The Sacred Ficus

William Simpson’s ‘India: Ancient and Modern’. Holy men seated under trees, often a banyan tree as depicted in the painting, were a regular sight in India. Simpson wrote of this portrait: “Many were dirty ascetics, but this was a clean, handsome old man, with a gentle countenance and the most courteous manners. His name was Gopal Dass, and he was a disciple of Seeta. His utensils for his simple wants: the gourd for water, a brass dish for food, his pipe with a bit of cloth at the end of it, tongs to lift the embers to light it with, and a conch shell he sounds when he enters the temple.”

Śri Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā says:
अश्वत्थ: सर्ववृक्षाणां देवर्षीणां च नारद: | 10.26

“Of the trees I am the aśvattha (peepal, or the sacred fig tree); of the celestial sages I am Nārada..”

Hindu sages have long employed the paradox of the ficus seed in a parable, used to represent the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel to ātman, the invisible yet ubiquitous essence that permeates and sustains all living beings and the universe. Vedic doctrine says that “Just as the tiny, insignificant seed grows into a gigantic pīpal tree, this infinite universe has emerged from a tiny speck of the primordial egg (Hiranga garbha)” — alluding to a big-bang like phenomenon that led to the creation of the universe. While Ficus species have become embedded in so many diverse cultures, giant, powerful fig trees are perhaps most awe-inspiring in tropical forests where they stand as commanding life-forces.

Ficus William Roxburgh (1751–1815), Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Indians have been worshipping the sacred pīpal since pre-historic times, with the mahābodhi tree being venerated as a caityavṛkṣa (tree-shrine) or a vanacetiya (forest-shrine) long before the Buddhist period. Hindus venerate the mahābodhi tree and perform the fourth day of ritual piṇḍadāna (oblations to ancestors) at its foot.

Worship of sacred trees, especially the figs banyan and pipal, and the neem, continues to be a very important part of folk religion all over India. Images of deities, including Śiva liṅgās, snake deities (nāgas), are often kept beneath the sacred trees even today.

James Forbes in “his Oriental Memoirs” wrote of the small district of Chandode in Gujarat ‘to which Brahmins attributed peculiar sanctity’. Next to most of the temples in Gujarat, may be seen the ‘sacred banyan’ or ‘Burr’ or ficus religiosa, the pipal. ‘This tree was sketched, not only for its perfect form, and the ramifications and trunks surrounding the parent stems, (from which they did not then extend to a great distance), but because it gave an exact representation of the village deity…in those small hamlets where no building is appropriated to Hindoo worship. To this stone, sometimes rude and shapeless, and sometimes sculptured into the form of a deity, the peasant repairs to perform his daily devotions’.

In most villages, the center of the village is often marked with a spacious stage around the trunk of a pipal (ficus religiosus), margosa, or banyan (Indian fig or ficus bengalensis) tree that also often represents the presence of goddess. The village pīpal is valued for its shade and beauty and association with the social life of the community. In many instances, the tree is regarded as the abode of grāmadēvata-s (village deities) and forms the village shrine where they reside and accept the offerings of devotees. Apart from banyan (ficus benghalensis), and pipal (ficus religiosus), the types of trees that are worshiped as goddesses include the margosa or neem or melia azadirachta (chinaberry tree), mimosa suma (white cutch tree or white thorn), philanthrus emblica ( indian gooseberry), acacia arabica (gum arabic or babul tree ), and ficus racemosa (glomerous fig tree).

As early as 3900–3300 BCE, the Harappan people of the Indus and Saraswati valleys were laying the foundations of a great civilisation. Harappan cities were the most advanced settlements of the time, with the world’s first sani­tation systems, and these early Indians had transformed a wild landscape into the pinnacle of urban planning. Ficus religiosa was a tree was sacred to Harappans. There cannot be any doubt that this tree worship, using the mightiest trees native to the Indian subcontinent, has its origin in the Early and Mature Harappan culture, where fig trees are important art motifs.

