Tag Archives: Banyan Tree

Kos Minar by Haroon Khalid

In the outer-skirts of the historical city of Lahore there is an obscure kos minar, still standing proudly, with half the base missing, reminding one of the grandeur, power, wealth, and culture that once was bestowed to the Mughal city of South Asia. Another such structure is also present near the canal, in Lahore.

Kos Minars were initiated by the third Mughal Emperor, Akbar, a note of which is also present in Abu Fazl’s Akbar-Nama. These were solid structures constructed on the ancient Grand Trunk road around 30 feet long. The purpose of these minars was to demarcate the road from the environs. These are called kos minars because they were constructed at a distance of every one kos¸ which is roughly around 3 kilometers. These were initially constructed from Agra to Ajmer via Jaipur in the west, then from Agra to Lahore via Delhi in the north and finally from Agra to Mandu via Shivpuri in the south. After Akbar, his descendants continued the policy of ornamenting the Grand Trunk road with such constructions, which were raised all the way from Peshawar to Bengal. These must have been around 3000 such structures, but in the context of Lahore we can talk about just two.

The first one is standing in the middle of a rice field in a village in the outer skirts of Lahore called Wara Gujrana. Despite its partial ruin state, the minar still manages to capture the imagination of the viewer taking one back to the dynastic days, when such constructions would have been a sight of delight for the wanderers traveling through the treacherous forests of Punjab. Besides the minars, caravanserai, and wells were also constructed with the royal edict. It is reported that before these kos minars were constructed, Banyan trees used to play the role of measuring distance and demarcating the road. Exactly opposite this minar towards Lahore, one would spot an ancient Banyan tree, which could have been the original marker. Further west around kos from this tree is another Banyan tree, and if the kos minar, and the other two Banyan trees are seen from above, they would appear to be in a straight line.

If the straight line is continued towards the eastern side there is, yet, another kos minar, roughly around one kos from here. For the course of this research it was not possible to visit that minar as it lay on the other side of the border. The minar is clearly visible from the high point at the Killa Jevan Singh, at the village with the namesake. This is the last Pakistani village, before the Indian Territory begins.

Despite the conspicuous presence of the kos minars the Banyan trees and the caravanserai, there were absolutely no signs of the original Grand Trunk road. The road which is now known as the GT road is at a considerable distance from the location. The thoroughfare, which was used throughout the ancient times, up to the days of Mughals is no longer functional. The GT road today is not the original GT road constructed during the tenure of the Mauryun Empire.

The third minar is located next to the railway track, close to the point where the tracks that go to Amritsar and Multan part ways. Unlike the earlier two minars, this one is not prominent and is, in fact, difficult to track in the hubbub of the city. There is considerable distance from the minar at the Wara Gujrana and this one, or so it seems because the extant road between these structures is not straight but makes a triangle. If, indeed, the perpendicular distance between these minars equal to one kos then we have in the environs of Lahore three consecutive minars. More work at a structured level needs to be done to see if these three minars are 3 consecutive kos minars, right now, it is a matter of conjecture.

The Grand Trunk road has played a crucial role in the history of South-Asia. It could be called the ‘Great Wall’ of South-Asia. In fact we can proudly say that it was more effective than the Great Wall ever was. It played a crucial role in facilitating trade in India, first build during the Mauryun Empire. At that time the Indians were trading with the Greeks and this road was a huge leap forward in terms of progress. However, the real master mind behind this ingenious civic creation was the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. He not only made a proper road out of the mud track that existed at that time but also straightened it, where the bends were much cursive.

Akbar the successor of Sher Shah Suri understood the vital role that this road played in the economics of India strived to make it safer for the travelers by erecting kos manars, caravanserai, etc. His successors, primarily Jehangir and Shah Jahan, played a vital role in further establishing the GT road.

Besides the economic factor, another very important aspect of the Grand Trunk road was administration. The government needed an effective transport system to govern better. Official message carriers were sent from one end of the country to another with urgent messages. For the purpose of achieving more speed, new horses and messengers were available at these caravanserais and manars, where, either, the messenger had some water, rested for a while, before resuming his/her journey, or relayed the message to the next messenger. In this way, the kos minars also acted as check points, where usually the horse or the rider or both would get changed. Such a method guaranteed a faster postal service.

