Cannonballs in the garden of Theosophy

Bijoy Venugopal
Yahoo Lifestyle Entertainment
Great East Coast Road Drive Nagalingam Cannonball Tree Flower
A Nagalingam flower of the Cannonball Tree in bloom at the Theosophical Society International campus in Adyar, Chennai.

Question: Who among these people was a founder of the Theosophical Society Adyar?

a) Helena Petrovna Blavatsky b) Annie Besant c) Rabindranath Tagore d) Radha Burnier

Surprising how many went for b) when we posed this question in a poll during our live coverage of The Great East Coast Road Drive. Madame Blavatsky is the correct answer. Annie Besant was not a founder, though she was a very active president of the Society. But it doesn't help the guesswork artist that the neighbourhood of Besant Nagar is right beside Adyar. 

Theosophy, by definition, can't be summed up in a line. Or three. That's why the Theosophists wrote lengthy treatises attempting to explain it. A succinct summary of its underlying principle was put forth by Blavatsky in her book, Occult Phenomenon, 1880: "Theosophy believes in no miracle, whether divine or devilish; recognizes nothing as supernatural; believes only in facts and Science; studies the laws of Nature, both Occult and patent; and gives attention particularly to the former."

Co-founder William Q Judge, later estranged and founder of a rival society of the same name in Pasadena, California, was more laconic when he remarked, "Theosophy is a scientific religion and a religious science."

Having more science than religion in my bloodstream on any given day, I set out on the middle path of spiritual scientific enquiry - sort of a sophy in itself.

It was our last day in Chennai, and our most hectic. After breakfast, we rushed to the Theosophical Society International campus in Adyar, a sprawling, leafy green lung that offered so much respite from the urban madness that is suburban Chennai. Once inside its gates, every memory of the city departed in an instant. These, the 260-acre Huddleston Gardens, are a wilderness that shelters birds, snakes, large fruit bats called Flying Foxes, mongooses and even jungle cats. Of these, the creatures that made the greatest impression on us were the diurnal mosquitoes - they swarmed us like so many tail-thumping puppies welcoming us home and tucked in, feasting on the warm blood we had brought them. Was it the science in my blood they wanted, or the religion? 

Once in, we were guided by Mr Bhaskar, the avuncular gatekeeper, to the ancient Adyar Banyan. One of the world's venerable Ficus trees, it inhabits the heart of this hermitage and is believed to be 450 years old. In the sagacity of its shade, which outdid the need for a marquee of another kind, the devout and the inquiring hearkened to discourses by J Krishnamurti, Maria Montessori, Rabindranath Tagore and Besant.

The mother trunk is no more despite many valiant attempts to restore it after it was struck down by one of the fiercer cyclonic storms that ravage the east coast in winter. Unlike the west coast of India, which has the Western Ghats to stonewall the advent of the southwest monsoon, the Coromandel Coast, which falls in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, is unshielded. The Eastern Ghats, a ragged line of boulder-strewn hills that rise barely a few hundred metres above sea level, offer little resistance to the bottled-up fury of the returning monsoon as it sweeps the eastern coast in an orgy of assault and battery. Though the mother trunk is dead its children, the secondary aerial roots, have thrived and spread over an area of nearly 60,000 square metres to create a veritable forest.

We were enveloped by an insistent fragrance. Seeking it, I scanned the trees. To my utter delight, I discovered a richness of Cannonball Trees, called Nagalingam in Tamil. Their fleshy, peach-and-scarlet flowers lay in great numbers at their feet, spent as if in worship. The grapefruit-sized, almost perfectly spherical fruit, which gives the tree its English name, littered the ground in great heaps even as it flowered copiously. The fruit grows on stalks directly on the stem. It is heavy, hard and makes an explosive noise when it strikes the ground, falling from a great height. For good reason, this is not a popular avenue tree.

There were also a number of smaller, younger trees that had just started to flower. Bees stumbled, punch drunk, from one to the other and threatened to stab you in inebriated rage if you got in the way. Now this is odd, because the flower is not known to produce nectar but attracts bees, which are drawn to collect its pollen.

The Nagalingam is a curious tree. The name refers to the shape of the flower, which is believed to resemble a Shivalingam. Its Latin botanical name Couroupita guianensis suggests a New World origin. Yet, it has been worshipped in India for many years.

In the company of these great trees, we came upon a signboard that reminded us of the spinal principle along which the Society was established: There is no religion higher than truth. I'd like to know the truth about how a tree introduced from Brazil and South America found its way into Indian religious belief.

Bijoy Venugopal is Editor - Travel at Yahoo! India and founder-editor of the nature blog The Green Ogre.  Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. To get his attention as he travels with photographer Azhar Mohamed Ali on The Great East Coast Road Drive, tweet with the hashtag #greatecrdrive