Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Enchanted gardens : June 04, 2000
Retreat of the gods
Art historian and Director, C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer Foundation, Chennai.
In his Mangalashtaka, Kalidasa mentions a garden of ten trees and expresses the hope that this flowering garden full of fruit-yielding tress should herald the well-being of the world. In Abijnana Shakunthalam, the heroine Shakuntala is so busy plucking flowers in her garden that she does not notice king Dushyanta. Much of the Mrichchakatika takes place in public gardens, as courtesans, heroes and villains court or avoid one another. There are several references in Sanskrit literature, especially Kalidasa's works, to beautiful gardens where princesses played with their friends and which were the location for romantic encounters and interludes.
This was the Nandavana, the forest of happiness, the garden of ancient India. There are innumerable references to gardens in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil literature. There were the Nandanavanas (Nandavana), Devavanas or sacred groves (kovil kaadu in Tamil, kaavu in Malayalam, devarakaadu in Kannada and deoran - devavana - or oran in Maharashtra and Rajasthan) and the fruit orchards, also known as Nandavana. The gardens generally had a religious association. Except the fruit trees, the remaining plants were reserved for the gods.
A famous garden was the Ashokavana where Sita was imprisoned by Ravana, king of Lanka. Valmiki goes into raptures as he describes its waterfalls, its pavilions, canopies of creepers and the numerous varieties of trees found within. Ravana attempted to woo Sita with this garden, creating an atmosphere of beauty and romance to persuade her, but was unsuccessful.
Krishna, as a child, played in the gardens of Brindavan, famous for its sweet-smelling flowering trees. The descriptions of the gardens where he danced the ras-leela with the gopis lend a romantic air which was transferred to a romantic, even erotic, cult in later literature. The miniature paintings of the north recreate the beautiful gardens and flower-bedecked bowers as an essential background for the legends associated with Krishna.
The Devavana or Kovil kaadu (sacred groves) was dedicated to the mother goddess. The sacred groves were repositories of local plant species and mini biosphere reserves: instead of offering a flower or a fruit, all the trees in the grove were dedicated to her. In the grove was a pond, in which was grew medicinal plants. Cutting trees, even a branch or a leaf, was taboo.
Nandavanas, on the other hand, generally contained a choice of flowering plants essential for pooja.
What is wonderful in this matching of each god to a plant or flower is the strong ecological message: conserve biodiversity by preserving a variety of trees and plants. In fact there are groves which are, themselves, temples. Every plant represents a deity, including the nine planets (navagraha), 27 constellations (nakshatra) and 12 zodiac signs (raasi). Such Deva vanas are very common in Karnataka.
Each garden had specific requirements. The Siva ayatana locates the ashwata and bilva trees representing Vishnu in the north-east (ishanya), karaveera and billyekka representing Surya in the south-east (aagneya), kadira and durva representing Ganesha in the south-west (nairutya), shankhapushpa and ashoka representing Ambika in the north-west (vayavya) and the bilva and drona representing Siva in the centre. In time, these became the vaastus on which the design of a house had to be based.
Nandavanas became an essential part of every temple. They supplied the flowers for the pooja and were regarded as sacred. Sometimes, when the priest doubled as the village doctor, they included medicinal plants and were local herbal gardens.
Ancient Tamils recognised five basic types of ecosystems - kurinji (mountains), mullai (pasture), marutham (agricultural lands), neithal (coastal areas) and paalai (desert). While the natural local vegetation characterised the last three, special efforts were made by local rulers to plant a variety of flowering plants in the kurinji and mullai. Kings and noblemen donated land, money, gold and watering facilities (tanks or wells) for the establishment and maintenance of Nandavanas.
The Silapadhikaaram refers to the parks and gardens of Puhar. During the festival of Indra, it was believed that the Devas and other celestial beings visited these groves which were guarded as divine reserves by the king's men. The Manimekalai refers to the Sambathi vanam and Kavera vanam, believed to be haunted by dangerous spirits called Thakkanangu, adjoining the city of Puhar. The descriptions of these groves are very evocative: a quiet beauty, colourful flowers, green grass and trees which were like a glimpse of heaven. The cloud-kissing trees had giant shadows, the flowers a fragrance that could overpower a saint, where ghosts and fairies stopped their dance and laughter to stare at a stranger transgressing the prohibited boundaries. Sambathi vanam was named after the elder brother of Jatayu who fell at that spot when his wings were burnt by the anger of the Sun God. Today, this garden is known as Pullirukkuvelur or Vaideeswaran kovil, once a suburb of Puhar.
