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How Sal Trees arrived in Sri Lanka

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Our Pali Chronicles, which were translated into Sinhala, German, and English from the latter part of the 19th century, have revealed that the birth and parinibbhana (demise) of the Buddha occurred under Sal Trees. The Noble One mostly resided and preached in North East India, having been born in present-day Nepal. Sal grew (into large trees) in forests and Udyana (Gardens) in South Nepal and North India, but not in South India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), The Pipal (Bo) Tree, Ficus religiosa, however have been extant in India and Sri Lanka for millennia. A  large tree, Shorea oblongifolia, Dumala in Sinhala, of the same genus as Sal of India (Dipterocarpea),grows only in Sri Lanka, in the moist low-country and yields a clear resin, - used for varnishes, though not in this country [Tropical Planting and Gardening, by H F MacMillan, Fourth Edition, 1935, page 394]. Hora (Dipterocarpus) and Hal – used in fermenting toddy - (both Sinhala) trees also are in the same genus (but not family) as Sal of India which is Shorea robusta [ibid., page 398] in Latin.

In an absorbing article published in the ‘Fine’ Section (p. 3) of ‘The Nation‘ on Sunday February 1, 2015, and, as a ‘Feature’ article in the Sunday Times Plus (page 3) of the same date, Ven. Shravasti Dhammika (of Australia) has communicated a timely eye-opener relevant to the history, culture and (particularly Buddhist) religion of Lanka. He very aptly puts the record straight regarding the Sal Tree, - mentioned as connected with the first and last events of the Buddha’s life, in the Chronicles. Some clarifications with details are needed at this moment in order that Buddhists become even more focused about their heritage.

 The Cannon - ball tree is a native of Tropical South America. It belongs to the genus Myrtaceae, and is Couroupita guianensis, probably because it was brought from British Guiana (now Guyana), on the border East of Venezuela. Its botanical name is not Eugenia jambolana (Java Plum), - Mahadan in Sinhala and Naval in Tamil, which is native to Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia [page 256, Ibid, MacMillan]. This is the only correction that needs to be made to Ven. Dhammika’s valuable article. Now, the Cannon-ball Tree is a well-known, large tree, often seen beside temples in our country, has long, woody racemes (up to 6 feet long), with bright pink and white fleshy flowers, - crowded along the trunk from the base up, and on the branches. It was introduced into Ceylon in1881, and has abundantly flowered and flourished with enchantingly fragrant flowers since 1898. This is the Sal Tree of Sri Lanka. Before we analyze the popularity of this tree we need to recapitulate the interesting discussion written by the venerable monk.

The Pali Rukkhadhamma Jataka refers to the metaphorical relevance to ‘Unity’ of the denseness of Sal forests in North India. King Vessava pleaded with all the (selfless, formless) religious tree-Spirits to indicate a tree that would suit them best, for residence. The Bodhisatva, who was once a tree – Spirit too, advised his peers to avoid trees that stood alone. Some selected and settled in Sal forests. Some chose isolated trees near human habitation, to enable bathimathun (devotees) to make offerings. A devastating storm brought down most of the isolated trees. Forest trees including Sal were least affected.

 We may say that the Cannon-ball Tree, Couroupita guianensis (not Eugenia jambolana) became religiously ‘domesticated ‘ in Sri Lanka (that is, mainly grown in Buddhist temples) for several reasons. The original Sal Tree of India, - was under which the Buddha was born, and, (between two of which) he laid down, to attain parinibbhana, - blossomed forth (in the latter situation), shedding a carpet of flowers around the blessed head which was living, and the feet in parinibbhana posture, with the left toes held on the right foot but about 2 inches proximally, anticipating departure into nibbhana. Shorea is not native to Lanka (Ceylon), and therefore neither tree nor flower could be venerated or offered, in Sri Lanka. A venerable living substitute (tree and flower), which readily adapted to our climate, and needed neither nurturing nor watering (nor fertilizer – agriculturists please note). It takes about 18 years, after planting, to produce fruits, which takes 8 months to ripen. This Cannon - ball tree is now plentiful in the country, particularly in the wet-zone. After 1900 this tree virtually travelled around Southern Sri Lanka, particularly taking root in temples. The beauty of its flower defies description. 6 pink lotus-like petals (but more circular) surround a central male unit (stigma). The ring - like arrangement resembles the padmasana of the Samadi Buddha – image. The central complex is a masterpiece of nature. A ring of creamy filaments surround a single central drop-shaped white replica of a Stupa, - surrounded by a ring of filaments comparable to the grassy moat seen around the Yatala Stupa in Debaraweva. A pink snake –head hood - like fleshy structure curves and overhangs the ‘dagoba’. Yellow and pink-tipped stamens provide a brush-border to the hood, in close proximity, but above the yellowish filaments of the stigma. The entire flower is a miracle of nature, and ideally suited for religious offerings. The flowers abound on the long woody racemes which hang around the trunk of the tree like a floral tribute, and can be easily picked by hand.  Although reverent devotees do not pick flowers within temple premises, it is ideally suited for placing on a mal-asana (a structure built to offer flowers). Sal of Lanka is probably an underived Sinhala word, but the flower is a most meritorious religious offering.

Sal of India [ibid., p. 398] is derived from Sala (Pali) and Sal (Hindi) of India, is Shorea robusta (Roth), as described by the venerable monk. It is a hardwood timber tree, but is not used as a cabinet wood in Sri Lanka, for religious reasons. It may reach heights greater than 40 metres, with girth up to 3.5 metres. The Creamy flower, abundant on inflorescences which spring from the branches, and not the trunk, unlike with Cannon-ball Tree, (Vide photos herein of flowers and fruit from Peradeniya Gardens), smell like jasmine. In Kusinara flowering is more plentiful. The leaves are similar to teak but smaller. Forests of these exist in the sub-tropical lowlands of Nepal and in North India. Cutting down mature trees is rampant there.

Two excellent movies have been released recently by enthusiastic entrepreneurs, in Sri Lanka and India. In the Sri Lankan version Queen Maya delivers the Noble Prince under a Cannon – ball tree. This error needs rectification and editing, with exhibition of the flowering Shorea tree. In the Indian movie version, covering the entire life of Prince Siddhartha, the newborn Prince is seen beneath a tree which looks rather like the Cannon-ball Tree (Sal of Sri Lanka). This error perhaps also needs editing and correction.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka will be delighted to learn that fully grown Shorea robusta, which has flowered, is located in the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. I was privileged to gather this valuable information as a personal communication from the Director General, when I visited the Gardens at the end of May in 2014.

The first tree was planted in the Gardens with Royal patronage on February 29, 1980, by the late King Birendra Bir Shah Dev of Nepal, and, flowered in May, 2012. Several years ago, with the able assistance of the Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, seeds of the Indian Sal were brought from Nepal, and were germinated in Peradeniya Gardens. More than 900 plants from seeds of the Sal Tree of Southern Nepal, have been gifted to temples around our country.

Thirty - five years after his nativity, the noblest Son of India, attained supreme Enlightenment, to become the revered teacher of Gods and humans, as the Thathagata, Sri Gautama Buddha, and, attained Parinibbhana forty - five years later, at Kusinara. During the past several years, Professor Robin Coningham and other eminent archeological scientists from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom have been researching, using very modern technology, - excavating soil and building material, - including timber and buried tree stumps, at the birth site of the Buddha, in Lumbini. Accurate dating of material and identifying the timber have been reported in a newspaper published in May, 2014. Official publication of the data and report of the findings is imminent. There is likely to be confirmation of the role played by the sacred Sal Tree of India in the events surrounding the nativity of the Blessed One, soon enough.

The fresh fruit and dried seed of the Sal Tree of India, - similar to those of Hora (Dipterocarpeae), which has two wings that are propelled (through wind  -dispersal) through great distances, - is illustrated  in this communication. The pictures depicted here have four (pteros) wings which Indian Sal seeds are endowed with. Therein Indian Sal differs from  the Hora fruit (seed) which has two well - balanced wings, and are quite a treat to watch in windy Ratnapura, as they fly to the horizon through the sky. Although both varieties belong to the genus Dipterocarpeae, they fall under different families. The Sal fruits depicted in pictures herein carry four wings each. The photographs of the Sal flowers and fruit from the gardens, and the dried seed were kindly gifted by Peradeniya Botanical Gardens Director General Dr. Siril Wijesundara, who has very kindly given strength to my arm.

 May Ven. Shravasti Dhammika gain much merit for his timely report on Shorea robusta on February 1, 2015.

Last modified on Saturday, 28 February 2015 20:09

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