The seals, thousands in number, bear brief, still-undeciphered inscriptions along with scenes of animals, mythical beasts, plants, trees, anthropoid figures, and deities. The pervasive motifs of pīpal (Ficus religiosa) and banyan (Ficus indica) suggest that sacred trees or groves may have been the primary sites of religious observance.

Several Indus seals and tablets depict an anthropomorphic deity standing inside a fig tree, sometimes with a worshipper kneeling in front of the tree, hands raised up, as if in prayer. Trees with railings around them are depicted in Indus tablets.

A possible tree temple has been identified at Mohenjo-daro: it has a higher floor, to which lead two flights of steps on opposite sides of the room, which contains the remains of what may have been a railing for a sacred tree. In the fig deity seal from Mohenjo-daro we see in front of the sacred tree with its deity a throne-shaped altar table. Both the pīpal and the banyan endure in later Hindu mythology as symbols of fertility and protection.

Later cosmological descriptions seem to associate the heavenly fig tree with the north star Dhruva; for in reply to the question why do the stars remain in the sky and not fall down, the purāṇas offer an explanation that reminds us of the Indian fig’s aerial roots: it is maintained that the stars and planets are fixed to the north star with invisible ropes. The pole star is of course the “immobile” center of the rotating heavens, known in Sanskrit as Dhruva, “fixed, firm, immovable, constant.” It is a fitting symbol of fidelity; indeed in the Vedic marriage ritual the pole star is pointed out to the bride as a model, in addition to Alcor.

The Sacred Bodhi Tree by Mukul Dey

Gods and spirits are said to move among the banyan’s leaves and pillar roots. A myth told by the Kutia Kondh tribe in Odisha says the Goddess Nirantali formed the first human’s tongue from the quivering leaf of the sacred fig. In Vedic texts the gandharvas and apsaras are said to reside in different varieties of fig trees, where their cymbals and harps resound (Atharva veda; TS 3,4,8,4). The Mahābhārata refers to holy Ficus trees (caitya-vṛkṣa) in villages and towns that trees should not be injured as they are the abodes of gods, yakṣas, demonic spirits, and so on. The epics and other texts often mention gandharvas and apsaras together with the yakṣas and yakṣiṇīs as subjects of Kubera, the god of riches.

In South Kanara District, one commonly comes across Bhuta (=spirit) shrines, and Aśvattha Katte (a pipal tree with a platform) in villages.

A hymn of the Ṛgvēda speaks of the roots of a cosmic banyan tree being held up in the sky by God Varuṇa:

“Varuṇa, King, of hallowed might, sustaineth erect the Tree’s stem in the baseless region. Its rays, whose root is high above, stream downward. Deep may they sink within us, and be hidden.”
Ṛg Vēda 1.24.7

“The Holy Fig tree is your home, your mansion is the Parna tree”
Ṛg Vēda 10.97

It is also referred to in the context of Sōma libation:

“Ride hither to the offering of the pleasant juice, the holy Fig-tree which victorious priests surround: victorious be they still for us. At once the cows yield milk, the barley-meal is dressed. For thee, O Vāyu, never shall the cows grow thin, never for thee shall they be dry.”
Ṛg vēda 1.135

A banyan tree on the banks of the Ganga near Mirzapur by Sita Ram

A male has sprung from a male, the aśvattha (ficus religiosa) from the khadira (acacia catechu). May this slay my enemies, those whom I hate and those who hate me!
Crush the enemies, as they rush on, O aśvattha, ‘displacer,’ allied with Indra, the slayer of Vritra, (allied) with Mitra and Varuṇa!
As thou didst break forth, O asvattha, into the great flood (of the air), thus do thou break up all those whom I hate and those who hate me!
Thou that goest conquering as a conquering bull, with thee here, O aśvattha, may we conquer our rivals!
May Nirriti (the goddess of destruction), O aśvattha, bind in the toils of death that cannot be loosened those enemies of mine whom I hate and who hate me!
As thou climbest up the trees, O aśvattha, and renderest them subordinate, thus do thou split in two the head of thy enemy, and overcome him!
They (the enemies) shall float down like a ship cut loose from its moorings! There is no returning again for those that have been driven out by the ‘displacer.’
I drive them out with my mind, drive them out with my thought, and also with my incantation. We drive them out with a branch of the aśvattha-tree.”

