Tulasi Chaura – a Tribute to my Root

At times when I make visit to a grand monument that speaks India’s rich architectural legacy, for a moment I am carried away. I get lured to do research and write about it. But the lure does not last long. After a few days, the monument’s ghost story starts fading from my mind. I realize that it is not an integral part of my cultural root and I am unconnected to it.

Then I hove over again to my surrounding, my upbringing and my daily life’s events. There are many tiny objects, cultural institutions that silently influence my life. They make me happy, sometimes make me cry and at moments provide me soul lifting experiences. One such cultural institution is ‘Tulasi Chaura’. I am a Hindu Brahmin by caste, but open to all religious ideas and tradition. The attitude of openness also introspects me to peep into my own cultural institutions that are centuries old and are integral to my family tradition.

Today many of these cultural institutions are unconnected to my daily life as the lifestyle has changed completely, yet when I go back home to my native in coastal Odisha, I am transferred back to my roots at least for a moment.

Tulasi Chaura is a vibrant cultural institution of Odisha and for all Hindus, though it may be called differently in different regions of India. In most traditional Hindu households, Tulasi usually is contained within some kind of planter, although occasionally it is grown directly in the earth. The planters are simple terracotta pots, and in traditional set ups they appear differently depending upon local style. In coastal Odisha they appear as miniature temples. No one knows the antiquity of this institution in the absence of recorded history. But in the Late Medieval Period it was definitely a vibrant institution which we come to know from the writing of an Italian traveller in 1672 –

“Almost all the Hindus…adore a plant like our Basilico gentile, but in a more pungent odour…Everyone before his house has a little altar, girt with a wall half an ell high, in the middle of which they erect certain pedestals like little towers, around in these the shrub is grown. They recite their prayer daily before it, with repeated prostrations, sprinkling of water, etc. There are also many of these maintained at the bathing places, and in the court of Pagodas”.

Tulasi Chaura is essentially an institution of women, and in my family there are two women who have been integral to this institution. One is my mother and the other my mother’s mother.

My mother lives in an apartment in Bhubaneswar city where there is no scope of erecting a Tulasi Chaura. But she has planted the herb in a pot kept in the projected balcony of our apartment. Every day morning she offers prayer and sprinkle water to its leaves, may be a shorter ritual compare to the village folks’ elaborate ones as she is exposed to a complex system of urban living. My grandma however does an elaborate ritual at the Tulasi Chaura at her village home in the eve of sunrise.

While writing this I recall my childhood days, when I used to visit my grandma’s village in south coastal Odisha during holidays. The day used to begin with a prayer for Tulasi Goddess, a benevolent deity of Vaishnava Hindus, where Lord Jagannath is the centre stage of spiritual life of all Odiyas.

‘O Tulasi,

You who are beloved of Vishnu

You who fulfil the wishes of the devout

I will bathe you

You are the Mother of the World

Give me the blessing of the Vishnu

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This used to be the prayer song offered to Tulasi by my grandma, who was a widow even then. There used to be other women who accompanied her in the prayer. They all used to kneel under a metre high Tulasi Chaura resembling a miniature temple while singing the prayer. Then my grandma used to offer holy water from a small globular brass pot into the cupped palm of her right hand and sprinkles it into the leaves of the bush. For her, the goddess was an incarnate in the herb of Tulasi, representing the duty and dedication, the love, virtue and sorrow of all women. She was linked to their eternal souls.

The above ritual used to be just at the beginning of the holy Kartika Month (October – November), the month sacred to Odiyas and dedicated to Vishnu, and not to mention – the vacation time for us.

The next step used to be more elaborate. My grandma’s prayer used to be repeated by others. Beneath their feet they would paint jhotis (designs of flowers and conch shells) on cow dung lipan floor surrounding the Tulasi Chaura using white rice flour paste and sindur (vermillion). Placing the brass pot on the floor amid the jhoti, they would light camphor incense in a clay pot and wave the clouds of sweet smoke over and around the bush and its container.

