Buddhists hold a large number of trees sacred. These usually happen to be trees associated with certain episodes in the Buddha’s life. Those under which the Buddha was born, took rest or practiced meditation. Many of these trees might have been worshiped by people long before the origin of Buddhism. South Asia had a long tradition of tree worship and sacred groves. They still exist in the remote and forested parts of India, especially those inhabited by Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic tribes. Maybe, the practice of venerating certain trees became a part of Buddhist tradition as it developed in regions where tree spirits were part and parcel of folk religion.

Another factor might be the worship of snakes. ‘Nagas’, legendary serpents that inhabited the forests and water bodies of antiquity were also widely feared and worshiped. They were usually associated with certain termite mounds, groves and ponds. Termite mounds and trees serving as the supposed residence of these powerful spirits have been and continue to be marked by  small shrines. Very often these shrines take the form of tablets with serpent figurines etched out of stone. Again, the connection with trees cannot be missed. Both tree worship and serpent cults made their way into Buddhist rituals. Both flourish in South India.

There is a tree to be found in these parts that seems to combine both these aspects. And have a special place in Buddhist legends. It is the Iron Wood Tree (Mesua ferrea) of South and Southeast Asia. The name ‘Iron Wood’ is a reference to the extremely hard and heavy timber it produces. It was used to make pillars and posts for buildings. Later on, people started using it to construct railway lines (the wood being used to make railway sleepers). Iron Wood timber also went into the manufacturing of weapons such as lances. The timber is said to be so hard that it is difficult to saw. Given below is a description of the Iron Wood Tree from an article (‘Lord of the Forest’, April 2011 by Daleena Samara) that appeared on a Sri Lankan website (Serendib):

There is a vast forest of Na trees in the geographic heart of Sri Lanka. The forest covers an area just under a square kilometer (238 acres) with its entrance at the foot of a pink quartz mountain. It lies seven kilometres off the Madatugama Junction along the Anuradhaphura Road. History has it that this vast wooded area was created during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (306 BC – 266 BC), making it the oldest man-made forest in the country. During the time of King Dupulla IV (920 AD), it was declared a sanctuary not only for wildlife but humans as well. Considered a sacred plot of land, it was tended to by Buddhist monks. Prisoners who sought refuge there had to tend to the forest and plant Na saplings. The Na forest is now a national park named Namal Uyana (Garden of Na Flowers), open to the steady stream of visitors that flow its way.

Na trees (Mesua ferrea aka Ceylon Ironwood, Indian Rose Chestnut, Cobra’s Saffron, Penaga Lilin and Nahar/Nahor) thrive in the wet zones of Sri Lanka. This striking evergreen, a species in the family Clusiaceae, was in 1986 declared the National Tree of Sri Lanka for its religious and historical significance and its vast array of practical uses. Although the Na is said to have originated in Sri Lanka, it can be found in other parts of Asia such as India, Nepal, the western Himalayas, Burma, the Andaman Islands, Malaysia and Borneo, at elevations of up to 1,525 meters (5,000 ft) above sea level. Its dark hued timber is solid and long-lasting and so it is ideal for such heavy duty use as railway sleepers and bridges. It was this hardness that earned it the specific name ‘ferrea’ which is Latin for ‘belonging to iron’, and its name ‘Ceylon Ironwood’. In fact, a Na trunk is so solid that in Sri Lanka, it is sawed with a two-man saw, with a third person pouring cool water on the blade to prevent the metal from over-heating. Na wood is also cut during the heavy rains, when the wood is softer – the Sinhala phrase for a torrential downpour, Na kapana wessa (rain for cutting Na), originates from this practice.

The sturdiness of the Na earned the timber favour in China in the Qing and Ming Dynasties, when furniture makers for the nobility scoured the world for attractive woods like red sandalwood. Cheaper than such woods but immensely tough, the long broad Na sheets were chosen for large table tops and wardrobes. Na is more than timber. It is a healing tree. The plentiful medicinal properties of Na buds, flowers, pollen, roots, bark and fruit are well known to Ayurveda, the system of indigenous medicine practiced in the country. Despite having a slightly toxic resin, Na has properties that ‘cool’ the excessive heat of overactive pitha (heat-generating) constitutions, and is therefore an important ingredient of medicines that cool down overheated bodies. It is also used to treat ailments like rheumatism, snake bites and chronic colds.

