The wandering airs they faint On the dark, the silent stream— The Champak odours fail Like sweet thoughts in a dream
The Indian Serenade, by P. B. Shelley
White for death, white for purity. An ancient Indian custom mingled with the beautiful scent of the Champa to make it a flower of funerals. Indian gardens were full of fragrant white flowers. The rest are used in religion, and not specifically connected with death. Why was the Champa so closely associated with deaths and funerals? Was it because it was a late arrival to India, and was therefore not able to make it into the list of sacred flowers which could be used in auspicious ceremonies? Death is more accommodating. I’ve not been able to trace the journey of this group of plants from its native Central America to South and South-Eastern Asia. Presumably that happened in one of the early and undocumented globalization events, like the spread of rice or wheat across the human world.
When Indian cultural influence spread across Asia in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the association of the champas with death also became part of the pan-Asian cultural background. It is too beautiful a flower to live with death forever, and in the last few centuries has spread into a generalized cultural space. I guess my photos are part of that spread.
The weekend was bright and sunny. It was the first weekend of the month of Ashwin, the beginning of the season of sharad. It was warm and humid, as you might expect of a season which the British called an Indian summer, but the blue skies were fantastic. In the 4th century BCE, the Sanskrit play, Mudrarakshasa, described sharad as the season of white, of inner beauty. On a walk with my camera, these champa (Plumeria alba) flowers against the gentle blue sky seemed to be the essence of the new season. The skies will be grey again, but eventually give way to this blue.
I sat on an extremely comfortable stone bench on the porch of Hampi’s Vitthala temple. It was just past noon, and the day had got really warm. But a cool breeze blew through the porch. I didn’t feel like getting up. In the courtyard in front of me a gnarly champa tree had been planted too close to the temple, and had grown out at an angle before reaching out for sunlight. The almost bare tree made a pretty picture in the afternoon, and I craned to catch the tree and its shadow together.
This was the Plumeria obtusa, once a native of the Caribbean, but now so well established in Asia that you will surprise most people if you tell them that it is not native to this continent. This particular tree was probably very young; they grow fast. But I wondered whether the Vijayanagara kingdom ever saw the Champa. It could not have come here before Europeans landed in the Caribbeans. But who brought it to India? The history of southern India is so much more complex, gnarly, and branched than that of the north. It could have come from the west, carried by the Portuguese, or even before them by the Arabs. Or it could have come from the East, carried to China first and then diffusing through the continent. In the months after I took these photos I’ve searched on and off for the answer, without finding any. If you have some snippets of information it’ll be great if you leave a comment.
As I sit and complete the last few jobs on my laptop, I can smell the fragrance of the night-blooming parijat (shefali in Eastern India) from a bush below the balcony. This has a made up name in English: night-flowering Jasmine. I can easily distinguish its smell from that of the Jasmine (mogra) which grows in a pot in my balcony. I love these, but they are so close to where I’m sitting that they drown out the milder fragrance of the champa (frangipani) from a tree a little further away. There is no rajnigandha (tuberose) in the neighbourhood, otherwise this fragrant duet which I’m writing about would have been overcome by its heady smell.
The traditional Indian garden is a place you can enjoy even with your eyes closed. All these flowers are white, and not very photogenic, so they never appeared in the old Bollywood movies where the hero and heroine would run through a colourful garden (except in the 40 year old hit called Rajnigandha).
Its time for me to shut down the laptop and pack it up. My next post will either be from China, or after I return.