What an amazing tapestry of historical European and Indian mystics and activists I’ve encountered in the last few days! My host college scheduled two “walks” for me and colleagues at the Theosophical Society of Adyar and the Kalakshetra Foundation, also in the Adyar area. We discovered an array of odd Europeans invading India and it’s mystical traditions, with the money and influence to create their own realities in 19th Century India.
The Theosophical Society was founded in the late 19th century by a Russian noblewoman who delved into paranormal activities, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and her American friend, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a Civil War veteran, prominent lawyer and journalist. The society was both an occult group that practiced spiritual healing and seances, and a “Brotherhood of Man” society that believed that all religions were one. Blavatsky and Olcott purchased land here in Chennai in the late 1800s and started building – the land was wild jungle along the ocean, uninhabited and full of birds and trees and wildlife.
Later, the famous Annie Besant, an Irish activist and socialist, got turned on to Theosophy and became the President. She was a full energy firebrand! Besant moved to India and got involved in helping Indians oppose British rule; helped uplift women; worked to oppose the caste system; and became the first President of the Indian National Congress! The 200 year old central building on this almost 300-acre property is amazing, with tall ceilings and emblems of all the major world religions. But… the place seemed, quiet, empty, a relic of the past.
Our tour guide was a retired forestry professor, a passionate conservationist. He told us how the area had been a wetlands jungle full of birds and animals and trees. He is a volunteer at the property, helping to conserve and maintain the native plants and animals in the area. He told us about the many trees native to the area- and the HUGE banyan tree- the second largest tree in Asia! He decried India’s unsustainable development, the lack of care for water and land and flora and fauna. It felt to me as though India had left him and nature behind- very sad! But the protected landscapes of the Theosophical Society were beautiful! The grounds boast the second largest banyan tree in South Asia, taking up the size of a huge city block and more.
During our tour of the 290 acre grounds, we encountered the Cannonball Tree, with very lovely fragrant flowers. The exotic flower is called the Shiva Lingam flower. The flower contains an inner area with a penis-like protrusion and curving petals overhead that look like the cobras that typically are seen curving over the head of the God Shiva. Scholars say that the Lingam is NOT a representation of the male penis, but rather an ancient pillar-like representation of universal creation and energy. You’ll have to decide what you think! But this is a TINY lingam in this flower! This huge tree has “cannonballs”- I think these flowers become the cannonballs- not edible.