Remembering the People of Palm on Palm Sunday.

A Palmyra perspective in Tamil Nadu Context.

Human life is deeply connected with nature, and palms are one among the plant kingdom that served the humanity with its renewable resources for a long period in human history. There are over 2000 varieties of palms all over the world serving the humanity in the tropical region. Palms are considered as renewable energy and for ages humanity has depended on the yields of palms for their sustenance.

In many ancient civilizations palm was an important economic source as it provided the best storable food, wine and so many utensils for the daily usage. So, the culture was very much intertwined with palms, which resulted in palm gaining religious significance. Palm family has been playing a significant role in all the major religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism .Thus it gained a significant metaphor to unite people.

Bible mentions palms in various occasions and when we closely look into it we can draw so many incidents that are connected with it. Wherever Bible mentions of Palm it points out to the Date Palm (Phonix Dactylifera). Mentioning of palm trees are coming with significant interval but from the book of Exodus till the last book we find the presence of Palm in the Bible. In this reading, I would like to bring the connection with the Biblical significance of Biblical Palms to the species of Palmyra Palm and the people connected to it.

Palm Sunday is a significant celebration for Catholic and protestant Christians. The palms are predominantly a tropical or desert plant hence in such celebrations other branches were also used where palms were not found. So, the day was also called on the branches that were used in the specific locality. In some parts of Tamil Nadu the church goers use the tender leaf of Palmyra palm (Borassus Flabellifer) and go for the procession to announce the jubilant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and calling it as “kuruththolai njayiru” which literally means “tender palm leaf Sunday”. The word palm is hidden behind the word “olai” that is another word for leaf which points only to the leaf of Palm.

“Olai” has got cultural significance in Tamil Nadu according to different context. When palmyra leaf was cut into pieces for writing purposes, it will be called differently according to its sizeas Muri, narukku, neettal.The smallest for messages, and bigger for writing books and biggest for official documents. Olai stands for “message” and that varies to different kinds of message when it prefixed with a word. Thirumana Olai – Wedding Invitation is written in a leaf and the four corners will be coloured by turmeric to announce the “mangala” auspicious news. Thootholai – a kind of official message between kings where the emblem of the king will be present whereas when it was sent between lovers they will have their own personal code such as adding a flower or so. Saavoolai – a message that carries/ announces death, and it will be burned at the edges. Even today, “Olai vasiththal” literally means, reading the leaf, which is a common term used by the church goers for reading the banns in Tamil Nadu.

Apart from this, the leaves are having three stages in a tree; they are kurutholai, sarolai and kavolai. They are namely the tender leaf, the green leaf and the dried leaf. In a palmyra palm one can find twelve to twenty four green leaves and two to ten dried leaves if not pruned in a season.. There will be only one kuruththolai found in a tree. Kuruththolai is the fresh tender Palmyra leaf, before spreading pointing towards sky, like folded hands. This is the way Tamil people greet others when they meet each other or a respectable one. They are Ivory in color and the fragrance that comes out of it is desirable for the locals.

The Palmyra leaf was used for making umbrellas in ancient time. Until 1980s it was available in south Tamil Nadu. A righteous king’s rule is called as “venkorrak kudai” which means white umbrella rule. When the umbrellas were made of palm leaves, its obvious that with tender Palmyra palm leaves, the umbrellas were made. And for any festivals and functions tender Palmyra leaf was displayed as “thoranam” – decoration.

The tender Palmyra leaf is also treasured and much valued in baking foods. Especially in the month of karthikai (December – January), people collect tender and fresh Palmyra leaf to bake rice cake and share it with friends and family, a celebration that continues till today.

Palmyra palm is called as Tal in Sanskrit. The Tamil word thali, derived from the word tal. In ancient days, the bridegroom will knot the bride with a rope connected to a palm leaf document of the marital status written on it. The root word of English Talisman came from Sanskrit Tal, the Palmyra palm.

All the above factors say that the tender leaf got significance in the Tamil society hence in the Tamil translation; they have added the word “tender” – kuruththu as prefix to olai. Tenderness got so much of meaning within, as it is pure, fresh, new beginning, uniqueness, fragrant, long life, centre, connectivity, binding, joyous, festivity, richness, royal and so on.