In the Skanda Purāṇa, it is said that sins perish at the very sight of the Aśvattha tree.

“If men glorify the name itself of the Aśvattha tree, they will never have the fear of the world of Yama on their journey. Even uttering the word ‘Aśvattha’ bestows knowledge.”

“The Pippala, a favourite of Hari, is the destroyer of evil dreams, wicked anxieties, sins, and attack of pernicious fever. It is the most sacred of all trees, and if worshipped with all auspiciousness (especially in the Caturmāsa), accords salvation.”

“Viṣṇu is always present at its root, Keśava in the trunk, Nārāyaṇa in its branches and Hari in its leaves. The tree iyself is a form of Viṣṇu.”

Starting in the 3rd c. BC we see the earliest representations of the mahābodhi tree in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu iconography at Sanchi and Bharhut in Madhya Pradesh. Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment and spent an illuminated seven days in blissful meditation under this very Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya in Bihar, and the veneration of this tree was immortalised by the sculpture found at both sites. It was the tree beneath which the Bodhisattva took his seat upon the Adamantine throne (Vajrāsana), the Place of Enlightenment (Bodhi-maṇḍa) on the night of the Great Enlightenment (Mahāsambodhi) of the life of Buddha.

Elephants paying homage to the Bodhi tree. 2nd Century BC Bharhut, M.P.; Indian Museum Kolkata
Terracotta heart shaped peepul leaf, 1st century, Shunga. National Museum, New Delhi

After Buddha’s death, the pious Buddhists would have visited the Bodhi tree, which is one of the four places which, in the words of Buddha himself before his death, “the believing clansmen should visit with feelings of reverence”.

Siddhartha at the Bodhi Tree, 100s-200s, Gandhara; The tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment marks the center of the composition. It had been under worship by local villagers, for it was known to be the residence of a nature divinity, who here emerges from the tree and altar to praise the Buddha. The altar itself is covered with kusha grass used in the context of sacrificial offerings. At the base of the altar, the earth goddess has risen from the ground and kneels before him in reverence. Cleveland Museum of Art

Silence, The Root

To aham bhikku
who had attained everything

He stood a little away from the Buddha
and bowing, asked:
Shall I go and spread Dharma
Now that I am Enlightened?

The Buddha, still and silent.
We are yet on the shore of knowing
there is so much to experience
first become a tree

Its roots of silence
should pierce the earth-cave
and suck the river that flows at the middle of the night.

Translated from Kannada by O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy
(from: Bodhi Tree, Shankara Katagi and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy)

Winged spirits and earth-bound devotees at the Buddha’s Ficus religiosa, from a first century BCE sculpture at Sanchi, India
Worshipping the Bodhi Tree, East Gate, Stupa no. 1, Sanchi; 1st century BCE

Shadow of Silence

The Silence of Shadow
asleep on the fallen leaves
under a Bodhi tree

Woke up to a gentle breeze
and started sweeping up

Translated from Kannada by O.L. Nagabhushana Swamy
(from: Bodhi Tree, Shankara Katagi and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy)