We know from the remains of a caravanserai at the nearby village of Wara Gujrana that there was a caravanserai here; therefore this particular kos manar must have been during its time an important check point.

I am the Banyan Tree by Haroon Khalid

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.

A Muslim Banyan Tree:

By Haroon Khalid

 

During the course of research for this article I approached Salman Rashid who narrated to me an interesting story allegedly to be from the epoch of Alexander. It is a letter to Aristotle by Alexander when the latter was with Porus in India. In the letter he tells Aristotle that once two old Indian men came to Alexander, during his stay at Jhelum, and told him that at some distance from this particular spot are two talking trees. One of them is male, while the other its counterpart. After mocking the two old men he finally decided to visit the trees, and found them to be actually communicating.According to Salman Rashid this letter was not originally written by Alexander, but after his death.

 

Now if Alexander or his impostor can narrate about a talking tree, then I would also dare to tell a story about a Muslim tree. This is 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 local tourist spot clearly manifested by the names of numerous visitors written on the stems of the tree. The tree has also been the focus of numerous research articles and documentaries. What makes this tree so special is its huge size. The tree is a forest within itself. Some years ago when the local land administrator measured the size of the spread of the tree it came to be around 3 acres. It is not just one tree anymore but a number of them sprouting from the mother trunk which, however, no longer stands. The various branches of the main tree are so numerous giving a forest like effect. It is a beautiful spectacle of nature’s aesthetic. It is reported that 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 were to be true this could have been one of the trees.

 

Banyan trees have an interesting mechanics 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. In this method the tree keeps on expanding even long after the death of the original tree. This is what has happened in the context of this tree. Boughs of Banyan trees have over the years earned a special place in Indian tradition.

 

In the South Asian cultural imagination banyan trees have played an important from the beginning of civilization here, and that is why myths pertinent to Banyan trees are found commonly in almost all of the Indian religions. Seals dating back to Mohenjadaro depict Banyan trees leading some researchers to the conclusion that they were treated as sacred entities even back then. In the framework of any religion pragmatic requirements of the culture become fused with mythology. That is what has happened in the case of rivers and trees in Hinduism. In the intense summers of India the mammoth size of the Banyan tree provides a dense shade for people. My elders inform me that during the summers all of the villagers used to have 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. This is what it has to say about Banyan tree:

 

‘Of all trees I am the banyan tree, and of the sages among the demigods I am Narada.’

 

Banyan tree, in this manner, has taken over as a semi-divine status in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is believed that spirits known as yaksas inhabit Banyan trees; therefore people come and pray to it to get the blessings of the spirit. Also people would never cut such a tree, because if they did, it is believed that the spirit would inhabit their residence. The cultural element behind the thought was visible in many rural Muslim Pakistani Punjabi houses, at least during the early years of the country, and to a certain extent even now. It is narrated that even the Muslims of Pakistan never used to cut these trees, because of its sanctity. Banyan trees also used to regularly accompany larger Hindu temples.

 

The Buddhist believe that it was under a Banyan tree that Buddha first received enlightenment and that is why they are called Bodhi trees, which means trees of enlightenment. It is said that during his mediation, when the demon Sujata came to district him, the guardian spirit of the tree that came down from the tree to protect Buddha. Falling leaves from the trees and sagging boughs, subsequently, became symbols of the guardian spirit, thus reverent. Many Buddhist monks and Hindu priests come and settle under a Banyan tree for meditation. The Banyan tree also served as an important pilgrimage spot for Buddhists and Hindus. In the earlier Buddhist tradition a Banyan tree became an emblem for Buddha.

 

After the partition of India, even though the Hindus migrated from this land, the culture and tradition, which is behind the formation of many religions, remain and now takes on a new face incorporating itself into Muslim tradition. It is for this reason that I call this tree a Muslim tree, primarily, because it is incumbent for us to have a Muslim history associated with this tree to still deem it to be special. According to folk tale a Muslim Syed Saint came and planted this tree. He is said to be buried under this tree, and as long as his grave remains under it nothing can happen to the tree. There are many more Muslim graves under that tree too, all of them with a story, trying desperately to link Islam with the indigenous culture and beliefs. It is not alright for the tree to be Hindu or Buddhist, it has to be ours, and it has to be Muslim.