Holding a lighted clay lam filled with lighted ghee in their right hands they would stand in front of the chaura and wave their hands in circular rotation three times. Then they would offer Prasad – fruits like banana, apple and meat of dried coconut along with hibiscus and marigold flowers, each as per her capacity before the impressive miniature temple.

Now there would be another song –

O Tulasi

Within your roots are all the sacred places of the World

And inside your stem live all the Gods and Goddess. Your leaves radiate every form of sacred fire.

Let me take some of your leaves that I may be blessed.

Then they would shake the plant neatly, plucking three leaves and thanking to the Goddess they would take these leaves into their moths. After this they would bow down for two-three minutes before the Tulasi Chaura and then request the Goddess if they may be allowed to dress her. My grandma would take out a piece of red cloth from a basket and worship it around the bush. Then each of the women would offer garlands of flowers and place them around the planter. This would bring an end to the ritual of the day. Then they would all sit together to sing the final prayer.

O Goddess Tulasi,

You who were the most precious

Of the Lord Almighty (Vishnu)

Who live according to his Divine Laws

I beseech you to protect the lives of my families

And the Spirits of those who have died

Here me, O Goddess!

Tulasi has been associated with Lord Vishnu from time immemorial. In Jagannath Temple, Puri, a special space is reserved for Tulasi plants. So is the case of many other Vishnu shrines. But the primary function of Tulasi is in household ritual.

According to a complex legend in Odisha –

Tulasi was known as Satyavati in Satya Yuga. In the age of the Ramayana she was reborn as Goddess Chandra. She was abducted by Mahiravana (son of Ravana), who tried to rape her. Chandra was so pure and strong-willed that the demon was unable to compromise her virtue. Hanuman killed the demon and rescued her. Hanuman then carried her to his Lord Rama. Chandra fell in love with Rama at the first sight. Rama, however was married to Sita and that forbade him from touching any other woman. Rama promised her that they would be together in the next yuga. In consequence, through her love of Rama, Chandra remained alone and a virgin for millennia.

In the Dwapar Yuga, Chandra was reborn as Pripura, a beautiful milkmaid and was seduced by Krishna (previously Rama). Pripura was Krishna’s favourite consort, and together they had many amorous adventures.

In the Kali Yuga (the present Yuga), the goddess was born as Tulasi (also known as Vrindavati). This time she was the wife of Jalandhara, an evil demon and son of Sea. Tulasi was a dutiful and virtuous wife, but Jalnadhra being a demon was greedy for almighty power. He decided to become Lord of all the three worlds. But the ultimate controllers of these worlds were two powerful Gods – Vishnu and Shiva. Since Vishnu is not a warrior God, he lost to the power of Jalandhara and was imprisoned by him. Jalandhara then waged a war against Shiva.

Shiva is a warrior deity. When the battle was on, Jalandhara heard unsurpassed beauty of Parvati, Shiva’s wife and decided to have her. But when Jalandhara approached Parvati he fell unconscious and fell in the ground. Meanwhile the imprisoned Vishnu heard Jalandhara’s declining power and played a tactics. He took the form of Jalandhara and escaped the prison. He then straight went to underworld abode of Jalandhara where Tulasi resided.

Tulasi assuming that her husband has returned immediately kissed him. Tulasi fell helplessly in love with the God. And that was the moment of reunion after millions of years that had started in the time of the Ramayana.

This legendary story runs in the blood and bones of all women who seek blessing of the Goddess to be with their husbands’ life after life, a relationship that is eternal and never dying. This had evolved perhaps as a sympathiser pacage for young women who would become widow at early age. They would be assured that their soul mates may have died in this birth, but they would be united again in the succeeding births by citing the example of Goddess Tulasi. And this is the soul of India – eternal and blissful, trust and faith – all interwoven with stories and rituals that are time immoral.

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