Worshippers Giving Offerings to the Bodhi Tree. (c. 100 BC — c. AD 200) Amaravati, Satavahana Period, Andhra Pradesh. This tree has the distinctive heart-shaped leaves of the Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), which is the type of tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. Each of the the worshippers holds a narrow-necked pot with lotus flowers emerging from the mouth. The lotus flowers are a symbol for water, so these figures are pouring offerings of pure water to the sacred tree. Cleveland Museum of Art
Sculptures adjoining the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya in Bihar, 1824, Charles D’Oyly. The Mahabodhi Temple complex is one of the holiest sites related to the life of the Buddha as it is the place where he attained enlightenment. The present temple dates from the Gupta period (5th-6th century) with later additions, and was built on the site of a previous temple erected by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The temple consists of a central sanctuary with a tall pyramidal tower that is over 50 metres high and houses a large gilded image of the Buddha. The temple is built in front of the Bodhi Tree, the tree under which the Buddha obtained enlightenment, which is surrounded by a quadrangular stone railing that dates to the 2nd century BC. D’Oyly wrote: “The Pepul Tree, like the Banaian is sacred to the Hindoos and is preserved with devotional care. Under the trees are all their Shrines and Images, as well as burial Places, and to keep up the tradition that some are everlasting, young Plants are trained to supply the decay of the old and worn out Tree.”
Bodhi Tree at Bihar, Charles D’Oyly ca. 1828

Later texts continue to venerate the Ficus, from the Upaniṣads to the Mahābhārata to the Rāmāyaṇa, which are replete with references to the Banyan.

Śri Kṛṣṇa in the Bhagavadgītā (15.1) says:

ऊर्ध्वमूलमध:शाखमश्वत्थं प्राहुरव्ययम् |
छन्दांसि यस्य पर्णानि यस्तं वेद स वेदवित् ||

“They speak of an imperishable aśhvattha (pīpal) tree, with its roots upward and branches below, whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.”

From the Kaṭhopaniṣhad, the line:

ūrdhvamūlo ’vākśhākha eṣho ’śhvatthaḥ sanātanaḥ

“The aśvattha tree, with its roots upward and branches downward is pure and eternal.”

ūrdhvamūlaṁ arvākśhākhaṁ vṛikṣhaṁ yo samprati
na sa jātu janaḥ śhraddhayātmṛityutyurmā mārayaditi
(Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 1.11.5)

“Those who know this tree with its roots upward and branches downward will not believe that death can finish them.”

In the Mahābhārata, Mārkaṇḍeya Ṛṣi has a vision of Viṣṇu’s Māya wherein he sees Viṣṇu as an infant, resting on a bough of a banyan tree. (for the full version of the story, see Vaṭapatraśāyī).

Vaṭapatraśāyī carved out of black Śālagrama stone. 10th century South India. National Museum, New Delhi

In the Valmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma, Sīta and Lakṣmaṇa spend their first night of the vanavāsa under a nyagrodha*, a great Banyan. (Ayōdhyakāṇḍa 53.33)

ततस्तत्र सुखासीनौ नातिदूरे निरीक्ष्य ताम्।
न्यग्रोधे सुकृतां शय्यां भेजाते धर्मवत्सलौ।।

*nyag-rodha ‘downward-growing’ is based on the tree’s habit of growing new trunks from the hanging aerial roots

The companions have reached the river Ganga and Guha, the Nisada chief, has come to greet them along with some of his people from their nearby town. Rama asks him to provide a boat so that they can cross the river. He tells Sumantra to take the chariot back to Ayodhya, with a last cheerful message to his father and mother that they will surely see the three of them again. Rama and Laksmana have divested themselves of their crowns and now mat their hair with the juice of a banyan tree in the manner of ascetics. Guha’s men row them across the mighty Ganges, while in the middle of the stream Sita prays to the river goddess that eventually they may safely return to Ayodhya. On the far shore, having hunted for deer, Laksmana cooks the meat on skewers, while Rama and Sita pluck fruit from a great banyan tree. Illustration from the Ramayana, Udaipur, c.1653. British Library

In the Araṇyakāṇḍa, Rāvaṇa sees a fig tree which Garuḍa had broken a branch of with his imperceptible might. Garuḍa, on his way to Devaloka is said to have rested on the branch of a fig tree, called Subhadra. Rāvaṇa sees the fig tree around which sages sought shelter, which bore marks made by Garuḍa sitting thereon. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Araṇyakāṇḍa, Canto 35).

