My paternal side of the family comes from an extensive line of farmers. They were notable for growing eggplants, but they held all sorts of agricultural knowledge. My maternal side of the family has a hushed history of female kobiraj/ natural medicine practitioners. General folk knowledge was passed through mothers and mothers-in-law.
Much of this “folk knowledge” would peek into my life as I was growing up in New Jersey–especially through our garden. It didn’t matter where we lived, we would always grow something somewhere even if it was just germinating seeds for other people. My parents would go to great measures to bring back seeds of vegetables they could not find in the US–specifically gourds and beans– from Bangladesh whenever they visited.
I would watch my dad till the soil carefully making sure every inch of it was cared for. “Loosen up the soil so it can breathe,” he would say. When he was young, he would help his father, who was a farmer and school teacher, cultivate the land. “Don’t water the plants during the midday heat or noon sun. You wouldn’t want anyone to water you and leave you to sweat and wilt in the heat, would you? The best time to water is early in the morning or late at night.”
I grew up being told plants have feelings just like humans. My mother would apologize to a plant when she needed to uproot and transfer it to another location. “They feel shock when they get displaced.” There was also a proper time for picking vegetables and flowers. “Don’t pick things off plants before the sun comes up or after it sets. Plants sleep and are more sensitive during those times. Pick them during the day when they are awake and can be prepared to be picked. Plants cry, feel pain, and get angry.”
Bengali scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose did scientific experiments to prove sensitivity in plants. In his essay “Human Elements in Plants” published in the September 1915 issue of The Hindusthanee Student (Vol. 2, No. 1) through his electric response experiments says, “that every plant and every organ of the plant is sensitive.” More sensitive than a human being. It sounds like my parent’s folk farming knowledge is not farfetched.
My late grandmother had several plant rituals and many narratives involving plants and trees ranging from medicinal recipes, rituals for good luck, and stories about plants being homes to spirits. She used to pick flowers from seven different plants, put them in a jug or pot, stand in one corner of her home and pour it over her head or one of her children to ward off kharap nazar/ the evil eye.
She would make her children drink Neem leaf juice for a good immune system. Rabindranath Tagore similarly would be required to drink Neem juice in the morning as a boy and would continue so for the rest of his life. My mother used to tell me this story to get me to eat bitters as a child. The Neem tree was planted in my grandparents’ home precisely for easy access to the plant in times of quick fixes such as skin diseases and rashes. Leaves would be picked off, washed, grinded, and rubbed on the infected areas.
The Neem tree is also infamous for being an abode to spirits. I grew up hearing many stories involving trees and those who walked beneath them at the wrong times of night. The Neem, Banyan, and Palmyra palm are the most notorious. The Banyan tree’s long branches and hanging woody vines were called jot/ hair locks by my grandmother. There were many stories of people walking under the Banyan tree and getting caught by the Banyan trees locks and stories about jinn or bhut/ supernatural (malevolent and benevolent) ghost possessions of passersby of these trees.
David L. Haberman writes about tree worship and spirits across North India (also noting similarities in other traditions) in his book People Trees. In chapter four, he discusses many of the myths and beliefs I am familiar with regarding spirit and ancestor dwellings. He also mentions an encounter with a swami in the Himalayas who echoed my parents’ sentiments about plants being sensitive beings and sensitive human beings’ capacity to hear them too.
I used to feel very ashamed of my family’s rural agricultural roots and lore because it was portrayed as something less than, uneducated, or backwards. Now as an adult, I can deeply reflect on the wisdom of my ancestors as not contrary to modern development but complementary. They serve as reflective points to understand my cultural memory, history, and my connection to the environment.
Nazia Islam is a writer and artist from California. A graduate of anthropology and religion, she is a Bengali folk culture enthusiast and focuses her research in the subject area. She enjoys learning about Baul music and connecting with her religious ancestry through folklore she has inherited. She writes on her blog https://naztanu.wordpress.com/.
For further reading:
Agriculture, floriculture and botanical knowledge in a Middle Bengali text’. In: Ferrari, F.M. and T. Dähnhardt (eds) (2016). Roots of Wisdom, Branches of Devotion. Plant life in South Asian Traditions, pp. 241-269. London: Equinox.
Haberman, David L. People Trees: Worship of Trees in Northern India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Karim, Anwarul. “Shamanism in Bangladesh.” Asian Folklore Studies 47, no. 2 (1988): 277-309. doi:10.2307/1178280.