Sitting under a Banyan Tree

More than 70% population lives in villages. In the olden days, when there were no facilities like television, radio etc, then people in the villages devised ways to entertain them. The menfolk sat under the cool shade of the trees, smoke the hookah and converse with each other. They would talk about all the things under the Sun like their family matters which in any case were not private matters, about the condition of crops and irrigation water, untimely rains which visited to damage their crops. It was a culture in which individuality was a second priority and collective or commonality was the norm.

Women on the other hand slogged all day and night in the homes tending to hearth, rearing multitudes of children, milking the animals, and so many other things. Only time they were together was when they gathered at the village well for fetching the water in the pitchers. There they will banter about their travails and amorous things and other scandalous things like who had run away with whom and illicit liaisons. They spent long time there. Another activity which brought them together was washing the clothes on the stones or steps of the shores of rivers,  tanks and wells.

Most important of the trees where the menfolk whiled away their time was Banyan tree which almost every village had near a temple or any other religious place. Mostly elderly people sat there. The name Banyan is derived from the “Bania” which is trading community and they used to take rest under these trees while going from village to village.

Banyan is a very large tree, spreading by aerial roots which as they age eventually become additional trunks and help in sucking the nutrients and thus expanding the girth of the tree. In fact the secondary  roots act like its feet and the tree can over the years walk from its original location. They have a very long life span. Older trees can reach more than 200m in diameter, covering an area of some hectares with a height of 30 meters.

In contrast to its huge size, the fruits – called figs are only about 1.8cm in diameter orange-red turning scarlet when ripe. They have hardly any stalks so grow very close to the branches. The ripe fruits are very popular with birds and monkeys and are eaten by humans in times of famine.

The tree is commonly found in south east Asia and venerated particularly by Hindus and Buddhists. It is known by many names like Banyan in  English, Bahupada, vata in Sanskrit, Bar, bargad, bor in  Hindi, Bar, bot in  Bengali, Vad, vadlo, vor in Gujurati, Vada, wad, war in Marathi, Marri, peddamarri, vati in Telugu, Al, Alam in Tamil, Ala, alada mara, vata in Kannada, Alo, vatan in Malayalam.

Its botanical name is Ficus benghalensis and it belongs to the fig family Moraceae.Generally, it cohabits with another sacred tree called Pipul.

The tree features in many myths. The tree represents eternal life because it supports its expanding canopy by growing special roots from its branches. These roots hang down and act as props over an ever widening circle, reflecting the Sanskrit name bahupada, meaning ‘one with many feet’.

In Hinduism, tree represents immortality and there are many stories about it in ancient literature. In a song called the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ or ‘Song of the Lord‘, Krishna uses the banyan tree as a symbol to describe the true meaning of life to the warrior hero Arjuna. Banyan is viewed by Hindus as the male plant to the closely related peepul or bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). It is regarded as a sin to destroy either of these trees. It is commendable for a person to plant a young banyan close to a peepul, and this is done with a ceremony similar to that of marriage. It is customary to place a piece of silver money under the roots of the young banyan.

Banyan is mentioned in the Buddhist Jataka tales. In the tale of Satyavan and Savitri, Satyavan lost his life beneath the branches of a banyan. Savitri courageously entered into a debate with Yama, the God of Death, and won his life back. In memory of this couple, in the month of Jyestha during May and June, the tree is celebrated. Married women visit a banyan and pray for the long life of their husbands.

The tree is associated with the life of the 15th century saint Kabir. A giant tree is said to have sprung from a twig he had chewed. People of all religions use its great leafy canopy to meditate or rest. It is said that the wise Markandeya found shelter under it during a torrential downpour.

Minor deities such as yakshas (tree spirits), Kinnaras (half-human, half-animal) and gandharvas (celestial musicians) are believed to dwell in the branches on banyan trees. Ghosts and demons are also associated with its branches. Because it is believed that many spirits are harboured in the banyan, people do not sleep under it at night.

The tree parts like stem and leaves are used to make many medicine in India.


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