Have we failed to inculcate a scientific temper? Investing a tree with curative powers and adorning it with garments of the ill to rid them of the disease continues as a common practice even in the cities

In India many kinds of trees, plants, shrubs and even some grasses have traditionally been invested with all manner of qualities. Some of the attributes ascribed to these trees or plants or shrubs stem from traditional knowledge about their medicinal qualities while veneration for another set of vegetation is rooted in the mythologies associated with this or that tree or plant. There are many trees or plants that are held in high esteem because of a combination of their medicinal qualities and the mythological attributes associated with them. The Tulsi plant and the Peepal tree are two examples of this combination.

It is difficult now to say what came first, the discovery of their usefulness followed by them being exalted in the spiritual pecking order or the other way round. The fact remains that the trees that have both attributes have a greater chance of survival, the ones that have only religious, spiritual or ritualistic significance would come second in their chances of survival and the ones that have only medicinal value have even fewer chances of being spared the axe. This last category, though, has a marginally higher chance of survival than the vegetation that has not been privileged by either a spiritual or a medicinal marker.

We have in our tradition the story of a boon giving tree as well, a tree that can fulfil your wildest dreams if you present yourself before it and pray hard enough. The only problem is that no one seems to know what the boon giving tree looks like. Some have suggested that the Baobab tree that is found in abundance in Mandu along with a few specimens found in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is the Kalpataru. This assertion misses one important point about the myth of the Kalpataru and that is the fact that the myth of the Kalpataru has some antiquity in the Indian mythic tradition while the Baobab is believed to have arrived only with the Arab traders less than 1000 or so years ago.

At times a tree, in popular imagination, is invested with magical or curative powers. It does not have to belong to a particular order, genus, family or species; any odd tree could be chosen and bestowed with these qualities. Gradually, a cult would begin to form or shall we say a band of adherents would gradually take shape and this band of devotees would through word of mouth begin to propagate the magical qualities possessed by that tree.

The commonest example of this kind that one comes across the country side regularly is of trees about which it is believed that sickly kids, infants, pre-pubescent girls and boys and in some rare cases even adults who have a tendency to be constantly unwell can be cured if certain garments are taken off their bodies and hung on these trees. It is believed that the trees have the capacity, working through their recently worn clothes that still have a connect with the wearer, to purge the ailing persons of their disease and to set them on the road to rapid recovery. For some reason, such trees are invariably located on busy roads and almost always have thorny branches.

I had first noticed such a tree while driving to Aligarh, through Narora. I was not carrying a camera at that time but the tree struck me because of its rather colourful appearance and after asking several people on the way about this half-hearted attempt to dress up a tree, I came to know about the practice. Next time I drove to Aligarh I carried my camera with me and the tree was there resplendent in its rags augmented by recent additions to its rather diverse wardrobe.

I thought that one would come across instances of people taking recourse to similar “lines of treatment” in areas where medical facilities were not within easy reach or where there was a general lack of modern education. But this tree was located in Narora and though Narora is off GT Road it is still not the boondocks, there is a nuclear power plant in Narora and the area is fairly well connected.

I was still mulling over this when we drove to Prof Zahoor Siddiqi’s ancestral home in Rataul, to meet him and to feast on the famous Rataul mangoes. The Prof, now retired, spends most of his time at Rataul where he and his wife run a school for girls in their haveli. On our way, I passed Bhajanpura in East Delhi and found another such tree and then I remembered that there was yet another inside the campus of Hamdard University and the Majedia Unani Medicine Hospital near Tughlaqabad. Both located on busy roads, the one near Bhajanpura in a little ditch but visible from the road that runs across the Wazirabad Barrage and the last time I drove past, a little child had been brought there and was being given a bath under the tree, probably a new addition to this growing fad. The tree in Hamdard university campus is clearly the hands down favourite with a large stretch of the wall near the tree also covered with old clothes.

This too is Delhi -- superstitious, steeped in blind faith and refusing to question the purveyors of such unscientific and regressive ideas. Or have we the educated, the modern, the secular, the liberal failed in our task of ensuring the growth and inculcation of a scientific temper?

More In: Medicine | Health | Sci-Tech | Delhi