The Na when fully grown reaches a height of up to 30.5 metres, with trunk girth of up to two meters. Clusters of tender leaves, ranging from soft pink to riveting scarlet, form crowning bouquets on the willowy dark green canopy of long mature leaves. The lovely four-petalled Na blossoms that adorn the tips of the branches have fluffy bright yellow centers with golden stamens. These pleasing features have inspired many a poet in India and Sri Lanka; the pure white Na petals scattered with golden grains of pollen have been compared to the alabaster wheel on which Kamadeva, the Cupid of the Hindu pantheon, whets his arrows, the tender scarlet fronds to the lips of a beautiful woman, and the tiny brand new shoots to the lips of a new-born infant. The fragrant white flowers are used to make Nag Champa, an earthy fragrant incense.

In Sri Lanka, Na is a sacred wood used for the construction of temples and other holy places. Considered a vanaspathi (vana means ‘forest’ and pathi ‘lord’ in Sanskrit), it belongs to the nobility of the forest vegetation, a statesman among trees and hence favoured as a residence by deities. It is said that the Na has sheltered many Buddhas. According to local lore, the land under and around a Na tree is visited by cobras, also a sacred creature, which is probably why Sri Lankans are reluctant to grow these trees in their gardens. The Sinhala word na means ‘lord’, ‘elephant’, ‘snake’ and ‘water’, all high on the rank of import, associating this tree with esteemed company.

In ‘Buddha in Sri Lanka:Remembered Yesteryears,’ Swarna Wickremaratne reminisces about the sight of villagers going in procession to offer Na flowers at a Buddhist temple. “The fragrance (of Na flowers) is distinctive and is considered sacred,” she writes. Crowning its long list of attributes are two beliefs that makes the Na singularly holy to Buddhists in Sri Lanka. It is believed that the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka was to a Na grove in Mahiyanganaya. It is also forecast that the future Buddha Maitree will attain enlightenment while meditating under a Na Bodhi tree. Thus the Na tree will shelter the mind that will end human suffering. The destiny of this Lord of the Forest it appears is firmly intertwined with the history of humanity.

The contents of the article make it amply clear why the Iron Wood Tree is held in such reverence by devout Buddhists. This is the tree under which four (Mangala, Sumana, Revata and Sobhita) of the 27 Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha (an idea especially popular among the Theravadin Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia) are said to have attained Enlightenment. Others believe that the Future Buddha – Maitreya, will also attain Enlightenment under the Iron Wood Tree. Add to these the stories about the Buddha’s visit to Sri Lanka (to a grove of Iron Wood) and the use of fragrant flowers as sacred offerings. In fact the tree’s flowers deserves special mention.

Not only is it sacred but also an ornamental species. The Iron Wood is a handsome, evergreen tree, growing up to a height of 30 m. The trunk is buttressed and covered by ash-gray bark that becomes darker over time. The leaves are lanceolate and red to yellowish-pink when they emerge. They turn a striking dark green as they grow old. The flowers emerge just before the onset of the rains, in the dry season. They have beautiful white petals (four in number) surrounding a multitude of golden yellow stamens. Their fragrance is said to be very pleasant and lasts even after the flowers have dried up. It seems that they were used as stuffing for pillows in ancient times.

The Iron Wood bears a number of names – the Ceylon Iron Wood, the Indian Rose Chestnut, the Cobra Saffron, the Nagapushpa (Sanskrit), the Nagachampa (Hindi), Nagesar (Bangla), Nahor (Assamese), Nageswar (Odia), Thorlachampa (Marathi), Na (Sinhala), Nagakesara (Telugu), Nagasampige (Kannada), Tadinangu (Tamil) and Vainavu (Malayalam). One can notice the word ‘Naga’ in many of these appellations. It is a reference to the mythical serpents worshiped across South Asia. The Iron Wood Tree is said to attract cobras, especially when present in groves. Extracts from its roots have been used as a traditional antidote for snake venom. No wonder then that people associated it with serpents. But timber and anti-venom are not its only uses. I will write about them in another post.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the photograph of Iron Wood Tree flowers from Kaziranga, Assam. It was uploaded by AJT Johnsingh, a biologist working with WWF (India) and NCF (Nature Conservation Foundation). The striking golden yellow stamens are surrounded by four white petals. The hue is reminiscent of saffron and the legend of its ability to attract snakes might have given rise to one of the many names of the tree – Cobra Saffron. The word ‘Kesara’ appearing in many names (for the tree in South and Southeast Asian languages) means saffron.