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The Magical Mulberry-Part I

O, the mulberry-tree is of trees the queen!
Bare long after the rest are green.
But as time steals onwards, while none perceives.
Slowly she clothes herself with leaves.”
Dinah Maria 
This one tree, solitary and aloof, stands majestically in my forecourt. Tall and luxuriant, its bright verdure makes the surrounding trees pale in comparison. A much taller Jamun tree stands next to it, mighty and massive and yet it appears dwarfed and diminished, and lustreless before the glistening green foliage of its neighbour. Countless fruits, young and unripe have begun to visibly hang from their long delicate stems. Soon they will mature into succulent, juicy, and sweet fruits. Alas! I will not be around to enjoy them.
Nature’s Extra Ordinary Gift 
Few trees have had a greater impact on the world’s culture and economy than the mulberry. The sole food of the silkworm, the leaves of the mulberry brought prosperity not only to ancient China, but to all nations that learned the art of silk production. Mulberry bark was used to make the first paper and the succulent, blood-red fruit of the Black Mulberry has inspired poets from Ovid to Shakespeare. The medicinal properties of all parts of the tree have been known for millennia, making it a tree of choice for medieval monastery gardens, while its anti-diabetic effects are opening exciting avenues of research today.
The remarkable story of the mulberry tree and its migrations from China and Central Asia to almost every continent of the globe, is as fascinating as it is intriguing. Its emblematic journey is a passionate account of the evolution and cross fertilisation of cultures and civilisations, of men and races, of beliefs and dogmas.

A Tempting Tree
Few have missed the fabled and timeless rhyme on Mulberry Bush. 
“Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush, The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning.”,
The meaning of the song are much debated with one theory linking the origins of 'Here we go round the mulberry bush' to HMP Wakefield, where female prisoners exercised around a mulberry tree in the moonlight. Another theory is that it refers to Britain's attempts to produce silk in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mulberry trees are a key habitat for the cultivation of silkworms, however the trees proved totally unsuitable for the cold British winters.
The allure of producing silk has both motivated and compelled several countries to propagate Mulberry tree in their regions. The Mulberry obliged many of them. The silkworm, however, did not. And silk, therefore, continues to be as exclusive and special as it has been since ancience.

The Myth
Mulberry gifts us fruits that are either white or dark red in colour. A myth surrounds its red coloured variant. According to the legend, the blood of two young lovers transformed the fruits of the Mulberry tree, usually white, into dark purple with a red coloured juice. 
Pyramus and Thisbe were two lovers in the city of Babylon who occupied connected houses. Their respective parents, driven by rivalry, forbade them to meet. Through a crack in one of the walls they used to whisper their love for each other. They arrange to meet near a tomb under a mulberry tree and state their feelings for each other. Thisbe arrives first, but upon seeing a lioness with a bloody mouth from a recent kill, she flees, leaving behind her cloak. When Pyramus arrives, he is horrified at the sight of Thisbe's cloak: the lioness had torn it and left traces of blood behind, as well as its tracks. Assuming that a wild beast had killed her, Pyramus kills himself, falling on his sword, a typical Babylonian way to commit suicide, and in turn splashing blood on the white mulberry leaves. Pyramus' blood stains the white mulberry fruits, turning them dark. Thisbe returns, eager to tell Pyramus what had happened to her, but she finds Pyramus' dead body under the shade of the mulberry tree. Thisbe, after praying to their parents and the gods to have them buried together and a brief period of mourning, stabs herself with the same sword. In the end, the gods listen to Thisbe's lament, and forever change the colour of the mulberry fruits into the stained colour to honour forbidden love. For the tragic end of their love, Pyramus and Thisbe are often referred to as the Sicilian Romeo and Juliet.
This tale was first related by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Book IV. The story was retold in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and a farcical version is acted by the “rude mechanicals” in William Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’
Historical Perspective
But legend apart, the connection between mulberry trees and silk production is deeply rooted in history and has had a significant impact on the economies and political power of several Asian countries, most notably China, Japan, and India. This connection stems from the role of mulberry leaves as the primary food source for silkworms (Bombyx mori), which are used in the production of silk.
Silk production, or sericulture, is an ancient practice that originated in China at least 5,000 years ago. It is believed that the process was discovered by the Empress Leizu, who realized that silkworms were producing thread when they spun their cocoons. The Chinese managed to keep silk production a closely guarded secret for thousands of years, allowing them to monopolize silk manufacturing and trade.
Silk as a Driver of Affluence and Authority
Silk soon became more than just a commodity; it turned into a symbol of affluence and a medium of diplomacy and exchange. During the 17th to 19th centuries, silk fabrics were highly prized in Europe, where they were used in everything from garments to furnishings. The demand for silk created lucrative trade opportunities. The Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes stretching from China to the Mediterranean, facilitated the exchange of silk, spices, gold, and other precious goods, and played a crucial role in the cultural, political, and economic interactions between East and West.

(To Be Continued…….)

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






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