A village assembly under a banyan tree in Tamil Nadu (Photo: Alamy)
JUST OUTSIDE KOLKATA, it sprawls across 3.5 acres in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden. To someone approaching from the outside towards the green line that greets them, it is like a micro forest getting taller and wider by the minute. And yet it is but one tree that has patiently over the course of centuries spread itself like an immutable force of nature. Remarkably, the main trunk, the first one that took root and from which the efflorescence of the woods began, is not even there now. About 100 years ago, after being battered by cyclones and disease, it finally had to be removed so that the rest could survive. And it did, because by then, like a verdant hydra, thousands of other roots were present where there had just been one.
Yet, this is probably not even the largest banyan in India. There are five others that spread over a hectare. And the largest, the Guinness World Records informs us is located in the district of Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. It is called Thimmamma Marrimanu and its antecedents go even further back than The Great Banyan of Kolkata. “Legend has it that a woman named Thimmamma threw herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband in 1434 and one of the pyre poles spouted to become a young tree. Thimmamma Marrimanu’s combined crowns merge to occupy 2.19 hectares (5.41 acres), an area equivalent to three soccer fields. The roughly elliptical canopy spans approximately 190 m long by 145 m wide (623 x 476 ft) and is supported by nearly 4,000 prop roots,” says the Guinness World Records.
When the men and women who brought in independence were deciding on the national symbols that would represent the idea of India, the tree they fixed on was the banyan. It represented not just historical connection to the land and culture. Its very existence was a metaphor for Indian values. The banyan is permanence and growth; stretch that idea far enough and you get eternity which is how long a country ought to see itself thriving. A fully formed banyan, even those that don’t go on for acres, is awe-inspiring in its grandeur, like a wise old sage patiently standing through the ravages of time and extending its shade. It melds easily into the cultural and political imagination. Why else would Mahatma Gandhi, when calling for an end to civil disobedience after the violence of Chauri Chaura, include this line in one of his missives: “Satyagraha is like a banyan tree with innumerable branches. Civil disobedience is one such branch, satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) together makes the parent trunk from which all innumerable branches shoot out.”
The tree is ubiquitous to the soil of India and also at the centre of its life. In the West you have the public square as the gathering place of assemblies that then become where decisions of common interest are debated and taken, and that then leads to the idea of democracy itself. In India it is under the shade of the banyan tree that panchayats and village councils would meet—an echo of the same phenomenon by which human beings order political societies. The tree is intertwined with the beginnings of India. As Mike Shanahan writes in the book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees: “The sheer size and weird form of India’s banyans amazed Alexander (the Greek conqueror) and his men, but local people saw them as much more than impressive trees. The banyans had been part of the cultural fabric for thousands of years. Settlements had grown up around these trees. To bodies, they provided shelter, food and medicines. To minds, these awesome structures formed bridges to the supernatural. Gods and spirits moved among the banyan’s leaves and pillar roots. By 500 BCE, Hindu texts described a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan that grew upside down with its roots in the heavens, and its trunk and branches extending to earth to bring blessings to humankind.” The book then gives an example of the enduring religious sentiment the banyan retains. It says: “Another Hindu story from more than 2,500 years ago tells how a woman called Savriti convinced Yama, the god of death, to resurrect her husband who had died beneath a banyan tree. Today, married women in north India emulate Savitri’s devotion in an annual ceremony in which they tie coloured thread around a banyan tree while praying for the wellbeing of their husbands.”
Its association with the independence movement is somewhat antithetical when the British, during the 1857 first war of independence, hung Indian revolutionaries from the banyan tree. In Kanpur, for instance, the memorial of such a tree serves as a reminder of that time. It is in a place called Nanarao Park and the number of people who were strung to death from that tree is said to be 144. Its historical importance was known and the tree’s demise was becoming evident, but measures to save it never really bore fruit and, eventually, as often happens in this country, it became something of a farce. A Times of India report of 2012 had this to say: “After the freedom struggle, the ‘Shaheed Sthal’ was constructed in the name of the martyrs. Till just a few years back, this sole witness to the martyrdom of several revolutionaries used to stand tall in the heart of the city at Nanarao Park of Phool Bagh. But a few years back, it was reduced to a stump. At that time, local visitors and social activists demanded saving of the symbol of freedom struggle and glorious past of the city. Even TOI had highlighted the neglected state of the tree at that time some two years ago. After the hue and cry, the district administration had ordered the municipal authorities to construct a barricading around one small ‘keel’ (seed of Bargad) which according to them was the part of the historical Bargad tree.” But then it turned out that the seed was not of the old tree but of an entirely new one. And there was a telling comment by a government functionary that a tree could be kept alive only up to a point. Time will catch up with everything, even banyan trees.
Its association with freedom became more salutary after 1857 when Indian aspirations to be independent found form and traction. Political meetings in villages around chaupals were usually in the shade of the banyan tree, mute sentinels of a momentous journey. After independence, the tree was a fixture in mass movements. Consider the metaphor of the banyan that the great Gandhi follower and freedom fighter Vinoba Bhave makes about his Sarvodaya movement in independent India: “In one of the stories in the Upanishads a guru says to his disciple: ‘Bring a banyan fruit, break it open, and see what is inside it.’ The disciple sees a small seed in it. The guru says: ‘Break that open too and tell me what you see.’ The disciple does so, and says: ‘Now I can see nothing at all.’ Then the guru says: ‘From such an invisible nothing has sprung this great tree. This seed-power, this power at the core of the seed, that is the Atman (the soul), and that is what you too are.’ In the same way, the great tree of the people’s power will spring from the invisible seed-power in that little handful of grain.” Decades later when Anna Hazare, another mass mobiliser, began to wade into the waters of social and political reform, the banyan would be a witness to that, too.
It represented not just historical connection to the land and culture. Its very existence was a metaphor for Indian values. The banyan is permanence and growth
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Hazare began his reform movement from the village of Ralegan Siddhi at whose centre is a magnificent banyan tree, often a point for his sit-ins. In 2011, during the course of the India Against Corruption movement, he sat here doing a maun vrat even as the agitation stood at a crossroads after a successful mass mobilisation in Delhi earlier. He went into a withdrawal of sorts under the tree in October that year to replenish his energy. Political leaders are intimate with the banyan because they have to be—it is the shade under which social and political India breathes. You will, for instance, find numerous images of Narendra Modi under different banyan trees, from Auroville in Puducherry to Gandhinagar in Gujarat. But he is also compared to a banyan by both supporters and adversaries. Like Union Home Minister Amit Shah stating in Assam last year, “Modiji is like a great banyan tree under whose shade, the region is on its path of fulfilling the development goals set by him.” On the other hand, a news article of 2020 compared him to a banyan tree because no one else could grow under him. As with all symbols, we can read into it what we want but, for the nation, the tree represents its just virtues, what it used to be and what it ought to be. It is why in the courtyard of the just inaugurated new Parliament, a banyan remains planted at its centre.