THE "TREE OF LIFE" SYMBOLISM
The most renowned of all Tree of Life patterns is to be found in a window of Sidi Sayyid's Mosque at Ahmadabad, India.
This is one of ten almost semi-circular windows, and has long been called the most beautiful one in the world. Even the most cautious writers have acknowledged its being "the most artistic stone tracery to be found anywhere." This delicate tracery is cut out of Gujarat sandstone and is a marvel of skill, not only because the forms are conventionalized just to the extent required for their purpose, but because the spacing of the subject takes it out of the category of direct imitation of nature. But the greatest skill of all ...is exhibited through the even manner in which the pattern is distributed over the whole surface.
Whether it only represents trees which mean the ordinary circumstances of Life in the shape of "a banyan tree growing out of and around a palm, until in its snake-like entanglements of root and branch —the banyan tree strangles its foster parent;" or whether it symbolizes the cedar as "fertility" and the palm as "food for the soul;" or whether it is merely one of the "Gem-bearing trees sacred to Buddha,"—the tracery indubitably represents the Tree of Life, for it simply means —Life developed to its highest state of perfection. This is true both in the symbolism and workmanship of this window screen, for it surpasses even the most exquisite tracery in precious marbles to be found elsewhere, and none can equal it in richness and depth of meaning.
The Indian Tree, or Tree of Life pattern is the most vitally interesting of all artistic designs. The first Tree of Life known to symbolism was a plant called hom. "The original HOM was the Sanscrit Soma . . . . a leafless (the rudimentary leaves are scarcely visible) scadent asclepiad, with its flowers collected in umbels, fan-like in silhouette ...a native of the southern slopes of the Cashmere Valley and Hindu Kush."
The hom tree is very clearly reproduced on Coalport china having the Indian Tree pattern—which was a design of great antiquity, but only taken to England a little over one hundred years ago.
The fermented juice of this hom tree was the first intoxicant of the Aryan race, and is still occasionally used as an intoxicant. Its succulent stalks are chewed by weary Oriental wayfarers to allay their thirst. In Assyria they probably substituted the Date Palm for the original hom, because the Aryans found they could not naturalize the true hom plant—or because the date yields a more abundant intoxicating juice. Its fruit also, would naturally become the staff of life in the region of the Euphrates Valley, and hence would be consecrated to Assbur as the Tree of Life. Later the vine took its place in Asia Minor and Greece.
Assyrian sculpture of great antiquity shows the hom twined very characteristically, though conventionally, about the date tree, forming the Tree of Life, Asbera or "grove" sacred to Assbur, the Supreme Diety of the Assyrians—the Lord and Giver of Life.
It is easy to see how these religious symbols of the first worship of the Aryan race—though afterwards polluted in Turanian India and Egypt and Assyria by a decadent symbolism—came to be universally adopted in the art ornamentation of the East.
In the Bible ...the Tree of Life is associated with the serpent and the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil," which brought death to the world. Therefore we find two kinds of trees in decorative symbolism; one with fruit, or with a serpent entwined around it; and the other ...the Tree of Life— as a symbol of man's life developed to its highest capacity. The fruits of this tree are guarded by the Cherubim, representing the forces of nature under the control of God, and are only given to be eaten by those who overcome. When man forgets God and disobeys Him, the Cherubim—as the most highly developed friendly forces of nature—stands as a barrier between man and God. It is said that the Tree of Life may be hidden from man a very long time, but it can never be lost, and is destined to be found again.
On monuments of very ancient times we find the Phoenician goddess Chiun as an equivalent of the Greek Venus. She is shown presenting snakes to Moloch, the Author of Death, and lotus flowers to Khem, the Author of Life, on whose altar we find the Tree of Life represented by a Loto-Papyro-Palmheaded plant form, with a cyprus form evidently derived from the lotus bud, on either side. These are guarded by the Cabiri, which suggested to the Hebrews the Cherubim, placed at the East of the Garden of Eden, to keep the way of the Tree of Life, and to the Greeks "the dog Cerberus," that guarded the Hades entrance.
In olden times in India they laid out gardens with the most rigid observance of symbolic rules. The "Pleasure Hill" in the centre ...definitely connected a Hindu garden—like those of Central Asia, with the ancient symbolism of the Holy Mount, the Tree, and the Snake.
C. M. Villiers-Stuart says, in "Gardens of the Great Mughals"—"Akbar's pillar in his hall of private audience at Fatehpur Sikri is an instance of this... in its strange beauty and its direct connection with the old ideas embodied in the Sacred Mount, the Tree and the Snake. On the outside —the Diwan-i-Khas— appears to be a two-storied building, but on entering ...it is seen to consist of a single vaulted hall, surrounded half- way by a gallery. Standing alone in the centre of the chamber is a magnificently carved column, with a huge bracket capital which carried the Emperor's throne. The pillar supports four railed passages leading to the four corners of the gallery, where there were seats for the principal ministers. Here the Mount and the Tree are one, meeting in Vishnu's symbol of the Tree or Pillar of the Universe, whereon the Emperor, as Vishnu's Regent, sat enthroned; while the four passages symbolize the cosmic cross of the four-went rivers of the Celestial Paradise."
In modern times: "even the gold-embroidered umbrella of State held by the King-Emperor at the Delhi Durbar, was but a symbol of the sacred sheltering tree."
Another writer says: "the Tree of Life . . . . was a favorite Buddhist symbol . . . . It has survived as a common form of decoration on modern textiles."
In all parts of the world ...the tree has remained a fundamental symbol. Scandinavian mythology gives the name of Yggdrasil to the three-rooted sacred ash-tree ...which binds together and sustains— heaven, earth and hell—and at whose roots ...sit the three goddesses of destiny. The Germanic Christmas tree is a relic of this sacred tree.
There is no need of covering more ground, for it has been the same since time immemorial from one end of the globe to the other, although the meaning of the symbolism may have been forgotten. The Tree Pattern is the root and stem of Indian, if not of all Oriental art, and is by far the most interesting of all artistic designs.
Should this little peep at the Indian Tree Pattern through Sidi Sayyids' Mosque stimulate the reader's interest in symbolism, further researches will amply be repaid through the wealth of meaning to be found in every rug, vase, and ornament coming from the Orient.
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