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DS Jaspal – Retracing his roots

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Damanbir Singh Jaspal, Principal Secretary (with a rank of Chief Secretary), waits in his room for some towels that he has sent for. He is dressed in a modest light green shirt, with a plain green turban wrapped on his head. His beard is neatly tucked away, and with the serious looking spectacles on his nose, he can be easily mistaken for a visiting professor staying at the Punjab University Executive Club. The only thing that glints in his appearance is his gold watch, loud but sleek but his sophisticated and well kept appearance is only incongruous with his haphazard surroundings.

Most odd for anyone is the large plant that has taken up almost one corner of the room, right between the striped brown sofas, and Jaspal’s suitcase, which lies yawning open, so that this plant can be cut into the right size, wrapped in a wet towel, and transported along with him to the Wagah Border and subsequently to Chandigarh, India. In fact one cannot miss this plant, as its leafy scent pervades the room just upon entrance.

“This is a beri tree-cutting that someone kindly brought to me from Sialkot last night,” says Jaspal. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to get this but coincidently I did. Now once I get back, I’ll see that it gets put into the root trainers as soon as possible so we can clone it later.” Even though Jaspal says the Quran too has mentioned a herb or two, where it upholds trees as part of nature, Sikhism is perhaps the only religion that actively endorses the protection of trees, relating to them spiritual evolution, and preserving within them heritage, environment, beauty, majesty and history all in one.

These trees are those under which the Sikh gurus have rested and sought shelter under, while their scriptures and legends mention forests where the military often passed from during wars. “Gurus often took rest under these trees and met with others under their leafy shade,” informs Jaspal. “As a result Sikh followers have erected gurdwaras in respect of these trees, such as the Ambh Sahib and the Beri Sahib. But the sad part is that many of these trees have died or have been suffocated thanks to several other reasons.”

“Air is the guru, Water is the father and Earth is the great mother,” reads a line from the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib. It declares that the purpose of human beings is to achieve a blissful state and to be in harmony with nature. Furthermore the Gurus inferred that it is not the girth, size, or beautiful flowers that determine the significance of a tree but its usefulness that makes it important.

The trees that have sanctity in Sikhism include Bohr (Ficus Bengalensis), Pipli (Ficus Religiosa), Jand (Prosopis Spicigera), Garna (Capparis Horrida), Karir (Capparis Aaaphylla), Phalahi (Acacia modeta), Reru (Mimasa Leucophloea), Luhura (Cordia latifolia), Tahli (Shisham), Imli (Tamarind), Amb (Mangifera Indica), Harian Velan, Neem (Margassa), Ritha (Sapindus Mukorosa), Kalp (Mitragina Parvifolia) and Ber (Zizyphus Jujube).

Four of the most sacred trees associated with the Sikh shrines, namely Beri of Dukh Bhanjani, Beri of Sri Harmandir Sahib, Beri of Baba Budha (also of Sri Harmandir Sahib), Beri of Gurdwara Ber Sahib of Sultanpur Lodhi and Beri of Lachi Ber of Sri Harmandir Sahib highlight the role that trees have played in Sikh history. But this is not the only reason that led Jaspal to literally create a museum of trees. The first sparks of his interest in trees started when he was Minister of Forests. “I had a thought; a kind of realization that many of our gurdwaras are named after trees.

The Imli Sahib, the Ambh Sahib, and the Taali Sahib in Lahore; and these are sacred trees. But no one gave a thought to why these trees were connected to the shrines. So I began my research work, and I found out that at least 59 shrines were named after about 19 trees, and some of these trees don’t even exist any longer, while some of these shrines are untraceable.” Japsal for one means the Gurdwara Taahli Sahib, which he knew was located somewhere in Lahore, but since the tree was gone, no one knew any more where the shrine was. Still he stresses that his interest in the preservation of trees is ‘secular’.

“Religion may have a link with this interest of mine, but trees are important, trees must be preserved. Most of the people who have bought my book online are non-Sikhs, and none of my tree exhibitions have ever been held at Gurdwaras,” he claims. But at the same time, in paving Gurdwaras with marble, many of these ancient trees have been felled and an important part of Sikh heritage has been destroyed. The mango tree at Mohali’s shrine Ambh Sahib is now nothing but a stump.

THE MUSEUM: In order to scientifically preserve and propagate sacred trees and herbs which have social, religious, and cultural significance, the Chandigarh Nature and Health Society, a registered non-profit-organisation, has helped Jaspal in establishing the museum in Chandigarh, with support from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and the Botanical Survey of India.

The Museum of Trees has a large collection of trees, and its saplings, some nailed to the wall at eye level, accompanied by text that explains their background, benefits and history. Others are reproduced in multimedia form, especially those that have died. There are living historical trees, dead historical trees (represented in images) sacred trees and sacred herbs. There are healing and medicinal herbs and now Jaspal is beginning to work on kitchen herbs too. Most are not allowed to be touched while others such as the ‘chooi mooi’ or the morning glory, must be touched in order to see its characteristics.

The museum tells the story - the myths, customs, traditions and historical events - behind every tree that is planted outdoors or exhibited indoors. In the case of the Beri tree that Jaspal is taking with him, DNA from this plant extract could result in a cloned tree, so that the tree in Pakistan could be preserved in exactly the same form, and can also be represented in India. Complicated as it may sound, it is in fact not, and is the most intriguing new concept anyone has ever thought of.

For saplings or tree cuttings, Jaspal says he puts them first in roots trainers which are small plastic containers fertilized by a natural fertiliser from Kerala called Vermiculite. “After that we put it in the Mist Chamber, and rooting expectantly occurs after 2 months,” he explains. “Then we take it in the net house and place it there for two or three months.” Meanwhile, the towels have come and Jaspal has wrapped his beri tree cuttings in the damp towel. The leaves are already withered.

He hopes that by discovering more of these ancient trees, and not just those related to Sikhism, but also others in other parts of the world, he can help preserve them, so that one day, no tree can ever be extinct. Japsal’s love for trees more as a part of culture and heritage rather than any other reasons should be infectious everywhere in South Asia. In order to create a healthy community, to conduct research, and academic studies and to conserve history and environment tree preservation must become more common.

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