The Sacred Trees of Madagascar

Article excerpt

THE people of Madagascar believe that a place without trees is a place of infertility and death. A source of food and wealth, trees are also inhabited by invisible forces with which human beings must come to terms.

The amontana and the aviavy, which are related to the sycamore and the fig-tree, are royal trees. They symbolize the life-force and epitomize power. Their flowers blossom and bear fruit before their leaves, which appear only when the fruit is ripe, as though to protect it from the sun. According to the elders, to reveal one's fruit and then conceal it beneath graceful foliage is the preeminent sign of royalty, which openly proclaims its designs for the good of the people, but then conceals them modestly because they are sacred.

The king's tree King Andriamanelo is thought to have been the first to plant these trees in his realm of Alasora, one of the twelve sacred hills of the Merina people. He made them a symbol of royalty and would not allow them to be planted anywhere but in the residences of kings or their representatives. He liked to say that the fruit of the aviavy left a bitter taste on the tongue, which then turned sweet. "May my kingdom," he said, "have this sweet aftertaste."

In Betsileo country, in the centre of Madagascar, when a king was enthroned an aviavy tree was planted to the east of his house, and when he died, his funeral ceremony took place beneath it. The royal family would then plant seedlings belonging to the same variety or produced by the original tree in order to perpetuate the memory of the dead king and symbolize his survival through his succession.

The hasina, or "dragon tree", has an important position in the mythology of northern Madagascar, on the east coast and in the highlands. The very name of this tree is synonymous with spirituality and especially with saintliness. It is connected with the cult practised by the earliest inhabitants of the island, the Vazimba, who are feared and consequently venerated by the population. Hasinas grow in the areas where the Vazimba used to live, or near their tombs, and the local people would not uproot or desecrate them for anything in the world.

Unlike the amontana or the aviavy, the hasina grows near the dwellings of kings and ordinary folk alike. It legitimizes the authority of the head of the household or of the village who plants it to the north-east of his dwelling, in the sacred plot reserved for the ancestors. As a general rule, the north is considered to be a noble and auspicious direction; it is linked to water, which symbolizes purity, life and prosperity.

On the north-east coast, among the Betsimisaraka people, the mandrorofo represents the permanence of life by virtue of its longevity, which is comparable to that of the oak or the sequoia. According to legend the mandrorofo, traditionally planted at the entrance to villages, is the primeval tree brought by the ancestors from distant indonesia and is thus the repository of the past. Since it came with the ancestors, surely it must be considered an ancestor itself? And since it still survives, it also casts its shadow into the future.

The bamboo, also considered a tree, represents the family. The young shoots that grow at its foot all year long stand for posterity, a paramount concern of the Malagasy people, who attach the highest importance to the perpetuation of their name and of their line. …