I’m in Delhi, which is having its coldest December days in eleven years. Lots of fog and smog. On the streets, at dusk, small fires cast a bit of light and warmth and a lot of smoke. Folks burn whatever they can lay their hands on to keep warm – leaves, wood, coal, trash. Night watchmen, roadside sellers in threadbare coats and mufflers – anyone whose job keeps them out on the cold night huddle around fires. The smoke further pollutes an already polluted environment – but who am I, with my thick jacket and place of privilege, to complain about this?
Air pollution in parts of Delhi can rise to five times the safe level. And the biggest culprits are not the poor people who light fires to stay warm, but industries (like power plants within city limits) and vehicular traffic. In such an environment, green spaces offered by parks and forests act as the ‘lungs’ of Delhi.
Today a weak sun came out and I took the opportunity to visit one such lung – the Nehru Park.
Do not leave an ugly mark
If you picnic in the park
I try to refresh my memory of different trees each time I visit. I spent two years immersed in botanical lore in the Indian Institute of Forest Management, but that knowledge fled my brain years ago. Among its many delights – (poetic signs, stately trees, flower gardens, bathing crows, squirrels and sculptures), Nehru Park has signage for certain trees. They are few and far between, easy to miss and sometimes hard to read. But they’re a boon to anyone who wants to know the names of common trees in Delhi.
My latest scoop is the Kadam tree, Anthocephalus cadamba. A large, majestic tree with a straight, dark trunk, it has glossy green leaves and dense, globular flowers. The fragrant flowers are used to make ‘attar’, a perfume with a sandalwood base. It is a popular tree in reforestation programmes. It’s great for shade, timber, as well as improving the quality of soil. What’s not to love?
Like most venerable Indian trees, the Kadam has religious and historical significance and is mentioned in the oldest texts. Apparently, God Krishna wooed Radha under its sweet and flowery shade. The Mother Goddess Durga is supposed to live in a Kadam forest. The tree also lends its name to the Kadamba dynasty which ruled part of southern India over 16 centuries ago.
The 27 stars constituting the 12 Houses and 9 Planets in Indian astrology are represented by 27 trees —one for each star. The Kadam tree is said to represent Shatabhisha (γ Aquarii in the constellation Aquarius, about 163 light years away). For more about the 27 trees, see here.
At the temple
Now that it is evening, and I know more about the Kadam tree than I can possibly remember, I make my way out of the park and into the crowded back streets 0f the South Delhi colony that houses the Shri Ram Mandir, my next destination. As the temperature plummets, fires crackle back to life. I cough, choke, and step nimbly through the traffic. At this time, the temple is deserted and I have the deities to myself – Vishnu in all his glorious avataars, holding the sudarshan chakra in one hand, a conch shell in a second, a lotus in a third and a mace in the fourth hand. Here too is the Goddess Durga, seated on a lion. And there is the Goddess Parvathi with Ganesh on her lap, Her elephant-headed son. I ring the bells and make a small offering. The priest gives me mishry, sugar crystals, to eat.
A traditional remedy
Back home, I’m still coughing, so I try a traditional remedy – turmeric steam inhalation. Boil a large pot of water with a couple of spoons of turmeric. Hunch over it, towel draped around your head and the pot to trap the steam. Breath through your mouth for fifteen minutes. You’ll need to close your eyes because the fumes sting. But don’t fall asleep!
I’ve done this before, but never with turmeric, a deep yellow powder. It is a very common spice in Indian cooking, but is also believed to have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. I don’t know if it will help, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Tomorrow I take the train to Orchcha, a small town in Central India that was founded in the fifteenth century and is famous for its temples and forts. More later!