There are several other references to flowering gardens, worshipped as sacred groves by the people.
Not all flower gardens were reserved for the gods. The gardens on the Neri mountains were believed to be haunted by a fierce spirit who was feared even by the honeybees, who would cease to fly or hum if they approached the Kandal flowers therein, says the Pathirrupattu. Mountain spirits were believed to wear luminous flowers and haunt mountains, assuming various forms as they fancied, according to the Agananuru.
There are several epigraphs which refer to donations made for the upkeep of the gardens. For example, a royal order was issued to the effect that the water of the Porporavai tank belonging to the temple of Natrunainatha was forbidden for any use other than for watering the Nandavanam. In an epigraph belonging to Kulothunga III, there is a reference to the Constitution of a committee for the management of the Nandavanam of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram.
The Nandavanam at Srirangam, known as Thirunandavanam or the Madurakavi Nandavanam, is situated on ten acres of temple land to the banks of the river Kaveri. Fresh flowers are provided for the morning pooja and for the garlands. In fact the garland makers of the Madurakavi Nandavanam are celibate and dedicate their lives to the worship of Lord Ranganatha. In this Nandavanam, every tree is named after one of the great Vaishnava Alvars and Acharyas. The Andal Thirunandavanam at Srirangam is named after Andal who is associated with the legend of the garland offered to the Lord Ranganatha. There are several inscriptions referring to the gifts made to the Thirunandavanam at Srirangam. The garlands from here are known as Thirupallidamam and the lands set apart for the cultivation of flowers and leaves are called Thirumalaipuram. The shady pavilions erected are known as Thirupumandapam and the men who cultivated the garlands are known as Thirunandavanakudigal.
The Nandavanas of ancient and medieval South India could be divided into five types:
The first were exclusively floral gardens containing jasmine, pandanos, michelia, etc. The Veerasekhara temple at Thirukovilur and the Vedapuriswara temple grove are examples of this category.
The second category of Nandavanas were the abode of fruit bearing trees.
The third was a combination of the first two, such as the Nandavana of the Siva temple at Thiruvennainallur.
The fourth category of Nandavana contained a single species of flowering plant, such as an exclusive jasmine garden or Nandiavattam grove. These were cultivated both for the temple as well as the market.
The fifth category was an entire forest which was maintained as a Nandavanam. These belonged to the mullai and kurinji ecosystems although they are occasionally referred to in the other ecosystems as well. They were known to exist in the Pandyan and Vijayanagar periods.
The temple gardens were generally maintained by a committee. The small temple Nandavanams were maintained by the village priest, the medium sized by the priestly community. The large Nandavanams were maintained by the temple Nandavanam committees, such as that established for the management of the sacred garden of the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram. There were three representatives of the king and six others - the temple superintendent, the head priest, the person in charge of festivals, the temple manager, the temple mason, and accountant.
Both literature and epigraphs described the concern which people had for the protection of these gardens. Festivals were arranged to emphasise the sanctity of the plants and the need to conserve them. There were three types of temple festivals:
The spring festival or vana mahotsava was celebrated on the full moon day in the sacred grove. The deity (generally the Mother Goddess) was decorated and taken in procession to the sacred grove or nandavana where she was worshipped through the night. The local people were allowed to worship on the condition that they would not harm the plants of the grove.
The second festival was the Thiruvettai or the sacred hunt referred to in an inscription of the Chola King Rajaraja II. The bronze utsava murti of Siva was decorated as a hunter and taken to the sacred grove where he was enthroned for several days in homage to the sacred plants therein.
The third festival was the Vasantha Thoppu which was similar to the Thiruvettai conducted during the spring.
A fertility festival called the dohada was also performed in ancient India, and continues to be performed among isolated tribal groups in Bihar and U.P.. Girls were made to kick fruit-bearing trees in Nandavanas, to make them bear many healthy children.
Gardens were an essential part of ancient and medieval India and have left their mark in contemporary attitudes. Cinematic visuals of couples singing and dancing around the Brindavan Gardens in Mysore, of a hero espying a heroine amidst beautiful flowers, could be scenes straight out of Kalidasa. Indian art - sculpture and painting - are replete with visually beautiful scenes of female figures surrounded by flowers. A beautiful garden fitted Indian aesthetic ideals of excellence in every sphere - beautiful appearance, fragrance and ambience. It is no wonder then that the garden or grove was regarded as sacred, the abode of the gods themselves.
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