Burroteka / January 22, 2020

Teak in India: A History of Tradition

“So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds.” – Mark Twain

India is truly one of the most exotic, complex, and culturally rich nations on Earth. For centuries, the region has fascinated visitors from all over the world, from artists and musicians to statesmen, authors, and religious leaders. India possesses a strong sense of spiritual  identity, and elaborately constructed temples and shrines decorate its diverse landscapes. These great works are among India’s most prized historical patrimonies, and many share a common feature – the use of teak wood. 

Teak wood is deeply embedded in the architectural and religious traditions of India.  Teak in India is used for a variety of applications, from the construction of temples and shrines to traditional artisanry to ancient medicinal practices. In fact, teak leaves, bark, and seeds are still used in traditional Indian medicine to this day. The tree features a variety of holistic properties, and is used to treat conditions such as bronchitis, indigestion, and anuria. 

In the animist belief systems of India and other regions of Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, teak wood itself was said to be a vessel for jinns or khodam, powerful and benevolent guardian spirits which were believed to protect against ailment and misfortune. To harness the power of these spirits, the native peoples would build special talismans imbued with holy inscriptions. Only spiritual masters were allowed to craft these special amulets, and the failure to follow strict religious guidelines could result in severe misfortune for the disobedient practitioner.

Teak wood has been used as the principal building material in a number of India’s most recognized architectural sites, such as the Swaminarayan Temple in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gurajat. This temple, the first built by the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism, features intricate carvings of historical and religious imagery, and is replete with teak sculptures of gods, prophets, and sacred icons. Completed in 1822, the temple is one of the more recent examples of teak architecture in India; nonetheless, it is an awe-inspiring and beautiful locale. 

Another example of teak use, also from the Gurajat region, is the magnificent Vadi Parshvanatha temple, a notable site of the Jainist faith. The intricate woodwork is all carved from teak, and features spellbinding architectural ensembles depicting battle scenes, music and dancing, and mythological events. Consecrated in 1596, the temple features some of the finest teak woodworking anywhere, some of which have been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Indian teak has historically been prized by foreigners, who quickly realized the value of its unique combination of durability, workability, and beautiful aesthetic appearance. There are records of a teak trade in India as far back as 300 BC, when the ancient Persians acquired teak for shipbuilding. Europeans also realized the superiority of teakwood for shipbuilding, and the Portuguese began trading for it not long after Vasco de Gama reached India in 1497. In the Arab world, the houses of Saud and Oman favored teak, mostly for decorative purposes, and traded heavily for it in the 17th century. 

In India, teak is more than simply a preferred building material – it is an integral part of the nation’s ancient traditions, from architecture to spirituality to medicine. The long and fascinating history of teak use in India clearly demonstrates the unique relationship that Indians have with the wood, and strongly supports the notion that teak use in India will continue to thrive well into the future.

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