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.
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.