The Venus Flytrap: Fig Tree Tales

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Some things call to you, and other things call to many, but not you. Firmly in the latter category for me is the excitement around the ascension of the statue of Athi Varadar of Kanchipuram. Except for one precious detail: the statue, immersed in a water tank and displayed for public worship only once every forty years, is made of the wood of the athimaram, the ficus racemosa. This tree is both the mythical udumbara of the Pali texts, and the humble cluster fig (I believe we mostly eat the ficus carica, the common fig).

The many species of the fig tree have a cherished place in the stories of myriad traditions. The wood in which this avatar of Vishnu takes embodiment is connected to the sacred Bodhi beneath which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, the heart-shaped leaf of the pipal through which the Kutia Kondh goddess Nirantali created the first human tongue, the wild fig tree in whose roots was found the cradle containing the wolf-suckled babies Romulus and Remus (one of whom, having killed his brother, would establish Rome), the sycamore fig which was the abode of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and numerous ‘world trees’ across cultures. The banyan too, that vast and intricately thriving repository of mystery and comfort, is a kind of ficus. Fig trees are special – givers of shade, stories, statues and, not least, sweetness.

Having tasted the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves into girdles to cover their bodies – the first undergarments (the Persian god Mithra too dressed himself with them). This Biblical parable gave rise to the literal use of the fig leaf motif in plaster casts commissioned by some museums to hide the genitals of sculptures when dignitaries visited, such as when Queen Victoria viewed a replica of Michelangelo’s David in London. Certain Popes also had fig leaf coverings made for works in the Vatican. Coincidentally, or not, the Greek god of debauchery, Dionysus, was also associated with fig trees, and one of his myths involves him making a phallus of fig wood for a secret rite.

It wasn’t until this contemplation that I realised why there’s something about the fig fruit that has always confused and seduced me. It’s because it plays a trick on the eye: green-skinned in the hue of a guava or pear, yet tender-fleshed in a way neither of those fruits are. I’m surprised every time by the lusciousness that’s inside that lacklustre rind. Perhaps this was that forbidden fruit, ripe with revelation.

Who knows who or what will still be standing in another forty years, in time for Athi Varadar’s next scheduled rise from his silver-casketed immersion. But fig trees have long lifespans – the fruit-bearing common ones can live up to two centuries, and folklore contends that banyans survive to a venerable ancientness. The elation around the idol’s current advent will lead to at least one lasting good: the Kanchipuram administration has committed to planting 40,000 fig saplings across the district in honour of the occasion. May those trees live to watch many tales, and keep safe many tellings under the aegis of their canopies.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 25th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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