Tree-ting Nature Kindly in India
Tu B'Shvat, which marks the "birthday of the trees" on the Jewish calendar (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat), is like Judaism's Earth Day. So here I am in a modified tree pose! The backdrop is one of the beautifully decorated doorways in the palaces of Jaipur, adorned with floral and leafy motifs. Yoga originated in India and teaches the balance and serenity so crucial for our lives.
In India, even in urban settings, nature is celebrated everywhere. The messages I have learned are profound! Artisans at temples and palaces have translated nature into art. The spectacular cut-glass decorations at Calcutta's amazing Jain Temple are just one example. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, respects the natural world so much and advocates complete non-violence. Its followers don't destroy any living creatures, including insects! They don't even eat onions and garlic because these grow underground, where there are organisms we can't see.
Banana leaves for plates? That's the custom in South India. Banana leaves are inexpensive, easily available, and said to impart anti-bacterial properties to the food served on it. Best of all, when your meal is over, simply throw the leaf away! Similarly, steaming cups of fragrant chai are served in biodegradable clay cups all over India.
And then there are the uniquitous Banyan trees. Sometimes, they seemingly even grow from cement! A species of the fig tree, the surreal banyan is covered in roots that sprout from seeds that land on the tree. My family used to picnic under the mighty banyan tree in the Calcutta Botanical Garden. Today that tree is over 250 years old and covers five acres!
The Baghdadi Jewish community infused Tu B'Shvat with the value of goodness by calling it Tob (good) Shebat. We held a kabbalistic seder, spreading the table with dozens of kinds of fruits and nuts, recited blessings, read verses from the Bible and the mystical book of the Zohar.
The Bene Israel community of Bombay believes that Tu B'Shvat was the day the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven from a place on the Konkan coast near Bombay. They mark the day with a malida, a ritual of thanksgiving, recite blessings over fruit and nuts, and sing songs to Elijah, who is said to have rescued them from the shipwreck that brought them to India. Malidas are also held at other auspicious occasions like engagements and housewarmings.
Tu B'Shvat is a time of thanksgiving for all that nature has given us!
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Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.