name and interestingly enough the ‘second coming’ supposedly of Kalki is still called an avatar of Vishnu yet the name Kalki is from Kali and so is ultimately feminine (‘divine feminine’ used interchangeably with the androgyn but the latter are usually the helpers/workers of the feminine), the destructive force to Lalita’s creative. The current pantheon are an invasive lot who likely deified themselves after the conquering of egalitarian India in approx 1500BC needing to incorporate what was already there when they became one of the cradles of modern civilization, after Mesopotamia and Egypt. The sanskrit name for the peepal tree is ‘ashvattha’ tree of life. Both trees are beautiful and Mum used to stay there for ages by herself often worrying the adults who would wonder where she was. But was she alone? Those trees are taboo also because it is said they make good homes for many spirits including some multi-species looking, and some musicians. Whilst taboo they are sacred, you mustn’t cut down homes just because you can’t see the residents, it seems worse to destroy the homes of the unseen because they can hurt you in unknown ways whereas you know regular seen wildlife and other animals have no defense/comeuppance. Mum felt at home there, moreso than anywhere else. Other people have decided that sitting underneath those trees is good for governing and gathering meetings, in addition to holy rituals. The spiritual significance of these trees is hard to explain, they represent the form of god in tree form and enlightenment. Mum was a bit like Tarzan with the vines, her place of innocent play despite the superstition that people tell others not to go there because of ghosts/dead people and demons. In terms of going back through time it seems that trees in general were revered and worshiped before the current set of gods/divinities, peepul was the first depicted tree in India found in the Indus Valley on a seal.
This author, Linda Johnsen, explains it well:
Most people are used to seeing trees that grow from the ground up, but yogis talk about a tree that grows upside down. “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below,” says the Katha Upanishad, a yogic text which unveils the secrets of death. The yoga masters, the shamans of Siberia, the Persian priests, the ancient Celts, and even the Vikings knew this tree well.
Growing up in Norway I heard about this amazing tree, which my grandparents called Yggdrasil, that grew down from the sky. Gods like Odin and Thor lived on one branch; we lived on another. Over in Britain wise men and women of olden times actually called themselves Druids, “knowers of the tree.” But it wasn’t till I started studying yoga that I learned what this inverted tree really is.
The oldest reference to the Ashvattha I can find appears in the Rig Veda, a text composed in India over 5,000 years ago: “What is that tree, what kind of wood is it made from, from which the Earth and Heaven are fashioned?” India’s ancient sages literally placed the tree in the sky. Go out at night and look up at Scorpio, near where the ecliptic (the path of the sun and planets) crosses the Milky Way. There you’ll find a small constellation in the tail of the celestial scorpion which the yogis call Mula, “the root.” This is the root in heaven out of which the World Tree grows. It happens to also mark the Galactic Center, a rather surprising coincidence if you believe in coincidences!
If you follow the spray of stars backward through the zodiac you’ll see the Ashvattha’s trunk growing through Scorpio, its limbs branching out in Libra (the Indian constellation Vishakha here means “forked branches”), and fruit growing on its branches in Leo and Virgo (the Indian constellation here called Phalguni means “fruit of the tree”). The ancient sages placed a young woman here named Kanya (our Virgo). With one hand (our constellation Corvus is called Hasta, “hand,” in India) she’s reaching for the fruit. And there entwined in the tree next to her is a long snake we call the constellation Hydra, which the ancient Indians called Ashlesha, “king of the serpents.” According to Indian legend, no one is allowed to eat the fruit of this tree except the yogis—only they can handle its awesome power.
Now here’s a surprise. The ancient Indo-Iranians claimed there isn’t just one tree in the sky: there are two. One tree has golden fruit, the other silver. Do these remind you of the biblical Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, from which the snake tempted Eve to eat? We know from drawings on clay tablets discovered in Mohenjo-Daro (an archeological site in Pakistan) that the Ashvattha tree was revered in India more than a thousand years before the oldest parts of the Bible were composed. The ancient Assyrians have also left us images of the goddess Ishtar (Virgo) standing on a lion (Leo) beside the World Tree. Myths about these constellations were probably the original source of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Eve reaches for the yellow fruit of the tree that lies along the ecliptic. In India the ecliptic, marked by twelve signs of the zodiac called the Adityas in yogic literature, represents samsara, the wheel of death and rebirth on which Adam and Eve become caught when they eat of the fruit.
In the yoga tradition we learn to stop grasping after the fruits of our actions, which only creates more entangling karma.
