Deep in the forests of BR Hills, we lose our heart to a 1,000-year-old Champaka tree
I was curious about a 1,000-year-old Champaka tree they said was still flowering. I wanted to see it and touch it. It needed special permission to go into the core area of the forest but the manager of Jungle Lodges and Resorts at K. Gudi (where I was staying) enthusiastically organised it. We passed through the most beautiful evergreen forest, 6,000 feet above sea level. Forest so thick, green and impenetrable, it felt like a different world. Countless butterflies kept us company, fluttering alongside the safari jeep, as if taking us in procession.
Called Dodda Sampige Mara or Big Champaka tree, it is worshipped by the Soliga tribe who inhabit these hills and in whose sacred grove it grows. The valley reverberated with singing cicadas. Tall trees, some more than a century old, vied with each other to reach the sky. The Soligas worship the tree as Mahadeshwar and celebrate the annual festival Jatra every April when they perform the fire dance around it. Their settlements are all over and I saw them cooking and going about domestic chores. They collect forest produce like gooseberries, honey, and lichens that are used as a spice. During coffee harvesting season, they work on the bushes to earn extra money. Some own small pieces of land where they grow their own coffee.
The tree was huge, filled with green and abundant foliage. Having witnessed a 1000 years, it had a mystical aura and was simply overwhelming to behold. The base was gnarled and enormous. Thousands of birds sheltered here, millions of champaka flowers blossomed in its branches, and it had witnessed endless cycles of life. It stood there, proud and wise with age, enormously tall, next to Bhargavi, a tributary of the Kaveri. Parasurama is said to have washed his axe in this river after slaying the Kshatriya rulers who had strayed from the path of dharma. Soligas believe the tree was planted by sage Agastya 3,000 years ago and that Bhargavi is actually Renuka, Parasuram’s mother and the wife of sage Jamadagni. The legends add to its aura.
The resort manager described the flowers, which appear in April — yellowish-orange and fragrant. Its botanical name, Michaelia Champaca, and other statistics did not matter. It stood there, magnificent and imperial. I imagined it covered with hundreds of blooms and heady with scent.
The beautiful and scented Champaka is often grown in temple precincts and is considered sacred to Krishna. It forms one of the five flower-darts of Manmadha, the Indian Cupid. Poets have celebrated its beauty over the ages. Kalidasa addressed a beautiful woman thus, “O Beauteous One! Maha-Brahma has formed thy eyes with lilies, thy face with lotus… thy limbs with the petals of the champaka. How is it that thy heart alone is cast in stone?”
At the foot of the tree were several small lingams, most smeared with holy ash. Some tridents with lemons pierced on them and bunches of brass bells also stood about. I went around the tree, peeping into the huge hollows that looked like homes for elves.
Dodde Sampige Mara has a younger sister nearby called Chik Sampige Mara (small Champak tree). The path to this sibling was narrow and unused. We had to stop a couple of times to clear the way but it was worth it. The younger sister is another splendid specimen, maybe 800 years old, with an impressive trunk and still flowering.
Yes, I will wait for spring and come back, passing through the lovely, deeply wooded forest, and feast my eyes on the grand dame when she is bejewelled with countless flowers, and I will carry back the fragrance and the joy.