Book in Focus
Sacred Trees of India"/>

24th November 2022

Book in Focus
Sacred Trees of India

Adornment and Adoration as an Alternative to the Commodification of Nature

By Louise Fowler-Smith

This beautifully illustrated book is about trees, most importantly their significance in the era of climate change and continued deforestation. How it differs from other ‘tree books’ is through its focus on the perception of trees as an agent of change in humanity. Sacred Trees of India: Adornment and Adoration as an Alternative to the Commodification of Nature seeks a renewed relationship with nature and argues that, if humanity perceives the natural world as separate and exploitable, rather than as connected, honoured, respected and even worshipped, the chasm that has developed over generations between humanity and the natural world will only widen.

Based on years of field research, the book includes 163 original photographs taken by the author, Louise Fowler-Smith. After witnessing the first example of tree veneration in a small tree grove in India, Fowler-Smith realised the importance of this practice to the preservation of those trees. In her quest to discover more about the contemporary practice of honouring trees, she travelled across seventeen states of India over a ten-year period. Fowler-Smith’s extensive field research is what makes this book unique. The reader is able to travel the length and breadth of India with the author, via the original photographs and the individual stories she collected, making this book distinctive.

Sacred Trees of India outlines and shows the diverse ways that devout Indians interact with trees and tree groves through beautification, ornamentation, ritual and protection, in order to honour their deities and the manifestation of the divine in nature. It discloses how, in a country where wood is a valuable commodity, local communities would not allow the cutting of a sacred or honoured tree. The book reveals numerous examples of roads having to be re-routed because of a sacred tree, or buildings being constructed carefully around a tree. However, with the modernisation of India, sacred trees and groves are under threat, overwhelmed by the forces of capitalism, industrialisation, urbanisation, over-population, development, uncontrolled grazing, increased land value and the over-exploitation of resources, making this book an important resource through its ability to draw attention to these ancient practices.

It is clear that India’s historic traditions have contributed to the protection of trees because they are associated with the divine. As the forces of modernity and cultural change exert pressure upon these ancient customs, it is vital for people of all backgrounds to find new ways to connect with the inherent value of trees. The scientific argument for tree conservation is clear, but it is human perception that influences the many small decisions that conspire to protect or destroy the natural environment. The conservation of trees and groves is crucial for human flourishing both on a local level, and on a global scale. Humans cannot flourish without trees.

This book provides libraries, research students, environmentalists, and scholars of comparative religion and ecology with an exquisite, richly illustrated guide to the practice of tree veneration and the ancient sacred tree groves of India.

Concise Overview:

Sacred Trees of India points out that human beings have not always operated in a parasitic fashion towards the planet and, in fact, there are living communities that have formed a symbiotic relationship with the earth. These people perceive the earth and everything on it as alive with spirit, and believe it is their duty to protect it. Fowler-Smith’s fieldwork demonstrates that, when people perceive the environment as sacred, it influences how they respond to it, and this relationship is of especial importance in times of ecological crisis.

In her introduction, she refers to an example she witnessed when a farmer in Australia perceived a small group of trees as “vermin”, to be eradicated. She goes on to point out that, in her travels, she has witnessed hundreds of examples of people perceiving trees as sacred, as divine, as special and as worthy of protection.

Chapter One discusses the importance of trees to life on this planet and why we need to protect them. It summarises the significance, wonder and even magic of trees in their relationship to the earth, humans and the future.

Chapter Two explores different cultural attitudes toward nature, from ancient to modern times. It investigates how our perception of the environment influences how we respond to it, citing key thinkers on the philosophy of aesthetics and nature. It argues that a respect for the environment can be strengthened by the symbolic nature of images.

Chapter Three introduces the reader to India, a religiously complex country, where nature worship is widely practiced. Honouring and venerating trees, affording them sacred status, involves a form of perception and cognition that makes it unthinkable to disregard the life of the tree, or to consider it a mere resource for human gain. One reason given for the continued sacralisation of nature is the strong intercultural dialogue between Hinduism and Indian religions that share an animistic worldview, endowing everything in nature with spirit.

Chapter Four introduces the reader to the second section of the book that focuses on the author’s fieldwork in India, and begins with wish-fulfilling trees, or kalpa vrikshas, devoted to fertility and marriage. Examples are shown where trees are anthropomorphised and dressed, drawing attention to their divine nature.

Chapter Five focuses on wish-fulfilling trees for health, healing, protection and a blessed afterlife. Based on the belief that deities reside in trees, wish-making rituals are performed, appealing to the deity of the tree to cure disease, to protect against mishaps in life and to shield people from evil spirits.

Chapter Six covers examples of wish-fulfilling trees worshipped by a range of Indian religious communities, highlighting the syncretic nature of many of these sacred sites.

Chapters Seven and Eight focus on sacred tree groves, with Chapter Seven focusing on groves that show influences of Hinduism. The chapter notes that sacred tree groves have been protected in India since the beginning of recorded history, some of which encompass entire forests, and are essential to biodiversity conservation.

Chapter Eight focuses on sacred tree groves that display a stronger indigenous influence. Due to their ancient origins, it is clear that the earliest groves were maintained by the indigenous, or Adivasi, peoples of India.

It is the intention of this book to provide inspiring imagery of the venerated and honoured trees of India that demonstrate an attitude towards sacralising and protecting the environment. This is in contrast with the typical commercial outlook that results in the commodification of nature. It is hoped that the book will contribute to the process of re-cognition that the world so desperately needs in this environmentally challenged world.

Further Insights

Dr Fowler-Smith was interviewed recently for an episode of ABC Radio's 'The Arts Hour'. The interview was first broadcast on  'Finding the divine in the natural world'. Please click here to listen to the episode in full.

Louise Fowler-Smith is the founder of the eco-artist collective, The Tree Veneration Society. She was an academic at the University of New South Wales, Australia, for 30 years, introducing the first transdisciplinary course on environmental art. Her publications include “Tree Veneration: How Ancient Traditions Can Lead to Pro-Environmental Behaviour” in Using the Visual and Performing Arts to Encourage Pro-Environmental Behaviour (2020), “Adorning and Adoring: The Sacred Trees of India” in Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (2018), and “Hindu Tree Veneration as a mode of Environmental Encounter” in Leonardo: The Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Science and Technology (2009). As an artist she has held hundreds of exhibitions, with the most recent international solo exhibition held at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in France titled Portraits d’Arbres Remarquables IllumineĢs/Portraits of Remarkable Trees Illuminated in 2018 and an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney titled Portraits of Extraordinary Trees, Illuminated in 2020. 

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Sacred Trees of India: Adornment and Adoration as an Alternative to the Commodification of Nature is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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