It is notable that, only when a community is deeply associate themselves as their livelihood and survival, they add more meaning to it. The tender leaf has got such a rich meaning for Tamils and so it is probable, when the people waved the palm branches, similar meanings will be found in our reading. In this line, if we read the Gospels, we will be able to dig the meaning associated with the waving of Palm branches to Jesus.

All the four Gospels mentions about the Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Mathew marks a place called Bethphage, where Jesus arrived on his way to Jerusalem. Bethphage means “house of ( unripe)figs”. Fig is a symbol of Jews and it can be found in and around Jerusalem. Harvesting fig is also mentioned in the Bible. On his arrival he commissioned two of his disciples “go to the village in front of you”. Matthew also point out that “Many people also spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road” (21: 8) It is probable that the people of Bethphage followed Jesus to Jerusalem.

Mark begins this way… “When they drew near to Jerusalem and arrived at Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples with these instructions, “go to the village on the otherside and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied upon that no one has ridden” ( 11: 1,2). Here we find Bethany became the adjacent village to Bethphage. Bethany means House of Dates. It is possible to find villages having clusters of palm trees together.

“The Boundaries between adjacent domains are seldom sharp. Adjesent domains often exhibit transition zones in which ecological conditions vary gradually” [1]

The story connects the village where Jesus was staying became a junction of plants that gives fruit, juice, wine and many other useful things for the sustenance of the people. Also the nearby village had domesticated animals, the best known transporter of burden in Ancient Near East. These two clues points out the labor or the industriousness of the people who belong to that places. One can assume that the villages had a complete agricultural backdrop and self sufficient economy which is an outcome of their labor. Their cry, towards Jesus cannot be taken away from this context.

In v.12 we also see the mentioning of Fig tree. The passage gives the rich diversity of Palestinian flora on Jesus way to Jerusalem.

Luke confirms the above in 19: 28 -36. But he is not mentioning of spreading the branches on Jesus’ way, but he mentions the spread of cloaks. One can very well understand that Luke omits the branches but there is no denial of spreading the branches in the text.

John gives an additional detail towards this. “The next day a great number of pilgrims who had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. So they took the branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.   (12: 12, 13) the additional information here given is “Branches of Palm” which is the reason that made us to call the day palm Sunday.

Palmyra palm is abundantly found in Africa and Asia and they are coming under 5 subspecies. Borassus aethiopum is found in Benin, Burkinia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Ethiopia, Chana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Provinces, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.  Found across  sub-Saharan Africa as far south as northern South Africa.

Borassus flabellifer, the Asian palmyra palmtoddy palm, or sugar palm, is native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, including NepalIndiaBangladeshSri LankaCambodiaLaosBurmaThailandVietnamMalaysiaIndonesia and the Philippines. It is reportedly naturalized in PakistanSocotra, and parts of China.

In India, Palmyra palm is found in many parts such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra, Maharashtra, Bihar, Gujarat, Orissa and West Bengal. It has been announced as the state tree of Tamilnadu since 1971. Palakkad District of Kerala has been popularly known as karumpanikaluda nadu which is the country of palmyra palm. Andhra Pradesh has got a great number of palmyra climbing labourers after Tamil Nadu. In Orissa, people make patachitra,a very beautiful ,traditional pictorial depictions in palm leaf.

Palmyra is considered as the karpaka viruksham ,a mythical and divine tree that can give whatever we want. It is very synonymous as the biblical palm is considered to provide everything an Arab wants, the Palmyra palm is known for providing edible and non-edible things to the people depending on it. Arunachalam of Kumbakonam, a 8th century poet, wrote an anthology Thalavilasam which mentions the 801 uses of Palmyra palm.

In India old literatures were written in Palmyra leaves. It was the medium for sending messages between kings. Up to 1970s some of the property documents were written in palm leaves in South Travencore. Even in modern times, the horoscopes were written and preserved in palm leaves because; it has got a longer shelf life than paper. It is mentioned by the Agrawal, the well know Archeologist that Palmyra leaf got a shelf life of 400 years. The long life of the leaf and its literary contribution brought the leaf more meaningful significance among the people of India.