In the Norse myths I grew up with there are three gardeners who look after the tree. The first is an elderly woman named Urd who knows the past, the second a young woman named Verdandi who knows the present, and the last a little girl named Skuld who knows the future. These three figures were known in India too. There Skuld is called Rohini, an innocent young girl associated with the star Aldebaran in Taurus. Verdandi, the young woman, is called Chitra in India, though she’s known to Western astronomers as the star Spica in Virgo. Urd, the terrifying old woman whom the Vikings believed controls our destiny, is Antares in Scorpio, a brilliant red star the Indians call Jyeshtha. These three stars, positioned nearly equal distances from each other, are traditional markers for three of the four quarters of the sky.
In the most important of all ancient Indian rituals, the Horse Sacrifice, three women representing these very stars lay their hands on the horse at the climax of the rite. The connection with the horse ritual is especially interesting because Ashvattha, the yogis’ name for the World Tree, actually means “where the horse is stationed.” The horse in the sky is of course the constellation Pegasus, called Dadhikras in Sanskrit, that marks the fourth quarter of the sky. Pegasus eternally gallops around the North Celestial Pole. The Pole is the one point in the northern sky that never moves. Everything else in heaven revolves around it. It represents the Spirit, which lies outside time and change. From a point of complete stillness, our inner Spirit observes everything going on around us, just like a motionless axle in a spinning wheel.
The North Celestial Pole is the second tree, standing at a right angle to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which circles the ecliptic. The silver fruit of this northern tree is the source of soma, the famous yogic nectar of immortality. This is the Tree of Life, of which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. The Katha Upanishad hints at this plainly enough: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it.” The Upanishad encourages us to find the still point—the luminous root of the Ashvattha tree—in ourselves. But how exactly do we do that?
In yoga, the horse symbolizes prana, the breath of life. The breath is yoked to our mind the way Pegasus is yoked to the North Star. In most of us the breath cycles around and around, like Pegasus endlessly circling the sky. But yogis know how to slow and finally stop the breath, merging their awareness in the unmoving center of their being. This is the state of samadhi, the deepest level of meditation.
In deep meditation you can begin to climb the tree. The Ashvattha inside you is your spine. We call the muladhara chakra at the bottom of the spine the root chakra, but the mystical root is actually at the top of your head in the sahasrara chakra, the center where divine consciousness resides. It is awakened when we stop reaching for the fruit outside ourselves and turn our attention within. Then the serpent of kundalini, the power of consciousness, begins to move up subtle circuits, corresponding to the spine, toward the top of the head. Legends about the World Tree from India to Scandinavia agree there’s an eagle near the top of the tree that the snake is trying to reach. The eagle is the ajña chakra, the center of consciousness behind the midpoint of the eyebrows. When the snake passes the eagle and reaches the very top of the tree of our psychic nervous system, enlightenment can occur.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna, the greatest of yogis, says that of all trees, divine awareness is most fully present in the Ashvattha. Another sacred text, the Bhagavata Purana, relates that at the time of his death Krishna withdrew his awareness into his inner being and contemplated the Ashvattha tree. We will have achieved something extraordinary in our yoga practice if as we die we also turn our full attention to the heavenly root of the Asvattha inside us.
By the way, there really is an Ashvattha tree. Botanists call it Ficus religiosa; in India today it’s called the Bodhi tree. Sitting under it, Buddha became enlightened. It’s a type of banyan which first grows up from the ground, but then sends more roots downward from its branches. When these aerial shoots reach the earth they re-root themselves and form a new tree. In this way one Ashvattha can become an entire forest of Ashvattha trees. If you then ask yourself, “Which is the original tree?” you’ll realize that, in a sense, every tree in the forest actually is the first tree. Though it looks like there are many trees, there is really just one. The ancient yogis chose the Ashvattha to symbolize their world because it perfectly represents that, although everything in the universe appears to be separate, in reality all things share the same eternal source.
Near the banyan trees, there was a pond or a lake where people would say that at certain times silver plates would rise. Everybody wanted this legend. Mum however wanted the singara (Indian water chestnuts) and her youngest uncle used to go and get them and come out covered in leeches (quickly removed with salt). He would carry her around when her legs got tired too.
There was also a Neem tree where she lived, right next to the temple in the house complex – both neem and pipal (peepal/ul) trees are medicinal and sacred, the neem is a tree of Kali. Next to the neem was a goya (not bitter gourd, it was a type of pear or peach), a banana tree, mango, litchi, boroi (plum) strangely enough there was no coconut, apple or dates all of which are very common for households.
