Half-term Holidays: Trees, Gardens, and Violins

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London

This past week has been the school half-term holidays and I’ve been mixing service at the temple with some overdue time with my son, Mali, 11. My daughters Tulasi, 19, and Jahnavi, 21, have both been extremely busy as usual, studying at their respective London universities. This week Tulasi has been learning about Caesarean sections ( and witnessing some new procedures in that field) and Jahnavi has been polishing a piece of English coursework as well as a few days work assignment with a children’s speech therapist. They’ve also both been rehearsing their dance school’s piece for a London-wide bharatanatyam show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank tonight. Prestigious venue.

If that wasn’t enough, Jahnavi has also been practising her Carnatic violin pieces for last night’s south Indian music concert at the Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip. Her teacher, Sri Gnanasundaram, disciple of the acclaimed violinist Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman, certainly puts on a good show. All the students of his Nadasuddha school were there last night, all clean, sparkling and well rehearsed. Violins, vinas, mridangams, and flutes all polished and tuned. Beginners began the evening and accomplished students completed it along with their teacher playing on stage. All I had to do, apart from show up and listen, was to perform the arati ceremony on stage while the last piece was being played. It was a bhajan by Tyagaraja concerning the importance of developing love for Sri Ramachandra. I used an awful lot of camphor for the arati flame and when I turned toward the 300 Tamils in the audience I think they appreciated that southern touch.

Afterwards I was approached by some asking if I could say prayers for their loved ones back in Sri Lanka. They had not heard from them and had heard much bad news from the war-torn north of the island. Of course I said I would, and did so this morning. A fund-raising concert will be held on the evening of 14th March at the same venue.

But I was speaking of Mali wasn’t I? We got to spend some good time together this week. In amongst other things, one day was spent at Kew Gardens. My wife, Guru Charana Padma (Guru to old friends, Padma to younger ones) is a keen gardener and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have to be amongst the best in the world for conservation and research. There are two Vaishnavas who work there now, and one, Krishan, is involved in a project to preserve all the world’s seeds at very low temperetaures in bomb-proof bunkers. The way the world is going we will need those seeds some day. There is a sister project like this in Scandinavia too. It is Kew’s 250th anniversary this year, marking its origins in 1759 with Augusta, the Princess of Wales.

Mali likes science, maths and nature and is at home in places where he can explore animals, fish, and a wide variety of plants. He’d brought a friend along and the first place they wanted to go was the new Treetop Walk. It’s a long way up at 90 feet above ground and I gulped a few times when walking up the spiral staircase. The trick, as always, is not to look down.

It was a cold day, so we next made for the temperate glass pavilion, followed by the tropical. The Kew gardeners are very good at what they do, and it was like being in India with huge banana trees, date palms, henna bushes, jasmine, jackfruit, tulasi and so many more. Then Africa and Australia – all once former British colonies. There was a special section for Lord Howe’s Island in New Zealand, ‘the last paradise on Earth.’ Certainly looked heavenly. Over then to the Princess of Wales Pavilion, which is more or less heaven with hundreds of differently shaped and coloured orchids.

Orchid display at Kew Gardens. Photo by Niran Nana

Emily Bronte compares beautiful fragrant roses to love, and holly to friendship, with the former as the inferior of the two. Why? Because roses bloom and disappear while holly remains bright and green always. She even wrote a poem about it. At Kew there is a Holly Walk with all the world’s species of holly on display. On a cold day, I could appreciate her words.

My next outing with Mali was to the forest. More precisely, to take part in an aerial assault course known by the cheery, rather innocent name of Go Ape. Erected in nearby Wendover Woods on the road to Aylesbury, it is, quite possibly, one of the most frightening things an adult can do for fun. Someone obviously clever said that you should do one thing every day that scares you. Yesterday I did enough for 39 days – all of them 40-50 feet up in the air.

After half an hour of safety training from a young man who looked like he climbs mountains before breakfast for fun, we tried out our newly accquired skills with carabinos, D-rings, and zip-wire pulleys and various ropes. Fully togged out in safety harnesses, and with the holy name of Sri Narasimha, the protector of the devotees, on our lips, we gradually climbed into the forest canopy and the early morning sunshine.

Again I found that being scared of falling, a painful death, and possible rebirth as a pine tree is a very good way to instantly take shelter of Krishna. I can recommend it to you, dear reader. And should you be slightly disconcerted by the mental image of a mature sadhaka walking the tightrope, swinging on a rope through space into a net, or crawling through swinging wooden barrels while trying not to look down at the dizzying forest floor miles beneath him, can I say that it it a great way to rise above the mind. You control your mind – or you suffer.

Mali and I did get a few moments to talk while we were up in the trees. We talked of how important it is in life to stay connected to Krishna, just as we took care to stay clipped on to the cables with our carabinos. That you can rise above fear (which is ‘what might happen’) by focusing your mind on the goal (which is ‘what I want to happen.’) And most important lesson of all: leaping off a tree into space is much more fun when you chant: GAURANGA!

After three 500 feet-long zipwire nightmares through the tops of the trees, by which point my flesh had turned to jelly, Mali turned to me with a big smile and said: “That was great, when can we do it again?”

(For a view of the zipwire nightmare see below)

(And for Carnatic violin in concert see below)


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