Next to agriculture and weaving, Palmyra palm is the most widely employment generating industry in India. In late 1980s it was considered to employ 65,00,000 people which is 1 percent of Indian population. The Industry was discarded with the upcoming development of the world and people are finding the other opportunities by losing a traditional use of this tree.  Over 7 croers of Palmyra palm were found in Tamil Nadu in which over 2 crores have been cut down for brick kilns in the past 30 years.

The life around Palmyra palm is always a struggle for a climber and his family. A climber ascends and descends 40- 50 trees that are 30 meters high, twice a day. The climbers are prone to falling and the result would be death or becoming a human vegetable. With the harvested nectar of the Palmyra palm the family collects firewood and makes a hard day labor to make jaggery. It was also considered as a very menial job culturally. Even though the palmyra products are valued very high the workers were never paid high or respected for their occupation. Dr. T. A. Davis who did a remarkable research in Palmyra palm came to a conclusion that “Palmyra and poverty goes together”. This economical change can be found in the Biblical sequence and we can find the spiritual significance of the palms that we are commonly going to find. The above back drop will be very significant to understand before we go into the “Palm Sunday”.

The trial of Jesus was not only religious but also political. His religious rivalries made him as a political victim and wanted to punish him politically. The important allegation against Jesus was that, he was against paying tax to Caesar. In this………….. Passage, we see how the Temple is having prohibited coins in its territory. The religious leaders who put down the tax collectors were hand and gloves with the Roman authorities, the reason behind the heavy taxation.

Roman government was in need of tax from the common people to maintaining its Army, its Social amenities, Build Roads, Markets and to maintain its cultural events.  Its been said that 1/ 10 of the grains, 1/5 of Wine and Fruit has to be paid as Tax.  Palm tree climbers were comes under this category of 1/5 as they get dates as well as wine from the palm. Fig and Grape farmers were affected along with this. The tax was unbearable for them. It is through Jesus the friend of Tax collectors, people realized that the Tax collectors should not be blamed but the Roman Government that builds a massive army and gigantic constructions should be blamed. The hierocracy of the  of the religious leaders should be blamed.

In Tamil Nadu, the climbing community was facing heavy taxation in late 1800s. In modern times, the Government sells the chemical beverages, but never aids the climbing community. The survival of the climbers is at verge. And there is no one to raise their voice as the church is silenced about their problem but celebrates the Palm Sunday with a loud cry – Hosanna.

Church has made a ritual of Palm Sunday and lost its meaning. We have been witnessing that it has been plucking out its leaves. Never in the history of the church can one witness that the church is planting palm seedlings. The Church celebrates the Palm Sunday and forgets how it’s related with Ecology and celebrates Ecology Sunday separately. The church was eagerly getting the sweet “karuppati kaniikai” (Jaggery offering) in Kanyakumary district of Tamilnadu, as an offering, but never bothered about the life of jaggery maker which is getting bitter. A meditation of this season should make us to work within the context and not repeating just what has been done. Save us from the clutches of the bondage of ritualistic practices and thinking beyond will help us to free the people under the bondage and celebrate the tree of life.

The people of the Palm Sunday were close to nature, and living in the outskirts of Jerusalem. They were taxed by the Roman rulers heavily which put them in to edges. They never had a horse which is a symbol of Roman power structure, but they had a close affinity with the peace bringing Donkey in their midst. Their life was filled with renewable resources which made them to live in a great coexistence with nature, whereas the Greek had their knowledge and Power that enslaved others by taxing. Jesus wanted to be a part of the people of the palm and nature but not with the people of the powers. He wanted to bring their life back to a celebration of nature. He knew if he walks towards Jerusalem along with them, his survival will be questioned, yet he chooses that way. Jesus was not belonging to a climbing community, yet he was raised in a tree in the process of saving those who followed him.

Rev. Godson

[1] Hillel, Daniel., The Natural History of the Bible, An environmental Exploration of the Bible., Columbia University Press., New York. P14.