Here are the relevant verses (3.35.27, 28, 28, 36)

तत्रापश्यत्स मेघाभं न्यग्रोधमृषिभिर्वृतम्।
समन्ताद्यस्य ताश्शाखाश्शतयोजनमायताः।।

“He (Rāvaṇa) saw a banyan tree with its branches spread like a canopy measuring a hundred yojanas like a large cloud, providing shelter to sages.”

यस्य हस्तिनमादाय महाकायं च कच्छपम्।
भक्षार्थं गरुडश्शाखामाजगाम महाबलः।।

“In the past, the mighty Garuda had brought an elephant and a huge tortoise and sat on a branch of this tree to feed on them.”

तस्य तां सहसा शाखां भारेण पतगोत्तमः।
सुपर्णः पर्णबहुलां बभञ्ज च महाबलः।।

“Due to the weight of this King of birds, the mighty Garuda, the branch that was dense with foliage broke off at once.”

तं महर्षिगणैर्जुष्टं सुपर्णकृतलक्षणम्।
नाम्ना सुभद्रं न्यग्रोधं ददर्श धनदानुजः।।

“Rāvaṇa, the younger brother of Kubera, beheld that banyan tree called Subhadram, which bore the insignia of Garuḍa and was a favored resort of the sages.”

There is also a connection between this tree and Laṅkā, according to the Kathāsaritsāgara. Garuḍa flew hither and thither fearing about the safety of the Bālakhilyas who hung on the branch of the Aśvattha tree in tapas. Garuḍa, as directed by Sage Kaśyapa, deposited the branch of the tree somewhere in the middle of the sea. At that spot in the sea where the branch was deposited, sprang up an island like the peak of a mountain. It was this island which, after years, became reputed as Laṅkā.

A banyan tree near Jangipur by Sita Ram between 1820–21. Jangipur, located on the along the Bhagirathi River, was a commercial centre for the silk trade for the East India Company. Inscribed below in pencil and ink: ‘A Burr Tree on the R. Bank of the Bhagiratii near Jungeepoor.’

mūlato brahma rūpāya madhyatō viṣṇu rūpiṇe
agrathaha śivarūpāya
vṛkṣa rājāya the namaha

My salutations to the King of trees, whose root is Brahma, whose middle is a form of Viṣṇu, and whose summit is the form of Śiva.

ṛgyajushu sāmamantrātmā sarvarūpi parātparaha
aśvattho vēdamūlo sā
ṛṣibhi prōchyatē sadā

Great sages seek the Aśvattha, which takes all great forms, as it is the soul and root of the Ṛg, Yajur and Sāma Vēdas.

Silver Amulet in the Shape of a Pipal Leaf (Ficus religiosa) with Four-armed Dancing Shiva. Ajmere, Bombay Presidency
A provincial Bundi-style Barahmasa painting, Early 19th century. Inscribed baisakh mahina, the month vaiśākha (April-May), showing women making offerings to a pipal tree, Krishna and a nayika sitting by a young tree, and Kama, the god of love, sitting in the trees.

The Aśvattha or the pīpal is said to be a symbol of Viṣṇu/Kṛṣṇa, and is worshipped by the womenfolk as a symbol of fertility. In ancient India the tree was considered a benefactor for mankind by blessing barren women with sons. In Rajasthan, the tree is worshipped especially on the 29th day of Vaiśākha for offspring. In Karnataka, similar rituals are observed. In Bengal, the tree is believed to be closely connected with human fertility and is worshipped by women wanting children. In some parts of Bengal, a vrata known as Aśvattha-pātā-vrata is observed that starts at the end of Chaitra and extends to the end of Vaiśākha. Five leaves of the Aśvattha are collected by the bratini (vratini) — tender, unripe, ripe, dry, and fallen leaves — each representing the five different phases or desires of human life: tender leaf for the birth of a son, unripe for the preservation of beauty, ripe for the long life of the husband, dry for the increase of happiness and prosperity and the fallen leaf for vast wealth. After collecting the leaves the bratini takes partakes in a ritual bath in a rivulet or tank nearby. When she dips in the water, she holds the leaves on her head with her hand and recites a Chhara.

