Vatavriksha: Tree with aerial roots

With a world of myth and belief associated with it, the majestic banyan
remains the most intriguing of Indian trees 

"The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renown’d;
But such as at this day, to Indians known,
In Malabar or Deccan spreads her arms
Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
The bended twigs take root,
And daughters grow
About the mother-tree, a pillar’d shade
High over-arch’d, and echoing walks between".

— Milton, Paradise Lost

ONE may call it by any of its numerous names — nyagrodha in Sanskrit, vata in Hindi, bargad in Urdu, peral in Tamil, or, in purely botanical terms, ficus bengalensis — the banyan remains the most intriguing of Indian trees. I was going through a book published in 1823 from Boston — Sketches of the Earth and Its Inhabitants by J. E. Worcester — which contains a truly sketchy account of India. The author talks about just a few things: among them, the rivers Ganges and the Indus, the cities of Calcutta, Delhi and Seringapatam, the Taj Mahal. But then swiftly he moves on to a long description of ‘the Banian or Banyan Tree’. "The Banian or Burr tree", it begins, "is considered one of the most curious and beautiful of nature’s productions. Each tree is in itself a grove, and some of them are of an amazing size. They are continually increasing, and seem to be exempted from decay; for every branch from the main body throws out its own roots, at first in small tender fibres, several yards from the ground, which continually grow thicker, until by a gradual descent, they reach the surface; where, striking in, they increase to a large trunk, from the top. These, in time, suspend their roots, and, receiving nourishment from the earth, swell into trunks, and shoot forth other branches; thus continuing in a state of progression so long as the first parent of them all supplies her sustenance." And so on it proceeds, most of it surely based on other accounts that the author might have read. Much else follows, to which I might return later. But what stands out even here is the astonishment with which foreigners saw this tree: roots coming down, endless expanse, whole groves and vistas forming underneath. And, of course, the worship that it received.

A Banyan Tree. Engraving by an unknown European artist; late 18th century
A Banyan Tree. Engraving by an unknown
European artist; late 18th century

Today, we might know of other parts of the world where this ‘fig tree’ also grows, but in early times India meant, for most people, the land where this ‘most wondrous’ tree grew. As early as AD 70, it was known to the Roman scholar and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who wrote about it in the context of India and described it as "the tree that plants itself; it spreads out mighty arms to the earth, where in the space of a single year the arms take root and put forth anew." The Aryans who came into India from a different clime but long before Pliny’s times must, one imagines, have been awestruck by its appearance; what one knows in any case, is that they referred to it as a kshira-vrikhsa, the one with the milky sap, and are said to have imbibed that sap in the belief that the liquid would bestow upon them immortality, or something close to it.

Interestingly, and most poetically, Milton, writing in the 17th century, places the banyan tree — having obviously heard or read accounts of it by others — in the Landscape of Paradise, describing it in the words cited above, and then speaking of the denizens of that garden gathering the leaves of this tree, ‘broad as Amazonian Targe’, and stitching them together with skill for girding their naked waists, using it as "vain covering as if to hide/their guilt and dreaded shame".

One can see stories about the tree travelling, imagination taking wing, almost everywhere. But even nearer home, just think of the associations. In a Puranic tale, it is on a lone leaf of the banyan that the sage Markandeya sees the infant Krishna floating on the endless waters of eternity: vatapatra shayee, as the vision is called. It is under the banyan tree that the faithful Savitri refuses to yield the body of her dead husband to the god of death, something celebrated till today in the observance by countless married women of the Vata Savitri vrata. There is the belief that an enormous vata tree grows upon mount Suparshva, to the south of the celestial mount Meru, covering eleven yojanas. Texts refer to the tree as ‘bahupaada’ — the one with many feet; it is ‘yajniya’, meaning sacrificial; in the final analysis it is also ‘pavitraka’, purifier.

This is the world of myth and belief. But all of us have seen a banyan. And, in actual fact, it can yield a truly wondrous sight, like the majestic banyan spread over a huge tract of land, and still growing, at the edge of the village of Cholti Kheri near Chunni, not far from Chandigarh, does. This, however, would be nothing compared to the great banyan tree in the Botanical Gardens at Calcutta where its origin has been traced to undigested seeds dropped by a bird in the crown of a date palm in 1782. This tree occupied over one and a half hectares and had a circumference of a little less than half a kilometre with 100 subsidiary trunks and 1775 prop roots. There are more, equally famous, banyans. One of the most well known is on the island of Kabirvad in Gujarat, perhaps the same as the one that Worcester speaks of as "being on an island in the Nerbuddah, near Baroach, and is called the Cubbeer Burr". It is believed to have moved in a linear fashion — the original trunk/s having withered away — and now stands two miles away from where it began life some 300 years ago: "a tree that walks", as the locals say. According to some estimates, the largest banyan today is in Andhra Pradesh, literally a small forest in itself, which is known to have given shelter at one time to over 20,000 persons. Stories of Mughal armies finding shade under a single tree come to mind.

A challenge for outsiders who had heard of a banyan but never seen one must have been to visualise it. Not many renderings are known to have been successful, but the 18th century engraving by an anonymous artist which Worcester reproduces does capture something of the "beautiful walks, vistas, and cool recesses" that the great tree offers.