The Bard's Nature and Farm University
Updated: Jan 2, 2020
Every year, I have been spending summers in India with my family. Our children and their grandparents get to know each other, and all of us connect back with our roots for nourishment. This year, we were in Kolkata for about three weeks. The evening walks there brought me very close to my childhood. The sound of conches being blown, the smell of incense making the breeze fragrant, the ring of percussion instruments that mark an evening ritual to honor the spirit -- they brought back memories from my childhood. My grandmother, who was Bengali, would perform this ritual in our Delhi home while I was growing up. With an Ayurvedic eye, I can now see how rituals such as this engage the five senses and inspire us to reconnecting with our own nature.
"Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven."
On a walk in the streets of urban Kolkata, I was surprised to find poetic words such as this from the India's Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore adorning a utility box. The spirit of Rabindranath is everywhere in Bengal's nature, and I feel that is because he honored nature so deeply in his work.
We took a family trip down to Shantiniketan, the university town that Tagore was instrumental in setting up with his Nobel prize money. The university that he set up continues to thrive and is called Vishwa Bharati, or Global India, and it exudes a spirit of welcome for people of all cultures in light of the poet's own emphasis:
"I do not think that it is the spirit of India to reject anything, reject any race, reject any culture. The spirit of India has always proclaimed the ideal of unity. The ideal of unity never rejects anything, any race, or any culture. It comprehends all, and it has been the highest aim of our spiritual exertion to be able to penetrate all things with one soul, to comprehend all things as they are, and not to keep out anything in the whole universe – to comprehend all things with sympathy and love. This is the spirit of India… India is there to unite all human races.” -- Tagore in his written Nobel acceptance speech
Tagore wrote a beautiful book of poetry called ‘Gitanjali’ and that’s where my name comes from. Shantiniketan translates literally into "abode of peace," and I could feel that in the environment. What the botanist called the Earleaf Acacia tree, Tagore rechristened to Shonajhuri, or gold shedder, referring to the color of leaves shed by this beautiful tree. The Shonajhuri grove in Shantiniketan forms the ambience for the local haat, or market, and this tree is immortalized in Tagore's poems, as are many other plants. At the haat, artisans come to share their music and wares. The art and the music is distinctly local. The musicians sing in nature under trees and are called Bauls. They are fearless poets, and their poetry reminds humans to be mindful of their rigid structures and go back to their spirit. Coming here, one can see how much of an impact this environment had on Tagore's evolution as a poet.
I was saddened to learn that many Shonajhuri trees have been cut down and this is the first time that the monsoon has been delayed. Their microclimate, which was supposed to have rain around the time we visited was almost totally dry. The locals felt it has been significantly altered due to human actions around deforestation. We humans are learning the hard way about the impact of our actions on our environment. It was heartening to see children at Vishwa Bharati (photo above) do a silent march requesting respect for the environment when dignitaries visit. Their placard says "Please keep your surrounding environment beautiful."
The campus is a beautiful display of art situated in nature, and a big attraction is a drive through tour. Often, the main characters of the tour are special trees, such as the Chatim tree under which Tagore's father, Devendranath Tagore, meditated.
The leaves of this Chatim tree are used to create a sataparni (translation: seven leaves) token which is given as a ceremonial mark to each graduating student. The trees in this environment made me feel that I am a guest in their home.
The other place in India where I like to recharge is my parent's farm in Northern India. It feels more like a farm university, hiding great treasures of knowledge. This time, I asked the local villagers to teach me about the plants. They shared great secrets. Let's meet our first friend, Bhringraj (Botanical name: Eclipta Prostrata).
Bhringraj oil is popular for hair growth in India. The villager who showed me this leaf also did an interesting demonstration. Rubbing this leaf on your hand releases a greenish black dye which takes a lot of effort to remove. I found out later that this is popular as a hair dye in China and that makes total sense. The Ayurvedic text Bhavaprakash notes Bhringraj as a hair and skin tonic. It diminishes excess kapha and vata.
Our second friend, Bhooi Amla, also called Bhumyamlaki in Sanskrit (Botanical name: Phyllanthus Niruri), is known for kapha and pitta pacification. Its taste is bitter, astringent and sweet. Villagers tend to chew the little ball like structures on this plant, which resembles amlaki although that's a much larger fruit. This acts as a supplement and is known to be good for the liver. Recent studies have shown its syrup as effective in viral infantile diarrhea and its churna as having positive effects for diabetic neuropathy.
Our third friend is Vasa (or Baash Pata in Bangla), known in Sanskrit as Ataroosha, and in Hindi as Adoosa or Adulsa (Botanical name: Adhatoda Vasica). Growing up, I have heard of Bash Pata from my father and his late mother (my grandmother), as a remedy for cough and could. According to Bhavaprakash, Vasa improves voice and reduces kapha and pitta. It is bitter and astringent in taste. You will find this in cough syrups in both Ayurvedic and Unani (Greek) medicine.
These plants grow wild and sometimes can be mistaken as weeds by the uninitiated. I learned about at least thirteen varieties of plants growing on the farm and in the neighboring area and they all had one common characteristic. They grow unaided by human nourishment or action. In our generation, this knowledge has the risk of dying out. My hope is that some day, I will be able to create botanical walking tours in a way that provides livelihood to the knowledgable villagers and passes down important knowledge.