Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sacred Land

About forty years ago, the government repossessed the land on which one of our ancestral homes in India sat. The state, it turned out, took the land back to run a wider road through the area. Obviously, the family had little say in the matter, but they weren't very happy about it. Neither were the construction workers once they started demolishing the house.

It turns out they discovered a tulsi plant, also known as Indian basil or holy basil, growing wild in the middle of the property. As tulsi is the most sacred of all plants to Hindus, the workers demolished the house around it but carefully left the plant itself intact.

The tulsi plant holds an illustrious place in Hindu history, myth, and folklore. The plant is considered an elixir, something that brings balance and calmness to its surroundings as well as good physical health and spiritual well being. 
It is mentioned in the ancient scriptures of the Puranas and Vedas. Supposed to be a favorite of Lord Vishnu, it is ceremonially wed to an idol of the Hindu god during the holy month of Kaarthik, around mid-October, a festival that kicks off the marriage season in India. Many Hindus start their day with prayers that include placing a garland of tulsi leaves at their prayer spot in the home, many of which keep a tulsi plant somewhere indoors or in their courtyard. Rosaries are also often made from the wood.

Tulsi also has amazing healing properties, its extracts commonly used for a number of natural Ayurvedic treatments, from the common cold, headaches, stomach aches, insect bites, and other types of detox, to heart disease, diabetes, malaria, and stress relief. It’s so effective as an insect repellent that when the gardeners who were landscaping and planting the famed Victoria Gardens in Bombay in 1861 complained about all the mosquitos, the government instructed them to plant tulsi plants around the entire boundary surrounding the gardens. It’s served as an effective mosquito repellent at the popular tourist spot ever since. 

Today, you can find tulsi in the form of seeds, powders, even health supplements. Tulsi herbal teas have become popular too – they're easily available in my local grocery store here in suburban D.C. And in recent years, tulsi in India has become a common culinary substitute for Chinese or Italian basil.

When the demolition crew refused to disturb the tulsi growing wild at our ancestral home, a great uncle of mine recalled an unusual memory from his childhood. It seems many years prior, a well-regarded local swami happened to come to their house, welcomed but uninvited, and asked to pray there. He said the site was a resting place of a great sage from the past. The presence of the wild tulsi confirmed my uncle’s belief that it must be so. And in fact, over time, the roots of that tulsi plant eroded the cement structure around it, leaving it crumbling. Could this old story have been true?

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