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Talking Tree Spirits And Where To Find Them: The Speaking Tree In Indian Art

The Speaking Tree In Indian Art: An Introduction to Tree Spirits

Long before humans had any concrete proof of trees being ‘alive’, they were held in high regard and seen as protectors and guardian spirits. Trees are alive; listen, and you will hear them singing, their rustling leaves and swaying branches serving as reminders of the passage of time and the secrets that they keep hidden.

Many cultures believe trees to be ancient spirits or entities that were once human. In the Vedic religion, every tree represents a deity and should be worshipped. In Greek mythology, trees were often mortals who had been punished or sometimes reincarnated as an act of mercy, such as Minthe, who became mint and Daphne, who turned into a Laurel tree.

Not all tree spirits are pure and helpful: Hyldemoer, or the Elder Tree, is a Norse spirit who is nice enough when left alone. But if you try to cut her branches for wood, prepare to be cursed! This blog is about a tree that is neither good nor bad, rather, it is an oracular tree which represents the mysteries of the unknown.

The Speaking Tree in Indian Art: Spirits in Literature

Image credit: The Gutenberg Project

Talking trees and speaking trees can sprout both good and evil. Often, mythological figures represent duality: darkness and light, good and evil, death and life. From Janus to Shiva-Shakti, we see the symbolistic power of two: masculine and feminine, sun and moon, land and water.

The Speaking Tree is a legend associated with Islamic faith. The tree bears human fruit and grows only on the island of Waqwaq, a mythical land. The name ‘Waqwaq’ can refer to the tree itself, as well as the land that it belongs to and the winged creatures that guard it. 

The author Firdausi speaks of this legend in the Shahnama, whereas Nizami mentions it in the Iskandarnama.

In Islamic versions, Alexander bears the name ‘Sikander’. The legends state that he reaches the end of the world, only to face a tree with two trunks. One trunk bears male heads, while the other bears female ones. The male heads scream and cause terror during the day; the female heads speak sweetly at night.

Alexander was arrogant yet curious, wanting answers to questions he did not dare to ask. The tree gave him answers nonetheless. The male heads stated that he has already received all the blessings he deserves, whereas the female heads warned him to beware of succumbing to incessant greed. United, they delivered one prediction: Death would come for him soon, and he would die in a foreign land surrounded by strangers.

The Speaking Tree In Indian Art: The Origins of the Waqwaq Tree

The tree of life. Unknown, Mughal School, 1701-1800. Image credit: Google Arts and Culture

Some sources say the tree grows in the farthest east, somewhere in China. Curiously, we find many Chinese myths that mention trees bearing human fruits, and also include references to ‘the lands of Islam’. The Fusang tree of Chinese mythology grew branches with mouths that could open. Chinese cosmology states that there are many suns, and each sun is a crow that perches upon the Fusang tree.

Dashi Guo. A woodblock print from the Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Three Realms. Ming-era. Image credit: Journey To The West Research

It so happened that all the sun-crows roosted simultaneously, which caused death and destruction. The Chinese hero Yi the Archer restored natural order and solved this problem by shooting all the birds until only one sun remained.

The Speaking Tree In Indian Art: The Indian Tree of the Sun and the Moon

The High Priest guides Alexander and his followers, who pray at the Trees of the Sun and the Moon (England, 1333–c. 1340) Image credit: The British Library

Many versions of the legend of the speaking tree exist. It finds a place in Arabian literature as well as in Thai folklore. In Western versions of the myth, the tree appears as two trees, one representing the sun and the other the moon. 

A sun tree and a moon tree—this resembles the Indian Tree of the Sun and the Moon. This legend speaks of a tree split into two parts, which spoke at different times and told the future. The tree spoke in a male voice during the day, and at night it spoke in the voice of a woman. It sounds pretty similar to the Waqwaq tree, doesn’t it?

These legends go on to state that this was the tree under which Alexander the Great faced the prophecy of his doom. In a letter to Aristotle (the Epistola Alexandri ad Aristotelem), Alexander wrote that some townspeople came to him and said that they knew of something strange: a tree that spoke like a human being.

Alexander expressed his disbelief at the very thought of its existence. Why, one might wonder? In the letter, he had previously encountered various creatures that spoke, including a bird that spoke to him in Greek. Perhaps he drew the line at trees.

Alexander’s Account of the Indian Tree of the Sun and the Moon

The townspeople led Alexander to two trees, one male and one female. The male tree was named ‘Sun’ and the female one was named ‘Moon’; their names were in the ‘Muthu and Emausae’ language. Their trunks were covered with animal skins. As soon as the sun set, the male tree began to speak. Alexander ordered the Indians to translate, but they would not, as it predicted his doom.

