My beautiful village, whose name translated into English means Little Shrine on the Bamboo Hill, is presided over by a large Ayyappa temple. As children we were terrified of Lord Ayyappan because we were told, perhaps to send us early to bed in those days when few houses had electricity, that Ayyappan roamed the village riding his eighteen feet long royal tiger at night to watch over us and seeing him with naked eyes sent people raving mad. There were many paths that lead to the temple and one of them was a winding village lane right behind my house. On this lane, next to our backyard, was a saptaparni tree. Few of us children would pass even during the day alone through the lane because everyone knew saptaparnis were the abodes of Yakshinis [called Yakshis in Kerala] just as the tall, dark palmyra trees were. School children in my village had a special reason for fear because the tree stood right in front of the gate of our primary school – which was just behind my home, separated only by this narrow village lane.
In villages, and in childhood, everything is filled with mystery but we lose touch with this mystery as we grow up, particularly if our life takes us into cities, which is what happened to me. And if you happened to be a questioner and a non-believer, as I was, you lost touch with the world of mysteries almost completely. However, when I read recently something about the intoxicating smell of the saptaparni in Delhi, so many old memories came alive and I learnt once again that childhood mysteries don’t really die completely in spite of the passage of decades, your world as a child is very much alive deep within you, the roots of mystery still thriving, all it needs is a little watering for them to come back to life.
I love plants. Once during the rainy season I planted in a pot a young monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese plant, and waited for the beautiful plant to catch roots and grow fresh shoots. I waited and waited and almost six months passed with nothing to show for all the watering and caring I had done, except that the plant was still alive and the leaves remained green. I had almost given up all hopes when all on a sudden one fine morning I noticed a shining new leaf glowing the rising sun. The world of childhood mystery inside you too is like that. They really never die. They can lie dormant for years and suddenly come alive.
Writing about the intoxicating fragrance of the devil tree, the author spoke of the smell that consumed her body, heart and soul arriving every year soon after the Durga Puja and staying until December only to disappear after that and never to be felt again until the next year, leaving her hankering after it with all her being. Afraid it would soon disappear leaving her high and dry, over the years she tries to reject it at its arrival but, she asks “how can you escape the seductive devil who is there in every breath you take?”
The saptaparni’s scent is delicate and sensuous, more like a gentle whisper or the softest breeze rather than like a blow of wind, though that does not mean it is not intense. In his psychedelic classic The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley speaks of his experiences under certain chemicals he took experimentally and how his perceptions intensified and he felt as though his senses were open for the first time in his life. Exactly like that, if your senses are open, if your mind is open, the scent of the saptaparni goes straight to your head, makes you dizzy and some people find it maddening, in an erotic sense. Perhaps this must be the origin of the saptaparni stories associated with yakshinis.
The saptaparni has clusters of seven leaves at each whorl and hence its name sapta-parni. There are hundreds of saptaparnis close to my home in the city where I live now, dozens of them around the grounds where I go for a walk in the evenings, and thousands in the city where I live. Once I plucked a few small bunches of flowers, something I hated to do because I believe flowers belong to the trees and you have no right to pluck them, and brought them home and kept them in a vase on my wife’s work table where she sits and writes the whole day and late into the night – and in a few minutes not just the room but our entire home was filled with the delicate, elusive, tantalizing fragrance of saptaparni that transported you into long forgotten worlds beyond mundane existence.
Every Kerala child grows up listening to stories of yakshis who made saptaparnis their home. There are hundreds of stories told across Kerala even today about yakshis, there is an award winning modern classic novel by the name Yakshi and there are several popular movies about them. It so happens that the very first story that I heard as a child was about a yakshi, told by my older cousin sister. This was long, long before I read Kalidasa’s Meghadoota and several of its stanzas in which a yaksha pines for his beloved yakshi were etched on my memory inerasably.
The yakshis of these Kerala stories are actually what are called dains or chudails in the north, but when you say a dain or chudail, the image that fills your mind is of a monstrous woman whereas to the Kerala child’s mind, yakshis are beautiful like celestial maidens, like the apsaras of ancient Indian lore. They approach you at night, on lonely roads, fascinate you by their beauty, engage you in conversations, ask for a little lime to eat the paan with, and when you give it, take you to their lavish, palatial homes – which, unknown to you, are the tops of the trees on which they live – and in the morning passersby would find your skull and bones lying at the bottom of the tree. Every child knew how you deal with yakshis – when she asks for chuna, lime, give it to her on the tip of your knife! The knife of course is made of iron and iron is the only thing that will keep the yakshis away, apart from powerful Sanskrit mantras, particularly Devi mantras.
Intoxicating, alluring and enticing indeed is the irresistible fragrance of saptaparni flowers, especially at night when it speaks straight to your heart.
Saptaparni is known by numerous local names, including paala or ezhilam paala in Kerala, Chattim in Bengal. The common English name is the devil’s tree or the Indian devil tree. Known by the botanical name alstonia scholaris, it is highly medicinal and is used by Ayurvada for treating several skin disorders, dysentery, and snake bite. It is an integral part of the panchakarma purificatiaon process. Its wood is ideal for making pencils and was used until recently for making the pattis [wooden slates] on which children learned writing using sarkanda pens in Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas. The alstonia part of the name comes from the Botanist Prof Alston and the scholaris part from its association with students and education. Gurudev Tagore started a tradition in Vishwa Bharati following which during convocation students who pass out were given leaves of the saptaparni tree somewhat like the laurels used in the Greeko-Roman culture to represent victory in the Olympic games, achievement and status, and are still used by graduating university students in Italy. To Gurudev of course these leaves given to students were a reminder to them to remain connected to the earth, to nature.
Apart from its association with yakshinis, the tree also seems to have association with darkness. Some people complain of headaches associated with the flowers of saptaparni, though I have personally felt nothing like that. I understand that the Noida Administration is planning to stop planting these trees on roadsides because some asthma patients have complained of problems because of them. There is a You Tube video in which a man angrily asks the administration what they are going to do about the harm that has already been done to people by the trees planted earlier. Interestingly, there are several other videos on You Tube which talk of the healing powers of saptaparni, including its power to heal asthmatic problems.
Whatever that is, to me the saptaparni will always remain an enchanting, heady tree whose fragrance some people feel a mile away. It will forever be bathed in the slightly scary mysteries that I still carry in my heart from my childhood. I believe the dark stories about saptaparnies were born of the fear of its fragrance and of its power to make you lose control over yourself.
Men are afraid of the power of scents to drive them into frenzies. After all, wasn’t it the maddening fragrance that arose from the body of the young fisher girl Satyavati that drove Emperor Shantanu insane and thus set in motion the tragedies of the Mahabharata? Doesn’t an entire town go insane in the movie Perfume when young Grenouille, amoral genius of the darkest kind, waves his handkerchief scented with the world’s most powerful perfume that he has just invented leading the town square where he is held prisoner to the wildest sexual orgy?