A silent but observant witness to the woes of a goddess in disdain, a respite to her on days when hope seemed scarce and a patient listener to the many pangs of desperation. This is considered Sita’s holy tree on the unholy grounds of Dashamukha. This is Shimsupa.
Shimsupa (also Simsipa in Pali or Shimshapa), is known to have been the tree that housed Sita under its shade during her days of imprisonment in Ravana’s Ashoka Vatika. The tree, now an endangered species of flora, is native to Burma where it is found within the compound of most Buddhist temples. In India however, the growth of one Shimsupa is nothing short of a celebration, given its scarcity and significance. The seeds disperse poorly and the genus propogates slowly. Perhaps this is yet another sign that points to the tree’s tranquil existence.
Botanically referred to as Dalbergia sissoo, a type of rosewood tree or Amherstia nobilis, the Shimsupa tree bears vibrant yellow flowers with red tips and lush green leaves. The tree is conferred the title of the most beautiful tree in the whole vegetable kingdom. It is also included in the family of Ashoka trees and is generally called so too.
From Sita’s wails of despair and furious repartee with her asura captor, to her divine description of her husband and the hope she held onto with all her being, the Shimsupa stood guard and witness to all. During her stay at the Ashoka Vana, where ironically Sita faced one misery after another, her only steady companion was the speechless tree that granted solace by providing shade and cool breeze that calmed her, plausibly out of sheer habit, for its home is not the Earth but the heavens, where its job is to sway and dance to the pleasure of the dwellers.
While the Shimsupa is critical to the storytelling of Sita’s stay in Lanka, it traverses beyond the grove. Shimsupa holds great importance in Buddhism as well. It is believed that under the Shimsupa tree, the queen Maya gave birth to Siddhartha or Buddha under the Ashoka or Shimsupa tree in Lumbini. It is also under the Shimsupa tree that after gaining enlightenment, Buddha rendered a prominent Buddist discourse to monks. He held 4 Shimsupa leaves in his hand, depicting the four truths to life, while the rest of the tree represented knowledge that was unrelated to a holy life.
The heavenly Shimsupa encompasses various art forms and sciences that symbolize the tree differently. In Natyashastra, the study of Indian traditional performing arts, the dance mudra of ‘Ardhachandra’ is also known to represent the Shimsupa tree when both hands are crossed maintaining the gesture.
The Shimsupa tree can be dated back to the Vedic period when it was referred to as ‘Shinsupa’ in texts as ancient as the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda. From the latter, branched out Ayurveda, which propounds the theory of the Shimsupa being the tree of life. The Charaka Samhita, one of the oldest books on internal medicine, mentions different ayurvedic concoctions made from the Shinsapa tree to treat rogas or diseases including diabetes, scabies, urinary tract infections and more. Texts like the Harita Samhitha and Sushtruta Samhita provide rules and regulations for the use of the Shinsupa tree’s bark in curing Type 2 diabetes as well.
Dharmashastra goes on to describe the Shimsupa tree as good fruit bearing vegetation that must be grown and nurtured by Kings. With specific instructions that are to be followed while taking care of it, the text is proof of the importance of the tree in ancient and modern times.
The Ṣaṭsāhasrasaṃhitā, an expansion of the Kubjikāmatatantra, the earliest popular and most authoritative Tantra of the Kubjikā cult, refers to the tree as one of the 36 sacred trees that are grown in Bharata Desha. According to this Kula, the tree is a domicile for Yoginis, Siddhas and others. It renders good energy and must not be disrespected. The tree also receives special mention in the Devi-Bhagavata purana. It grows in the Devi’s loka and spreads its soothing scent across the region.
Shimsupa, a tree critical to India’s history and modern society due to its historical, mythological, religious and scientific importance, emerges in our memories once again as the Hindu festival of Navaratri stands right around the corner. It represents the storytelling of the epic, Ramayana, the dharmic fight between good and evil, the duties of mankind and the importance of a woman’s dignity in society. Not only was Shimsupa the keeper of Sita’s experience but also of so many others from the epic.
It stood witness to Ravana’s injustice and arrogance, Mandodari’s helplessness, righteousness and pity, Hanuman’s service and devotion, the entire Asura clan’s downfall and the goodness that prevailed against all odds. It was under this tree that Sita shed tears, exchanged her chudamani for Rama’s silver ring, cursed Ravana and embodied the very goodness that would bring the destruction of all that was evil. The Shimpusa was thus, not only a witness but also a testament to history and a guide book to the future.