I have been writing about Dipterocarps for quite some time now. And there is a reason for it. The Family Dipterocarpaceae happens to be one of the most important families of angiosperms (flowering plants) in the forests of South and Southeast Asia. Trees of this family dominate the landscape in this belt, fed by the monsoon rains, from India’s dry plains to the Philippines’ lush islands. Many a creature, irrespective of size and nature, is dependent on them. Be it the wild animals that feed upon their leaves, fruits and seeds or the human beings that exploit them for timber. One example of such a Dipterocarp is the Shala Tree (Shorea robusta) of South Asia.

The Shala (also known as Sal or Sakhua, in Hindi) is a denizen of both dry and wet forests that cover much of South Asia. It is a native of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. In India, it is found in the Shivaliks and Terai (that form a belt of forested foothills and swamps located south of the Himalayas), the Ganga Valley, the Brahmaputra Valley, the Chotanagpur Plateau, the Vindhya Ranges, and the Eastern Ghats. Shala Trees grow from the sea level to an altitude of 1,500 m above sea level. They are evergreen in wet areas and deciduous in dry areas, and can reach heights of 35 m. The species produces a timber that is highly valued for its durability.

But there is more to the the Shala Tree than just planks, posts and frames. The tree is greatly revered by Buddhists because of the role it played in the life of Gautama Buddha. It is said that he was born in a grove of Shala Trees in Lumbini. There are several paintings and sculptures that show Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddhartha (the future Gautama Buddha) while holding onto a Shala branch. Indeed, it is one of the favourite themes of Buddhist iconography. One can see it on several toranas (gateways) associated with Buddhist monuments scattered across Asia.

Another instance of the Shala appearing in Buddhist legends is associated with the Mulapariyayasutta. It was delivered by the Buddha while seated under a Shala in the settlement of Ukkatha. In fact, there are several episodes of the Buddha delivering sermons under Shala trees or taking rest in Shala groves. The most moving account is the one recounted in a commentary on the Majjhima Nikaya with regard to the Buddha’s death. It is said that the Buddha, then eighty years old, keenly aware of his impending fate, requested his chief disciple and caretaker, Ananda to accompany him to the Upavattana Shala grove in the territory of the Mallas, a republican tribe in North India.

There, on the banks of the Hirannavati River, near the city of Kusinara, he expressed the desire to take rest and had Ananda lay him down between two Shala trees, with his head towards the north. Legend has it that the two trees, twins by nature, burst forth into blooms, despite it not being the flowering season. The blossoms fell down on the Buddha’s body. The Buddha told Ananda that the trees had honoured him by showering him with flowers. But his followers could honour him by conducting themselves in accordance with his teachings. Soon, the Buddha would pass away. But the role of the Shala, like the teachings of the Master would be preserved for posterity.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a botanical illustration of the Shala Tree from ‘Plants of the Coast of Coromandel’. The book, whose publication began in 1795,  carries beautiful illustrations sent to Sir Joseph, the great English naturalist by the Scottish surgeon-cum-botanist William Roxburgh (1751-1815). The Coromandel is a strip of land running along the southeastern coast of India (in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). The illustration dates back to 1819. One can notice the winged fruits that look like shuttlecocks (bottom) and explain the name given to the family (Dipterocarps or trees with double-winged fruits).