On April 10 1949 the Cambridge–trained Indian palaeobotanist Birbal Sahni died after a massive heart attack. His death at the early age of 57 came only days after the then Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had laid the foundation stone of what was later to become known as the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany. Each year, on the anniversary of Birbal Sahni’s death, wreaths are laid at the spot in the grounds of the Institute where he was cremated in accordance with Hindu custom. This year I was privileged to take part in this event that was preceded by an ancient ceremony of prayers and purification.

I did not know quite what to expect when I arrived in the main entrance foyer of the Institute because laid out on the floor beneath the soaring curved staircase were mattresses covered in white sheets surrounding a temporary hearth that had been constructed the previous day. Sitting on the sheets, cross-legged were the staff of BSIP and directly next to the hearth were the BSIP Director, his wife, and a Brahmin priest.

The ceremony began with the priest chanting ancient shlokas, rhythmic poetic prayers, in Vedic Sanskrit.  Sanskrit is the oldest continuously spoken language in the world and as early as 1500 BC its structure, as preserved in the oldest Hindu texts known as the Vedas, is so refined that it clearly has a common older source. Sanskrit is the basis of religious texts in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is the oldest known member of the Indo-European family of languages.

As the prayers proceeded and incense sticks were ignited, offerings of rose petals, ghee, sugar solution, and rice were prepared. Then small dry branches of mango wood were arranged within the hearth and set alight. As the smoke rose throughout the building and the prayers continued, we all added the offerings of herbs and other aromatic elements to the fire. I have no knowledge of Sanskrit but I can say that the rhythmic sounds of it expertly spoken were incredibly soothing.  

Sanskrit rythmic poetic prayers and perfumed smoke permeate the BSIP building. Copyrighted image Credit: Bob Spicer
Sanskrit rythmic poetic prayers and perfumed smoke permeate the BSIP building

The prayers were ones for the general well-being, not only of the staff and the Institute, but for all humankind and our shared planet. The concept of such a ceremony is one of purification. There are sixteen such ceremonies in the life of a Hindu marking critical stages in the passage through life. What I was witnessing is the last in this succession. The sounds of the prayers and aroma of the perfumed smoke carried to all parts of the building cleansing and purifying. It was a ceremony that brought everyone together in a common purpose.

The ceremony concluded with the priest tying a length of hand-spun thread, dyed yellow with turmeric and red with turmeric mixed with lime, around our wrists, right hand wrists for the men and left hand wrists for the women. This was a symbol of our common purpose and a reminder of what we had participated in. In the past few days as I have been wearing mine, several people not connected with BSIP have asked how I came to have such a symbol. I have been pleased to explain.