An illustration from Kitāb al-Bulhān (‘Book of Wonders’) 1330–1450. Image credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

For a long time, Alexander’s letter (a fictional account, of course) was considered a real description of India. Due to its highly imaginative imagery, it fascinated many readers, and tales of the fantastical Orient spread quickly among them. It is interesting to note that, as this letter precedes both Firdausi and Nizami’s accounts, it is undoubtedly what shaped the legend of the Waqwaq tree.

The letter exists in bits and pieces; in some translations, the tree never gives Alexander a prophecy; in others, he meets a high priest who stood taller than ten feet. In the latter version, the male tree spoke in the native Indian language, whereas the female one spoke in Greek. 

The Speaking Tree, the Indian Tree of the Sun and the Moon, and the Waqwaq tree are all depicted interchangeably, as part of Alexander’s legacy. Sometimes Alexander isn’t even present in the painting, and the tree features as the centrepiece. At other times, he appears at the foot of the tree on horseback, trying to listen to those barely audible whispers that may somehow allow him to change his destiny.

Myths of the Speaking Tree in Indian Art

Certain Indian myths also talk about trees being a representative of the male or female spirit. In Odisha, the Peepal tree is symbolic of the masculine, and Banyan trees are representative of the feminine. There is also a tradition that involves marrying these trees to each other.

In Gond culture, the Ganja plant represents Shiva, whereas Mahua represents Parvati. This is due to a Gond legend that talks about Shiva and Parvati who come across a Mahua and a Ganja side-by-side. Shiva tells Parvati their story, stating that they are lovers who society will never allow to be together. Despite their attempts, they will never be united: This cautionary tale warns its listeners to never mix alcohol with marijuana.

The Speaking Tree in Indian Art: A Painting of Unknown Origin

This surreal painting belongs to the 17th century. The art historian B.N. Goswamy believes that this painting originated from Golconda in the Deccan region, but states that it could also be from the Mughal School. It is currently displayed at the Islamische Museum, Berlin.

Sometimes, what we see isn’t always the truth. The speaking tree contains mysteries and multitudes. Its branches teem with the heads of animals and humans. Its trunk isn’t even a trunk at all: it is made up of serpents intertwining and tightly coiling into each other. The Speaking Tree represents the unknown, the spiritual realm that we cannot see and want so desperately to touch: unaware of whether what we are seeking bears benevolent or malicious intent.

The tree has sprouted beasts like deer, elephants, donkeys, cheetahs, bulls, jackals, and even a dragon head in the top right. In the bushes below, we notice fish that have positioned themselves to appear like blades of grass. A curiously shaped plant at the bottom left bears birds instead of animals.

In a previous blog on Deccani Miniatures, we mentioned that the Deccan was a heterogeneous group where cultures and people of different nationalities mingled freely. It was home to many foreign artists who had fled their homelands to escape persecution.

It was actually Turkmen princes who ruled the Qutub Shahi sultanate of Golconda. Many Turkmen artists also settled in this region, which caused the Deccan Miniature painting style to become saturated with a blend of foreign influences and Indian subjects.

A Look at Another Speaking Tree In Indian Art

This is not the only depiction of the Waqwaq tree in Indian art; the Mughal Miniature above also features a plant with animal heads. The plant represents the circle of life and could be a symbol of life and death. 

The dragon head in this painting is quite similar to the one depicted in the ‘Island of Waqwaq’ painting. Here, birds coil around each other to create a beautiful flower. The birds seem to have sprouted from the plant and ‘fallen’ off, or in this case, taken flight. The elephant head at the base is the origin of all the sprouts, and as it slowly chews up a stalk, it threatens the plant’s very existence. In the bottom left, a rhino also shows its herbivorous nature by eating a leaf that sprouted from its own body.

This painting represents a great understanding of the complex symbol of the Waqwaq tree. Its appearance seems to be based on the account of the Speaking Tree by Ajâb’ib Nâmeh of Tusi Salmani in The Book of Curiosities in 1388. He stated that the tree sprouted the heads of human females, horses, birds, ducks, foxes, rams, etc. It was cannibalistic and ate the heads of the animals that it grew.

‘To be loved is to be changed’, and the tale of the Waqwaq or the Speaking Tree was so well loved by many a painter, writer, and poet so much that it has been reconceptualised and reinterpreted in several iterations spanning countries, languages, and cultures. Nevertheless, trees that speak to us remain an object of fantasy, so ingrained in the roots of culture that, even today, they take the form of children’s tales and urban legends.

By Melissa D’Mello


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