The strange thing is Mum has never been into fruit, she likes looking at them and likes to eat vegetables (which they also had in abundance) but she preferred something else… Nectar, mead, ambrosia aka honey (and the sugar cane the grew in the courtyard)! Since she wasn’t afraid of animals she climbed the trees, stuck her hand straight into the hives and ate whatever came out, seriously. Thankfully I’ve converted her to veganism (and having various animal companions put her off eating animals since they obviously have personalities, intelligence and feelings) and she taught me botany/foraging, but back then the honey and the bees were all one thing, she probably would have eaten the hives given half the chance. She said they were crunchy. o_o
I used to say I’d like to spend most of my time under a tree or living in a tree-house but then I realized apart from all the noisy neighbours and them dropping all and sundry on me like Victorians did through the upstairs windows over passerby’s, I’m not particularly fond of the idea of the tree dropping things on me either like coconuts and most definitely not jackfruit and I don’t want to be the trampoline for the people (other animals that is, they are also people to me) themselves. People tend to avoid trees with snake peoples in them for example but not Mum, no the snakes avoided her. Her fat little fingers were thankfully of the simply curious kind rather than casually cruel kind you get in a lot of kids towards other animals (and towards other human children), she’d just pick up any creature and look at it – oh they have my sympathy. Frozen in the headlights might be a good way to put it. She’d then put them back down again after figuring out how and why they looked the way they did to a satisfactory level enough for mutual species understanding, none of that dissecting and needing to know exactly why a certain fly beats its wings that many times, facts that necessitate masses of corpses to discover. After getting out of the way of those beams of pure focus I imagine said animals counted their blessings and spread the word to ‘avoid that little girl, she’ll stick her chubby hands anywhere to catch you and make you feel massively uncomfortable before letting you go under the threat of possibly doing it again’.
Then there were the ‘joongli’ people (jungle, though apparently they weren’t jungle people just dark skinned/Black, not ethnically Black) who had their grievances and were the figurative Mr Wilson to Mum’s Dennis the Menace & gang. She said they had the best gardens; very well tended and impressive i.e. the perfect temptation to those who want a piece of it…
Then there was a little island in the middle of a river, Mum’s island, a patch that only Mum used to visit so the ‘family’ said they gave it to her and no one else was allowed to go there. An island of succulent, delicious ground growing fruit/veg like pumpkins, melons, marrows etc and Mum used to go and check regularly that no one had taken anything. It was dangerous to get to (and like with the banyan area with loads of snakes and other critters, snakes in the patch they gave her and in the water), you had to swim across to get there and back, and Mum was an excellent swimmer; even the whirlpool that almost got her once thought better of it.
In the toilet area (hole in the ground) bunches of snakes would fall down too, people were scared to go! But snakes are everywhere, what can you do. Just leave ’em alone and don’t provoke ’em. But nothing came near Mum on her excursions, she never got bitten. (She would of grabbed hold of them had they tried.)
Mum’s bedroom had pomegranates (life/death – night/day – Summer/Winter) above the roof and snakes fell down onto it. She once woke up with a cobra on her bed (probably from the ground) it didn’t seem to do anything and left after a while. Mum wasn’t bothered, as long as it doesn’t bother her she didn’t care, and don’t bother her when she’s sleeping, the snake knew who was the alpha there. Cobras are religious symbols, particularly the insignia on their heads. Later on (when Mum was brought to the UK) she was told there was many pots of gold underneath her bedroom – some sort of prophecy that she doesn’t remember. Put it this way, unlike Princess Kaguya’s (Japanese moon princess) gold & items taken by her parents and used as they saw/they were told to use becoming rich rather than asking her, Mum’s ‘family’ haven’t got their hands on it yet.
If you’ve ever read/seen the cartoon ‘The Moomins’ the character ‘Little My’ [Lilla My the indestructible] reminds me of Mum, and perhaps Lina Inverse from ‘Slayers’…
Anyway I digress; there were actually in existence a couple of things that worried her, it’s true. One was a skeleton kept in the school playground, not a plastic anatomical one for Biology, a real one and for no obvious reason. Just hanging there, swaying in the wind… Despite the adults and children mostly already being desensitized to seeing people getting the bloody crap beaten out of them by corrupt police (a common thing there) and with children getting beaten as part of normal discipline that skeleton still had an effect. I quite like skeletons personally, always have, it’s the ideal way looking at each other naked and not thinking anything mean or leery. Skeletons don’t bother me, all the organs/muscles/bodily fluids ‘messy bits’ etc are gross and babies of all fauna are weird, offputting aliens when they’re born. 😛 Mum used to be of the opposite opinion, she didn’t mind the innards and sacking, but now she’s ok with bones too. Needless to say she was very literate, fluent in reading/writing & the benefit of home tutors (I advocate home schooling, if it wasn’t for Mum I’d have learned crap all in schools).
