Time, place, experience, vision, creativity, … these are all important ingredients to stories. Of these, of course, time (history) and place (geography) are indispensable. Your story, my story, as much as anyone else’s, has to have both time and place in it.

We subject the divine to the same boundaries. If not, we cannot comprehend the divine. It is for this reason we have sacred places in our geography.

Sacred places exist in our minds as much as in the physical geographic space outside of us. Wherever we experience or believe (or imagine, as the case may be) the divine exists, that place becomes sacred. This is why when we visit a person whom we believe to be divine, we consider that visit a pilgrimage.

In occasional articles before, I have written about the phenomenon of moving sacred places (links at the bottom of this article).

Elements

Immobile sacred places have architecture and several physical elements associated with them. These physical elements may be a hill, a mountain, river, grove, etc. The sacredness of that physical element is by the presence of the deity at the place. The two are intimately connected. Hence the sanctity we associate with the Tirumala (mala = hill), Sabarimala, Bhadrādri (adri = hill, mountain), Malai Mahadeshvara (malai = hill), and so on.

Each of these places has a story. This means time and place are connected. The story is called a sthala (place, in Samskrtam) purāna (story, legend). The sthala purāna is usually (but not always) set “in ancient times.” Mind you, the temple may be dated reasonably well, but the stories are usually not so.

Sacred botany

Interestingly, in Tamil Nadu, many sacred places have two more kinds of associations in their stories: the sthala vrksha (place tree), and sthala tīrtha (place-water). There is usually a tree and a body of water associated with the deity.

Explore: Is this kind of association found only in Tamil Nadu? If not, share any examples you may find with us (the contact us form will open in a new tab).

The bilva (or vilva) tree (Aegle marmelos), sacred tree associated with Śiva. Sacred tree for several Śiva shrines – e.g., Puliyūr, Vennanthūr, Pillūr, and others.
Image source: https://goo.gl/3OkRqz [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018]

Here are some examples from Madurai district alone:

  Local name

 

Botanical name Temple Part of the plant Medicinal uses
1. Arasu Ficus religiosa Madhana gopalan Leaf, bark Jaundice, skin diseases, ulcer
2. Kadambam Neolamarckia cadamba

 

Meenaakshi Sokkanathar Bark, leaf Fever, mouth gargle, stomach pain
3. Punnai Pongamia pinnata Naagar Seed Skin problems
4. Puli (English: Tamarind) Tamarindus indica Ayyanar Flower, fruit Diarrhea, blood purifier

Source:A Study on Sthalavrikshas in Temples of Madurai District, Tamil Nadu” by Vinoth Kumar and Aruna R.  [Accessed on 11 December 2018] (Downloadable PDF)

 

The authors of the study above list this information for 31 places in Madurai district. Notice that each tree is also recognized for its medicinal use.

Kadamba tree (Neolamarckia cadamba). This tree is the sacred tree of the Mīnākshī temple, Madurai.
Image source: https://goo.gl/hJuMJG [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018]

Interestingly, in the context of Mīnākshī (# 2 in the table), Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar (1775-1835), a famous composer of songs in the south Indian style of classical music, refers to the deity as kadamba-vana-vaasini (‘she who dwells in the forest of kadamba’). Listen to the late Smt M S Subbulakshmī singing this line here:

South Indian style of classical music is called Karnātaka sangīta or Carnatic music.

In another study, Prabakaran R and Sabari Lakshmi G have listed 87 sthala vrkshas. They give the names of places, the temples, botanical and local names, and medicinal uses for each tree. You can see the full article with the table in “Studies on Sthalavrikshas of various temples in Tamil Nadu, India” in Bioscience Discovery, 2017; accessed: 11 Dec. 2018.

The tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica). Sacred tree to Ayyanar temples in Tamil Nadu.
Image source: https://goo.gl/CL72jx [Accessed: 11 Dec. 2018]

Disruption

Yes, we recognize sacred places, sacred edifices (buildings). We travel to them, we offer prayers, we meditate there, etc. However, here are two thinkers who disrupt this whole structure each in his own way.

In rough English translation, here is Śankarāchārya (believed to have lived 788-820):

In my meditation, I gave you a form though you are formless
In my praise, I gave you qualities though you are beyond them
By going on pilgrimages, I located you though you are omnipresent
Oh Lord, I beg forgiveness for these three errors.

I am particularly fascinated by his comment on “sacred geography” in the third line. He is right! Sacredness is omnipresent (omni = everywhere). However, just as it is easier for us to identify ourselves with smaller geographical areas than the world as a whole, it is easier to identify with a physically locatable place. Just look at the answers we get when we ask (or asked), “Where are you from?”

The second thinker is Basavanna (1108-1168):

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving
ever shall stay. [basavaNNa poem 820]               [opening lines of intro; p.19]

This translation from A K Ramanujan’s book Speaking of Siva is one of my favorites. Here Basavanna emphasizes the difference between building a temple and being a temple. He builds this very poetically, saying that a sacred building located in one place will fall one day. However, being sacred is never-ending – this is a forever-geography.

In the built temples, located at specific places, the local elements are part of the sacredness of the place. Today, we looked at trees. It could just as well have been a stone, a rock, hill, river, … anything, really!

All the way from sacred sites based on shared stories and built temples to a state of being and thinking sacred, there is a range of sacred geographies. Indian culture has given due importance to all of them! So, when we see the sacred geographies of each other, it is important to remember that our culture does not diminish any of them.

If we diminish any of them, it is for political reasons. Not spiritual reasons. And we see the consequences of such attitudes around us in the daily news.

Links to some previous articles on sacred geography in this blog


A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 12 December 2018

Featured image: The kadamba tree. Image source: https://goo.gl/hJuMJG [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018]

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