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Indian Ber (Ziziphus mauritiana)- Part -I

Nature seldom creates without purpose. And some she creates with endless generosity. Among such creations are some exceptionally rich and gifted trees, whose every part is of use to humanity. ‘Neem’ readily comes to our mind if we look around for such a tree. It is a tree par excellence. Its leaves, fruits, bark, wood, each part serves us so well. 
But there is yet another tree that not only competes with Neem in its utility but in fact, scores over it in several other respects. It may not be as celebrated as ‘Neem’ in terms of its great medicinal and air-purifying properties, but its place in Indian culture and devotional universe remains beyond parallel while offering its every part to mankind to be used for some purpose or the other.
It is the Ber tree. Commonly known as Indian Ber or Indian jujube, its other names include Indian Plum, Chinese Date, Gangaregu, and Badar. In sanskrit it is known as Badri. One of the most holy tirthas for Hindus, Badrinath draws its name from the name of this tree which was found in abundance in that area millennia ago. 
My Sylvan Heaven
Among the many beautiful trees that adorn the sylvan landscape that surround and consecrate my dwelling, is a tree whose thick foliage and dark green appearance easily draws attention. The Ber tree is a much branched, thorny deciduous tree with a spreading crown, growing to a height of about 45 feet. If it appears inviting and fetching, it also has the distinction of being one of the hardiest species grown in India. Its presence is unmistakable mostly in the sandy soils of arid and semi-arid zones of India, both in wild but also as a cultivated variety. 
Apart from being a tree that produces sweet and tasty fruits in abundance, its value as a cure for a variety of ailments including chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, pharyngitis, bronchitis, anaemia, irritability, and hysteria. The seeds are used in the treatment of insomnia and nervous exhaustion. The list is long and exhaustive.
And yet, Ber, in fact, invokes thoughts that transcend its immediate benefits or its uncommon beauty.  It symbolises a deep connect with India’s spiritual quest and identity. It will till eternity stand as the ultimate icon of self-less love and devotion that a human being can have for his or her deity.  
Shabari and Ber
Shabari and Ber have etched an enduring presence in Indian culture, with the Ber fruit standing as a lasting testament intertwined with the memory of Shabari. It serves as a profound symbol of devotion, surrender to God, and an unwavering love for the divine—a narrative that transcends boundaries of gender, creed, class, and community, affirming the universal birth right of all human beings to embark on a spiritual quest.
Shabari's journey unfolded in the heart of the Deccan Peninsula's jungles, where she, born into a hunter-gatherer community, grappled with an inner void that eclipsed all other interests. Her path commenced with renouncing tamasic food, but a growing restlessness led her to wander aimlessly, seeking solace in the vast wilderness.
Fate guided Shabari to the ashram of Matunga, a sage in pursuit of enlightenment. Recognizing Shabari's noble intentions and spiritual yearnings, Matunga welcomed her into his care. Though she spent years serving in the ashram, the inner turmoil persisted. A pivotal moment arrived when Matunga, foreseeing his imminent death, revealed that Lord Rama, an avatar of that era, would cross their path, heralding the discovery of Shabari's life purpose.
This revelation plunged Shabari into deeper contemplation. With Matunga's demise, her mentor was lost, and uncertainties about Lord Rama tormented her. The heartache intensified with each passing month, her spirit undeterred by age and frailty. Shabari’s miseries increased. She had no idea who Lord Rama was. What would he look like? Would he come today, tomorrow, or never? How would she address him? Would he even notice her presence? As the cravings in her heart grew, doubts also assaulted her heart, “Will he understand my language? What shall I tell him? What shall I offer Him?” The dull heart of Shabari turned into a volcano.
Months passed, an eagerly Shabari awaited the arrival of Lord Rama. Years passed, and still there was no sign of Lord Rama. Shabari was growing old and frail, but there was no stopping her heart that craved the appearance of Lord Rama.
Lord Rama was exiled in the forests of India. Ruler of Lanka Ravana had abducted his wife Sita, and he was searching for her with a heavy heart. It was in those times that Shabari got to see her Lord. The cry of the heart of Shabari, the true seeker, brought Lord Rama to her door.
In her humble abode, Shabari hosted Lord Rama, touching his heart with her boundless love. Shabari could easily see the Divinity in the human frame of Lord Rama. She fell at his feet, and her tears washed the feet of her Lord. When the mother in her woke up, she quickly gathered some Ber fruits. However, she couldn’t trust those fruits. Were they sweet or sour? Her devotion compelled her to taste each one, ensuring only the finest nourishment for her Lord. Only when she was satisfied with the quality of each fruit, she fed them to Lord Rama.
Lord Rama’s heart was touched by her boundless love. In that sacred communion, Lord Rama momentarily forgot his own sorrows. It was during this incarnation that Shabari found liberation, her journey culminating in the divine embrace of Lord Rama. Shabari exemplifies the fact that the spiritual quest is not a prerogative of any sex, creed, class, or community, but the birth right of all human beings.
The gesture of Shabri feeding those Bers to Lord Rama, has become a timeless saga of devotion, love, and surrender. Ber fruit is as immortal as Shabri and will be remembered till Shabri will be remembered in this world.

(To Be Continued……..)

(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)


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