The one ‘thing’ that really scared her though was a guardian; a mighty, overlooking, menacing protector of the place – a huge statue of Kali that stood as defender. It stood on the riverbank and you had to pass it to get to town and it was a frightful experience for her every time, she used to run past it as fast as she could lest she wet herself. Well it did its job… But perhaps to the wrong person. Or maybe not, look at the roots Mum & I have uncovered over the years. A true guardian is supposed to be fierce but they are ultimately caring. They can’t be the sweet & cuddly kind all the time (like we find in modern culture) if they’re going to fight monsters who act monstrous rather than just look it. Mum couldn’t avoid the statue because on the other side was a wall of cacti. On one side of the statue was a nepthal (not sure of spelling/English colloquial name) tree and the other a Kadamba tree (again massive significance) and the kadamba flowers made good weapons, so I’m told.
Interestingly enough despite being Bengali Hindu in new India and goddesses being the favourite (ironic the devotion to goddesses contrasted with the treatment of women) of those people, particularly Kali and Durga (Durga being a later, added name plus her own groupies over the Lalita/Kali/Bala three from one), Mum doesn’t remember anyone there ever using the name ‘Kali’, even though they did the rituals (the tongue sounds for example e.g. one sound Xena: Warrior Princess made famous) they used other names for her. The thing is the Great Destroyer scares everybody, even those that pray to her, she is the epitomy of the ancient crone; the wisest, oldest, darkest. People tend to prefer to pray to the nicer seeming ones who bestow fortune, wealth, prosperity, success, good luck etc people pray to Kali out of obligation and to ward off or protect from extreme danger. The fact that she is the only surviving root divinity in current Hinduism (and other likenesses seen worldwide as root figures, mostly covered over/metamorphosed now) is interesting – she’s stubborn, the Dark Mother lasts no matter what, no matter hard or painful and people always go back to her, something in them tells them that she is shelter.
There were many tornadoes where she lived, people’s houses were ruined and even blew away Dorothy & Oz style and fish fell from the sky but where she lived always stayed put so people came from all around for safety.
Once a buffalo died and she was so upset she made the ‘family’ carry it to the river to give it a proper funeral, they didn’t want to but she made them give it a proper send off.
In rural India if you’re wealthy you have a separate lagoon bathing area to the house, surrounded by lush plants like banana trees for privacy – the bathing area they had was surrounded by fields of Gold i.e. mustard (again with the significance).
Listening to all these memories one thing I ask myself was why was she living on the maternal side at all, it’s very strange for a girl to get married and not go to the man’s side but Mum’s female ‘parent’ stayed at home and instead of the dowry going to the husband it remained with the girl and all the inheritance when her dad died (even though she had three brothers and a late sister who’d been the first wife of the man she was then made to marry). Her family had moved to new India after Muslims took over the part of Bangladesh and had told the family that the daughters were beautiful. Mum’s male ‘parent’s side was also very wealthy and influential.
Sadly, early on her ‘parents’ brought her & the younger sister here and everything changed, especially for Mum who never knew joy again.
RajaRashwari tv show
All this makes me wonder, I don’t have a very good memory of my early childhood except things like a broken arm, burnt hand, concussion, having an upset stomach that the doctors said necessitated the removal of the appendix but Mum said no and prayed over me all night and I was better in the morning with a healthy appetite (I wanted six potatoes from the dinner lady), falling on glass, accidentally swallowing paint, hair loss, babysitting my younger sister and going with an ex-neighbour to her new place in Greenwich every weekend until she stopped showing up after an occasion where her friends had come over and I remember them being rowdy and me slumping to the floor unconscious against something solid hearing their laughter. My earliest memory is one that really stands out to me, I was possibly in a car and it was dark outside, with lights going by so perhaps streetlights – that’s all I remember but for some reason I ‘know’ that I was 5 years old and going to see/or had just seen Cinderella and I knew the person driving. Cinderella wasn’t released or re-released that year but that person told me we’d seen it at the Elephant & Castle (cinema). Mum doesn’t remember it and I don’t remember her there, only one person and that person said we went as a family, but we didn’t.
Another strange thing, I have a young ‘aunt’ almost 3 years older than me and both of us had most of our teeth taken out apparently down to eating too much sugar 🙄
I often wonder would Mum have been better off in India, her early childhood sounded idyllic and much preferable to growing up here. Things would have probably changed when she ‘came of age’ over there (children are betrothed before puberty) rather than immediately changing as they did here. If she had been happy she wouldn’t have needed me but that’s ok, I’m not the kind of person that needs/wants bad things to happen to prove myself. I would have hoped she’d ended up like this:
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle