Indian Tree Veneration: The Art of Valuing Trees

What’s the value of a tree? There are various ways of answering this question. In thrall to economic ‘rationalisation’, we could list the services provided; shade, air pollution mediation, increased property values, potential product or medicinal development.

Environmentally, we can argue for a tree’s role in promoting biodiversity, species preservation, soil stabilization, and habitat – the list goes on (it’s certainly a list worth keeping in mind!)

The limited answers above highlight the nature of our dialogue surrounding trees and their worth. I’d go a slight step further and suggest these answers point to a fundamental quality regarding our connection to trees, namely that the relationship, and the perceived value of a tree, is determined in a transaction, loosely expressed in the question; what do trees do for us?

What this kind of view excludes is any notion of a tree, or any plant, having an intrinsic, aesthetic, or spiritual value, a point of view many tree-huggers might disagree with, but find difficult to articulate, or advocate for, in the presence of limiting, binary views.

The boundaries of this connection are culturally specific. In other words (and other cultures), it doesn’t have to be that way. In her article “Hindu tree veneration as a mode of Environmental Encounter’ Louise Fowler–Smith argues that a different relationship towards trees, one based on spiritual practice and worship, was prominent throughout Europe but declined with the rise of monotheistic religions, which regarded such practices as pagan.

Louise makes the point that in India this connection is alive and well – Hinduism embraced local cults that worshipped nature, and incorporated these practices into the broader pantheon of beliefs. Tree worship in India has been documented since at least 600AD, with the rituals of tree worship and the benefits derived from the practice codified and outlined in ‘Vrathas’ (Sanskrit ritual handbooks). As Louise explains in her article;

The early Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, make frequent reference to sacred trees, referring to them as the most important living forms on earth. This contributed to the gradual change of the cultural perception of the tree…they are worshipped by tribal animists and are considered the abode of the gods by many other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Adherents of some of these religions began to decorate the tree as an aspect of ritual or veneration.

The Snake Temple, Balu nag Gushani. Image by Louise Fowler-Smith

It is this decorating of the tree, as a form of veneration, that Louise argues offers a third way of seeing and connecting to trees, beyond the confines of the economic or environmental, but rather as;

‘The aesthetic argument, wherein the tree is perceived beyond its capture on canvas and instead is perceived aesthetically as an object to be adorned and subsequently adored.…the idea of a society as separate from nature may be challenged through an aestheticism that enables a more symbolic vision of the natural world.’

The process of veneration or adornment has repercussions, on one level, it protects the tree, as its confers a sacred status that creates a taboo around removal or damage. Secondly, veneration changes perception of the tree, its value, and our connection to it. It is this vision, or change of perception, that Louise advocates artists can engage with and utilize – a change in which the artist plays a role in structuring new ways of seeing and being in the world, or, as Louise describes;

It occurred to me, a non Hindu, that my experiences had altered my perception of trees. Thinking about my new way of seeing these living objects, I concluded that the aesthetic enhancement persuaded me to recognize these natural forms. This led me to ask whether it is possible for the artist to inspire a re-envisioning of the environment through the aesthetic, and whether sacredness could be transferred through artistic vision without transplanting any specific religious ideology.

Louise references the art critic Peter Fuller, who argued that our connection to nature is diminished and distorted when detached from the aesthetic, resulting in a world where art and nature had ‘lost their meaning’ – as a result of the modern world losing touch with different modes of seeing and representation, and in particular, a severing of the connection between archetypal myth, symbol and ritual – a severing that effects our very connectedness with the natural world.

In a country like Australia, with an arguably tortured and controversial modern relationship to its environment, and a conflicting narrative of Indigenous land practice and understanding, the role of the artist and artworks in enabling new modes of seeing our environment, beyond depiction but towards a reshaping of relationships, is an intriguing prospect.

Louise Fowler-Smith is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Imaging the Land International Research Initiative (ILIRI) At UNSW’s School of Art and Design. Her article  “Hindu Tree Veneration as a Mode of Environmental Encounter” was published in the February 2009 issue of Leonardo – The Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology – Volume 42, Number 1. The journal can be accessed online here, under general articles.

Fertility Tree, Chennai. Image by Louise Fowler-Smith
Fertility & marriage tree, Aranuchala. Image by Louise Fowler-Smith
Gaya Pinda Tree. Image by Louise Fowler-Smith