But Ber’s embrace of cultures and traditions is far more diverse. Its legend lingers in several contexts.
The Ber tree registers a unique presence and an integral part of landscape that surround Hindu temples. Unveiling its significance, the Ber fruits take centre stage in the divine offerings to Lord Shiva. The revered Hindu festival dedicated to Lord Shiva, Mahashivratri , is not considered complete till Ber is offered to the benevolent Mahadeo.
This sacred resonance with the followers of Shiva finds profound reinforcement and sanctity in Sikhism. It is held in great reverence by them. The Ber tree often graces the surroundings of gurdwaras, embodying the spiritual awakening of Guru Nanak beneath its boughs. A living testament to history, the oldest Ber tree, named "Dukh Bhanjani Beri," thrives in Amritsar, Punjab, standing tall since the 16th century when Shri Guru Ram Das founded the city and its holy sarovar. Remarkably, this ancient Ber tree, known to be over 400 years old, still bears fruit, captivating the faithful who gather beneath its branches during their visit to the Golden Temple complex. Rather than plucking the fruits, devotees sit in quiet anticipation, believing that a fallen fruit holds the potential for healing. Legend has it that praying before this Ber tree and taking a holy dip in the Golden Temple waters can bring about a cure for ailments and diseases.
Ber’s significance is etched in history. This unassuming tree and its modest fruit have been a silent witness to the resilience of many heroic figures during times of adversity. Who has not read or heard about Maha Rana Pratap Singh of Mewar, whose valour and love for independence; and his refusal to surrender to the mighty Akbar is an electrifying saga of inspiration and patriotism. Amidst the turbulence of their exiled existence, the royal family found sustenance in the humble Ber fruits flourishing in the forests of the Aravalli Hills, their resilience mirroring that of the valiant ruler.
Bhushan, the celebrated poet of contemporarily times captures captures those times so eloquently,
“ऊँचे घोर मंदर के अंदर रहनवारी ऊँचे घोर मंदर के अंदर रहाती हैं।
कंद मूल भोग करैं कंद मूल भोग करैं तीन बेर खातीं ते वै तीन बेर खाती हैं। “
The Tree, The Fruit, The Habitat
Its place in culture and folklore apart, Ber is an immensely useful tree and its uses are many. And its range of beneficiaries include the poor and rich, healthy, and sick alike.
Usually, an evergreen shrub or small tree with spines and drooping branches, it sometimes assumes tallness that towers over the neighbouring vegetation. (The three trees that stand in my premises bear testimony). Originating from the Indo-Malaysian region, it is now widespread in the Old World tropics. The fruit, varying in shape and size, has a crisp white flesh, smooth skin, and a pleasant aroma. While the species is considered nitrogen-fixing, it can become invasive in certain areas, posing environmental concerns.
The tree adapts well to drought conditions, with a rapidly developing taproot. Its leaves display a deep green hue with unique surface characteristics contributing to a "cool roof" effect. Flowers are tiny and yellow, while fruits are orange to brown, with edible white pulp surrounding a central stone.
It is also known for its hardiness, thriving in extreme temperatures and adapting to dry conditions. It can grow in various soil types, including laterite, black soils, sandy, gravelly, and alluvial soils. The tree shows tolerance to both water-logging and drought, with a wide range of annual rainfall. In China and India, it can be found up to elevations of 5,400 ft. The species is reported to flourish in alkaline soils but grows best in deep sandy loam to loamy soils with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. Commercial cultivation is typically done up to 1000 m elevation, beyond which its performance diminishes.
The Ber fruits vary greatly in size and shape. They are green at first, turning yellow or reddish as they ripen. The fruits are delicious eaten fresh or dried like raisins. The raw seeds have a sweet flavour and are eaten as a snack. The raw and the ripe fruits can also be processed into pickles and beverages.
Ber is propagated through seeds, and through other vegetative means. Storing of seeds for over four months, or the scarification of seeds, helps better germination. To germinate, seeds need full sunlight. Ber grows in a wide variety of soils and withstands extreme temperatures, thriving under dry conditions. Given the endless cultivated varieties of Ber in India, it is quite a challenge to identify the original wild variety.
Nature has endowed Ber with surprising tenacity. Its place, therefore, in the lives of common and uncommon people remains special and incomparable.
(To Be Continued….)
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)