Home 2020 The Sorrowless Tree

The Sorrowless Tree

by Mallika Ravikumar

One of the most beautiful trees in the IIT Bombay campus (and it is hard to pick one!) is the Sita Ashoka (Sarca indica). There aren’t too many of them but one finds this tree in different parts of the campus – a prominent one between Gulmohur and the Staff Club and another strikingly beautiful one tumbling onto the road between Tansa and H5. The tree is arrestingly lovely, when in full bloom.

Now, most people must know this tree as the one referred to in the Ramayana. It is the tree in the grove Ashoka Vatika, that provides Sita shelter during her exile in Lanka. She spends her days and nights under this tree, pining, lamenting and waiting for Rama to come and take her back. But here’s another interesting tale about the tree. A back-story to the Ramayana.


Prophecy of Vanishing Sorrow

In the jungles of Central India, there once lived many hundreds of years ago, a bandit named Sashoka. He roamed the forest, attacking and devouring those who dared to cross his path. People feared to come into the jungle.

One day, as Sashoka was roaming about the jungle, looking for his next victim, he stumbled upon a hermitage. Before it, sat a man clad in a loincloth. His face appeared to have an extraordinary glow and he seemed to have no worry or fear. It was almost as if he felt nothing. 

Sashoka hid behind a tree and watched in awe. 

A group of people walked towards the hermit. The sage smiled at them and they smiled back. He blessed them and they fell at his feet and offered him fruits. Sashoka was perplexed. Never before had he seen anyone at such peace with the world. 

Overwhelmed by curiosity, he approached the sage. 

“Who are you?” he asked the hermit, unaccustomed to the refined ways of the world. “And what makes people so happy to see you?”

The sage smiled and asked Sashoka to sit down. This shocked the cannibal further.

“Everyone runs away in fear when they see me. But you are inviting me to sit near you! Aren’t you scared of me?”

The sage laughed. “Why should I be? Tell me…what is your name? Who are you?”  

“I have no power to perform such miracles!” the sage replied, “But I can promise you one thing.”

“I am Sashoka,” replied the cannibal. “I want to be like you. I don’t want people to loathe me and run away in fear. I want people to welcome me. To feel happy when they see me.”

“I have no power to perform such miracles!” the sage replied, “But I can promise you one thing.”

“Yes…please…I will do anything you say!” said Sashoka, who was tired of living like an animal. 

“If you give up killing and hurting people and spend the rest of your life doing good deeds – in your next life you will be born as an Ashoka Tree.” 

“A Tree?” Sashoka didn’t seem pleased.

“Yes…listen,” the hermit continued. “When you are an Ashoka tree, a princess named Sita will sit under your shade when Ravana the demon King carries her away to Lanka. The great monkey named Hanuman will come searching for her and sit upon your branches and find her sitting underneath. From there he will console Sita.  Listening to the message from Rama, Sita’s sorrow will vanish. You will then be known as the tree that took away Sita’s grief. And forever thereafter, people will look upon you as Ashoka – the tree that takes away one’s sorrows!”

Such is the tale told by the Bhils of Central India. Very often, folktales such as this, are an attempt by tribal cultures to gain acceptance in mainstream society. This appears to be one such instance. 

Coming back to the Ashoka – the name of the tree means ‘without sorrow’ (a + shoka). Its botanical name, Saraca indica suggests that the tree is Indian in origin. The Mast tree (Polyalthia longifolia) is very often called the Ashoka Tree but that is a misconception – and connoisseurs will quickly tell you that is the false ashoka! 

The Sita Ashoka is regarded as sacred in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions. It is said that Gautam Buddha was born under an Ashoka Tree and Mahavira attained enlightenment under it. 

The Ashoka also finds pride of place in Indian sculpture and literature. From the reliefs of Sanchi to the stupa at Nagarunakonda, the Ashoka can be seen depicted in great detail in several temples and stupas across the country. 

A popular motif in temple structures is the shalabhanjika – the maiden with the branch. Such motifs are often found in corners – at the meeting point of two walls in temples. Most often, the branch the maiden is holding is that of the Ashoka Tree. 

The process of flowering and fruiting of trees was likened to a pregnant woman giving birth – and songs and poetry were composed around that. The composition, known as dohada, was accompanied by a maiden kicking the Ashoka tree with her foot and that was believed to kick-start the blossoming of the tree. 

The Ashoka is also said to have medicinal properties. 

If you find yourself looking out for the nearest Ashoka Tree – here’s some help you can use to identify it. The tree has compound leaves comprising three pairs of long pointy leaves. The clearest sign is the young leaves that are red in colour and look limp and lifeless. The bark is greyish and the canopy, a dense crown. The flowers appear in clusters – yellow initially then turning orange, red and scarlet in a burst during the summer months. 

The twist in the tale is that what appears to us as the flowers – are not in fact flowers! They are called bracts and the actual flowers are hidden inside the colourful bracts. Do stop and take a closer look and you will be fascinated!

Trees will delight you if you only pause to take a look. Allow the Sita Ashoka to draw you into the botanical world – and it is sure to take away your sorrows!

For more stories and snippets about Trees, check out Mallika’s book Tracing Roots published by Karadi Tales.’ The book will be available at www.karaditales.com and www.amazon.in.

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Sanjay Kale April 27, 2020 - 5:54 pm

Sorrowless tree – Sita Ashok is wonderfully written with the not so known story of the cannibal !

I’ve couple of these on my farmland. Planted about 12 years back & in full bloom now. The evergreen leaves, flowers are Uniquely beautiful & the tree gives dense & coolest shade.

Botanical name – Saraca Asoca

Natasha Israni September 29, 2020 - 8:06 pm

Beautiful. Thanks for this lovely piece.


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