The plantation of an Aśvattha tree it’s also common practice in rural Bengal, especially among childless persons or whose offspring day after birth. A childless person or a woman who has has stillborn children vows to Nārāyaṇa saying that if they are blessed with a child they would plant and Aśvattha. The plantation ceremony is called a vṛkṣa-pratiṣṭha, conducted by a Brahmin priest according to the śāstras.

The Bat or Banyan tree is believed to be associated with Brahmā, Lakṣmi, Kuvera, and Shaṣṭhi, the Goddess of children, worshipped throughout India.

Fertility worship of Krishna, c. 1720–25, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. The painting shows Krishna being worshipped under a pipal tree by a group of Śaivite devotees. Krishna is clad in a yellow Mughal jama, or belted Central Asian tunic, instead of the wrapped Indian lower garment (dhoti) traditionally associated with Krishna. The tree has been decorated with garlands and scarves to attract auspicious and divine benevolence. Cleveland Museum of Art

The tale of Savriti from the Mahābhārata also reinforces the association of the Banyan with married women. Savriti convinces Yama, the god of death, to resurrect her husband Satyavan, who had died beneath a banyan tree. Indian women practice the Savriti vrat (vaṭa-sāvitrī-vrata) wherein they tie a string around the trunk of a sacred Banyan wishing for their husbands’ health and longevity.

These symbols of love, life and fertility became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to subjugate the local population. They defiled many sacred banyans by using them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. Many hundreds and perhaps thousands of local people died hanging from these trees — most commonly banyans (Ficus benghalensis) but also peepal trees (Ficus religiosa), though both species of strangler fig were important to the culture and religion of the region for millennia. The British turned to these trees as gallows. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan tree. In 1860, in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, they are said to have hanged 257 rebels from the branches of an individual banyan in a single day. These public executions were designed to not only punish but also to terrorise the local populace. (read more at: “The trees of life that became agents of death” by Mike Shanahan

Banyan trees are part of the ficus or fig genus of plants and are the world’s largest tree in terms of canopy coverage. Ficus benghalensis, commonly known as the Indian Banyan, is considered sacred and is the national tree of India. Notable examples found in India include a specimen found in the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden at Howrah, near Kolkata, India, said to be around 250 years old and the Thimmamma Marrimanu tree at Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh that covers an area of roughly 8 acres.

Compared to the familiar oak trees, the banyan trees must have seemed amazingly exotic to early travellers to India. A banyan is a fig that starts its life by growing on another tree, or a building, gradually sending down roots and enveloping its host plant or structure (called strangler figs). Traveller’s accounts noted that temples were placed under banyans in the villages they visited, and that Hindu temples are ‘exposed or half concealed among deep and solemn groves, no less holy in the popular opinion, than the edifices they shelter. The trees were a focus for worship, repositories of history, guardian spirits, and in their advanced age, more than ever objects of veneration and wonder.

‘A Hindu Temple and famous Banyan Tree at Bhood Gyah;’ Patna, 1812.
James Forbes’ “Oriental Memoirs”, compiled from hundred and fifty folio volumes of notes and drawings made during his travels through India in the 1760s-70s. Forbes(1749–1819), a keen observer of nature illustrates in this plate a family as they rest under a Banyan, the Ficus Indica. The engraving as Forbes notes was taken from one of his earliest drawings and was based on this observation: ‘The Asiatics love to relive with their women and children to some cool spot near a river or tank, shaded by the friendly banian tree…there they enjoy that sort of indolent repose which they are so fond of”.
From James Forbes’ “Oriental Memoirs”. The district and town of Chandod, on the banks of the River Narmada, was also under Forbes’(1749–1819) jurisdiction when he was Collector of Dhaboi. Considered a particularly sacred place to the Hindus of Gujarat, it had ‘immense groves of ficus religiosa (Banyan) and ficus indica (Peepul) overshadowing numerous Hindoo Temples and spacious lakes’, which ‘cast a more than common gloom on this venerated spot…two-thirds of the inhabitants are brahmins and devotees of various descriptions’.
Hindoo Temples at Agouree, on the River Soane, Bahar, frames the stone temples with a huge mature banyan tree whose aerial roots have descended to the ground to create the effect of a forest. The tree looks even more magnificent than the temples, and the perspective ensures that it dwarfs them in size.
by Umashankar Joshi
Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) growing on a lakeside. William Hodges, 1793

