Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cannon Balls and Confusion

Me in a Sal forest near Dehar Dun

More on Sal Trees
Being Vesakha I thought it okay to return to the subject of Sal trees again. Hope you don’t mind. A quick perusal through Yahoo Image and Google Image will show an almost universal misidentification of the Cannon-ball tree (Couroupita guianensis) with the Sal tree (Shorea robusta). The Cannon-ball tree is native of Brazil and gets its English name from the large cannon-ball-shaped fruit that hang in bunched from its trunk. How can a Brazilian tree get confused with an Indian tree? Well, first of all, this confusion seems to have began with the Sinhalese, the people of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese of course have never seen a Sal tree which does not grow in tropical climates. They are however, quite familiar with the Cannon-ball tree because it was introduced into the Island by the Portuguese. Now the Cannon-ball tree not only has an extravagantly beautiful blossom with an almost overpowering perfume, but also in the heart of the flower is a small creamy-white nodule that looks exactly like a little stupa. The rest followed automatically for the Sinhalese. The Buddha died under a Sal and his remains were enshrined in a stupa + the Cannon-ball tree has a stupa in its flower = the Cannon-ball tree must be the Sal tree.
One can well understand how simple Sinhalese peasants could make this harmless and innocent mistake. But it says something about the power (at least in some areas) of expatriate Sri Lankan monks that they have disseminated this mistake so widely that now almost all Buddhists (outside India. Indian Buddhists know better) take it as gospel. From one point of view this is, as I said, a harmless, innocent mistake. From another point of view it is not. It could be seen of as yet another example of Buddhist imprecision, of that ‘a myth is as good as a truth’ attitude so common amongst Buddhists and perhaps also of the Western Buddhists tendency to accept everything Asian Buddhists tell them. So please! Lets have no more confusion on this matter. As the Buddha lay dying at Kusinara it was Sal blossoms that sprinkled down on him, not cannon-balls!
The golden-yellow flowers on the right are Sal flowers. The red and white flower on the left is a Cannon-ball tree flower.


desertboot said...
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desertboot said...

I am new to the realm of the Blog and came upon yours a while ago in the course of wandering through other people's writings. Thank you for your insightful and often tongue-firmly-in-cheek postings! They are a delight to read and have become something of a daily habit.

Re Cannon ball flowers: South Indian Hindu's traditionally refer to it as the naga-linga flower - a literal reference to the composite cobra-hood like stamen, curved over the node-like stigma (the 'stupa'). How wonderful that different faiths see different signs in nature's creations! The trees themselves are considered sacred and well-established specimens can be encountered in the grounds of old temples. In parts of Tamil Nadu especially, the flowers, with their heady fragrance, are offered up to the iconic image of Shiva.