During the course of my research for this article, I approached Salman Rashid who had an interesting story for me from the epoch of Alexander. It was a letter to Aristotle by Alexander when the latter was with Porus in India. The letter tells that once two old Indian men came to Alexander during his stay here and told him that at some distance from this spot were two trees, which could talk. One of them was male, while the other female. After mocking the two old men, Alexander decided to visit the trees, and found them to be actually communicating.
I recently visited the famous Banyan tree, known as the Bodhi tree in local language, at the village Abal Muri, near Mid Ranjha, district Sargodha. It is a popular tourist spot, also manifested by the names of the visitors written on the stems of the tree. The tree has also been the focus of a number of research articles and documentaries.
What makes this tree so special is its huge size. It is a forest within itself occupying an area of three acres. In fact it is not just one tree anymore, but a number of trees sprouting from the mother trunk which, however, no longer stands. Branches emerge from within the ground, from other trees, connect to other branches, giving a forest like effect. Banyan trees roughly grow up to 2000 years and hardly above that. As the main trunk of the tree no longer exists, the age of the tree can easily be estimated to be above 2000 years. If the story about the talking tree is true, this could have been the tree the letter talks about.
Banyan trees have an interesting mechanism of expanding. From the branches of the trees rope like structures called boughs fall towards the ground and upon touching the ground they become a branch. This way the tree keeps expanding even long after the death of the original tree. That is what has happened to this tree.
Boughs of Banyan tree have earned a special place in Indian tradition. Myths pertaining to Banyan trees are commonly found in almost all of Indian religions. Seals dating back to Mohenjadaro also depict Banyan tree, leading researchers to conclude that the reverence of Banyan trees in Hinduism could have been borrowed from the indigenous religion of the Indus valley.
Elements of indigenous culture fuse with the layers of framework of religion. The same is the case with rivers and trees in Hinduism. During intense Indian summers, the mammoth size of the Banyan tree provides a dense shade. My elders inform me that during the summers the villagers had lunch under the Banyan tree of the village. In such an atmosphere, it was only inevitable that the Banyan tree became a part of the Bhagavad Gita: “of all trees I am the banyan tree, and of the sages among the demigods I am Narada.”
Banyan tree has a semi-divine status in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that spirits known as yaksas inhabit Banyan trees; people come and pray to the Banyan tree to get the blessings of the spirit. Also if someone cut a Banyan tree it is believed that the spirit would inhabit their residence. Even though the interpretation is given purely religious colours, the cultural element behind the thought was visible in many rural Pakistani Punjabi houses, at least during the early years. It is believed that even Muslims shouldn’t cut Banyan to respect its sanctity. Now however, the situation has changed and one hears a number of stories about people cutting Banyan trees at their villages and towns.
The Buddhists believe that it was under a Banyan tree that Buddha attained enlightenment and that is why they call it Bodhi tree meaning ‘tree of enlightenment.’ It is believed that during his meditation, when the demon Sujata came to corrupt him, it is the guardian spirit of the tree that came down for his protection. Therefore, falling leaves from the trees and sagging boughs become as symbols of the guardian spirit. Many Buddhist monks and Hindu priests meditate under a Banyan tree for days. In the earlier Buddhist tradition, a Banyan tree even became a symbol for Buddha himself.