“The bride and groom were as silent as stones throughout the wedding that took place on June 10th, 2008, in Jimiti, a village in the Indian state of Odisha. This was no ordinary marriage, for they were both fig trees, he a banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and she a pipal (Ficus religiosa). The villagers spoke for the trees, the men representing the groom and the women the bride. The practice of marrying trees is ancient and widespread in India; it has various meanings, but this time the purpose was to raise awareness of the need to protect trees. ‘Our village was covered with hundreds of trees four decades ago,’ said local man Nabin Rout in an interview with The Times of India. ‘But the green areas have been shrinking year by year, and if we do not protect them they will disappear in a few years.” (Excerpt From: Mike Shanahan. “Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.”)

A painting by Charles o’doyley 19th century shows a large banyan tree on the banks of a river. In the foreground are two boats moored in the river and a crowd of people bathing and standing on a ghat. The tree, with its dense canopy of leaves and numerous aerial roots growing down towards the ground, is the focal point of the painting. With intertwined shoots that eventually take root and grow until they take on the appearance of individual tree trunks, the banyan comes to resemble a cluster of trees that are linked by branches and a single canopy of leaves. The people bathing provide a sense of perspective showing the vast size of the tree.
Sir Charles D’Oyly’s ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’. D’Oyly loved the Indian landscape and its rich flora. Banyan trees being sacred to Hindus, it was forbidden to cut them, so they grew to huge proportions — sending out aerial roots that grow into new branches on reaching the ground. This image excellently portrays the serpentine growth pattern of the tree. D’Oyly wrote to Warren Hastings (whose wife was his godmother): “To this wonderful work of nature I devoted four days of the last cold weather and while sitting under the spreading branches I could not help wondering that no painter had been induced to exert his talents in describing this tree as it ought to be — alone … it should stand in the picture as it does in nature unrivalled.”
Coloured aquatint by John Wells (fl.1792–1809) after an original drawing by Captain Elisha Trapaud (1750–1828) of a banyan tree in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, published in 1788.
Thomas Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery.’ Agori, on the river Son (no longer in Bihar, but now in Mirzapur District, Uttar Pradesh), is an ancient sacred place although with no very ancient architectural remains. The 18th century temples depicted by Daniell have the tall pyramidal sikharas or superstructures typical of North India. They are dwarfed by the huge Banyan tree with its hanging roots. This sacred tree is a symbol of the Trimurti. Vishnu represents the bark, Brahma the roots and Shiva the branches.


  1. The Migration of Symbols, by Goblet d’Alviella 1894
  3. “The trees of life that became agents of death” by Mike Shanahan
  4. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers (UK title: Ladders to Heaven) by Mike Shanahan
  5. The Rig Veda, Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896]
  6. The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization by Asko Parpola
  7. Hymns of the Atharva-Veda translated by Maurice Bloomfield
  8. “The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees” by Mike Shanahan
  9. Katagi, Shankara, and O. L. Nagabhushana Swamy. “Bodhi Tree.” Indian Literature, vol. 49
  10. Human Fertility Cults and Rituals of Bengal: A Comparative Study, Pradyot Kumar Maity
  11. Skanda Purana, GV Tagare, Motilal Banarsidass

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