The Edward's Lake Tree Shrines
One of the play activities I engaged in for many years as a child growing up in North India, was ‘Mandir Making’. A Mandir is a Shrine or a temple – and it could be a consecrated space, irrespective of size that is built for a particular God or Goddess, or a trinity, or multiplicity of Gods, or to a natural entity such as a tree or a snake or indeed to a elemental one like the Sun or water.
As a child, these structures were not imagined for any particular deity – they were, like many children’s play activities, about the act of making. The process involved looking for bricks, slabs of slate, small concrete forms, my rock collection etc. as materials for the structure. The ground would be swept and cleaned and then the construction would begin. Usually the little structure would not be more than a foot high, a plinth with 3 walls and an open front – the first level would be made of a sheet of slate or a tile and the second level would sit on top set in to create a sense of a taper. Roofs were usually flat – with the added option of two slates or bricks leaning against each other to simulate a spire. These usually kept falling and a lot of time would be spent in trying to stabilize the structure. Once built, we would then get down to decorating the area around the structure – with bells, copper pots and oil lamps surreptitiously borrowed from within the house. The shrine would then be consecrated with a small idol if it was available, rocks, a rubber doll, or nothing at all. This would set the space for the temple to be the site of some intense ritual of vague intention be performed involving water, fire, rice and turmeric, or flower petals, and coloured water and other magical materials like sheets of mica, fool’s gold or beads. It could often also become a dolls house – with tea sets emerging and lots of cooking going on in some sort of extended social recreation. However it always began as a shrine.
This playtime activity is a miniature extraction of an adult practice, mirrored in an overt sense – yet differing in the reasons for doing and the feelings elicited from that action. Religious ritual is central to daily life in India. Households engage in these narratives of annual religious construction at Janmashmi (celebrating The Birth of Krishna) and Diwali, and the impressive effigies of Ravana, temporary pandaals at Puja, the construction, consecration and immersion of idols etc.
These rituals are in their quintessentially Indian way not so much about religion as they are about practice. The ways in which things are done, the narratives around the right way to do things, and the meanings embedded in some images, are often completely different for each family – yet form the ritual basis for that family. This annual cyclical practice, mirrored in my childhood as daily play, is an act both of creative fulfillment as well as making memory. In the re-enaction of annual practice is the embedding of narrative content.
Alongside this is the fluidity of religious construction. Anything can be venerated or consecrated given a strong enough impetus – and there is no judgement around this, as Hinduism is largely a non hierarchical and privately practiced. The possibilities of the divine representation are extensive as a result of multiple religious traditions (Dehejia, 1997). It is customary to see Pipal trees with embedded temples or the consecration of a brand new Suzuki Swift with lemons and chilies and other similar ritual elements. Small temples are essential components of most houses – and the Morning Prayer in a domestic space, an immutable part of most days.
The making of these objects has its profound craft tradition expressed in a range of identities across India, yet servicing a common spiritual and ritualistic imperative. From the Tangkha Paintings of Ladakh in the north to the travelling shrines or Kaavads of Rajasthan in the west, or the stone icon traditions of the south, the idea of the sacred is endemic to every part of India, and being a part of that tradition makes it a profound aspect of place. Added to this, the constant trading of short life-span craft objects – or making them, as an act of play or ritual is one of the chief aesthetic aspects of my childhood and early adult life. Having left India over a decade ago the persistence of this memory is the enduring the emotional recall around these activities and the meditations that surround them. In the reclaiming of this activity is the appropriation of practice in the absence of immediate context. And from that the emotional, physical or consolations of that practice
Context and Making
Displacement is a powerful event in someone’s life. In 1963, at the age of 30 my mother left London and came to India, never to return as a resident.. I grew up witnessing the conflicts of this displacement recognising it intimately without really ever understanding it. At the age of 34 I left India, to continue the family journey South, and have not returned to India as a resident. By the age of 30 one has more or less assumed a cultural and professional identity that is a function of context. The absence of a cultural context is a profoundly challenging experience and one can choose to either renounce or re-establish one’s coordinates. It is interesting that people of the spirit have often abandoned ‘place’ as their first act of renunciation. Christ and Gautama Buddha spring to mind, as do the Jain Monks and Hindu Sadhus.
For my mother, the natural world provided the contextual continuity that the cultural world denied. She became deeply interested in gardens and especially in trees. We had a large garden into which she planted slow growing trees. Large trees with fulsome exotic fragrances. We would go out for morning walks before dawn listening to her talk of trees, of what was flowering, what was poisonous and which ones were good for baby owls to hide in. These magical mornings, before the world awoke, were her place infused with the same quality of place and defined by her relationship with its elements. I found in my narrative of displacement, a similar need to be in the natural world to offset the isolation imposed by a loss of cultural context. In my local park I began to get interested in the trees. I knew the names of very few of the Australian plants and their difference to the tropical abundance of India made them seem alien. Returning to this idea of knowing as an act of language, I found I needed to name the things I wanted to learn (Merleau-Ponty, 2012). I found myself looking for a place to indulge – I have a large backyard and am slowly bringing into it the trees as did my mother in a different place and time. Some are a reflection of her choices: The Jacaranda, the Magnolia and the Ornamental Plum, others like the Silver princess and Maple effects of my own feeling around the indigenousness and multi-culturality of suburban flora. Each time I learn a new tree I build a little shrine – the shrine s like a book. It can open and close, it has the act of learning built into it. It ties in my child-like joy of making temples with an establishment a marker of sorts of place.
The actual shrines are made from a variety of found or new material. Often 3mm plywood, Balsa sheets, cork or Book board. I still do not have complete clarity as to what exactly I am making. However, the initial content that drives the idea is subsumed into an unresolved aesthetic journey. Here there is not much pre-meditation. I find myself integrating bits and pieces of wood I chance upon them into the structure as I go along. Into these I may paint a texture or an image. Whilst I am drawn to the narrative aspects of illustration, the narratives of these shrines are always ambiguous. When the structure is made, I am usually delighted by the opening and closing of the doors, in much the same way as after binding a book as though that act alone is somehow symbolic of some journey that I have not yet recognised.
These are not necessarily exquisitely made, nor are they examples of fine woodwork or great illustration. Once made, they are put away to sit amongst the many anonymous objects on the shelf, along with the blank bound books and piles of paper awaiting fashioning.