This is a remarkable book on trees – trees which are not just ‘described’ to you in words as having branches, leaves and sweet-smelling flowers, but trees which you can actually ‘see’ as you read. Big trees, tall trees, stately trees….all come alive with the cries and activities of the numerous birds and insects living on them, the age old myths associated with them and the author’s personal comments, witty and insightful. Indeed, in many places, especially in villages in India, trees are quite inseparable from the way of life of the people.
By Ruskin Bond; Illustrations by Siddhartha Banerjee; Published By National Book Trust, India.
As you go through the pages, the author takes you for a walk among the aerial roots and hanging branches of the big banyan, and through a thick grove of giant mango trees. While you sit on the steps of a temple here, sharing with a farmer his mid-day chapati, you can see in a distance the beautiful leaves of the peepal shimmering in the breeze, which seem to attract your attention and invite into their shade. The brilliance of the semal tree during the spring season is matchless, and so are the usefulness of the sal and the close association between the mahua and the lives of tribal people. As you reach the beaches at the southern most tip of the country, there appear before your eyes the tall, slender palm trees, seeming like “giant spiders climbing against the darkening sky”. These palms are forever in motion, waving their tufts even when the air appears to be still. Some trees like the neem, imli, dhak and champa have been the favourites of many down the ages, including powerful spirits who are believed to dwell in them! And lastly, among the trees of the Himalayas, we have wonderful tales of the rhododendron, the deodar, the evergreen oak and the beautiful horse-chestnut, among many others.
In the pages that follow, are some excerpts from this exceptional book —
THE MIGHTY BANYAN
Just as tall men are often the most gentle, so are big trees the most friendly. The banyan is probably the biggest and friendliest of all our trees.
We don’t see many banyan trees in our cities nowadays. These trees like to have plenty of space in which to spread themselves out, but in our overcrowded cities, where there is barely enough living space for people, banyan trees don’t have much of a chance. After all, a full-grown banyan takes up as large an area as a three-storey apartment building! Of course, many parks have banyan trees. And every village has at least one.
…It is always cool, dark, and shady beneath the banyan. And it is a good tree for climbing. You can get up amongst its branches without much difficulty, and there is no danger of falling off. It is also one of the most comfortable trees to sit in. You can lean against its broad trunk and read a book, without any fear of being disturbed, for you will be completely hidden by the broad, glossy leaves.
The banyan is also very hospitable. Apart from boys and girls, it attracts a large number of visitors-birds, squirrels, insects, flying foxes — and many of these interesting creatures actually live in the tree which is full of dark, private corners suitable for a variety of tenants. The banyan is rather like a hotel or boarding-house in which a number of different families live next door to each other without interfering very much in each other’s business.
…Avenues of banyan trees are not as common as they used to be, and roadside banyans can often be seen with their beautiful supporting roots cut off — a sad spectacle. No other tree provides so much cool, refreshing shade on a hot summer’s day, and for this reason, if for no other, this noble tree deserves our love and care.
These lines by George Morris could well be applied to the friendly banyan:
Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.
THE SACRED PEEPAL
In some ways peepal trees are great show-offs. Even when there is no breeze, their beautiful leaves spin like tops, determined to attract you attention and invite you into their shade. And not only do they send down currents of cool air, but their long slender tips are also constantly striking together to make a sound like the pattering of raindrops.
No wonder the rishis of old chose to sit and meditate under these trees. And it was beneath a peepal that Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment. This tree came to be called the Bodhi, the ‘tree of wisdom’.
To the Hindus, the peepal is especially sacred. Its roots, it is believed, represent Brahma, its bark Vishnu, its branches Shiv Mahadeva. “As the wide-spreading peepal tree is contained in a small seed,” says the Vishnu Purana, “so is the whole universe contained in Brahma.
In rural areas, when the new moon falls on a Monday, the peepal is still worshipped by women, who pour water on its trunk, and lay at its roots a copper coin and sweet-meats.
It is said to be dangerous to lie or cheat beneath a peepal tree, and sometimes to tease shopkeepers they are told that they ought not to plant one in a bazaar. All the same, there are plenty of peepal trees in our bazaars. It is a tree that grows wherever its seed falls; it will take root in a wall or on a roof-top – or even in the fork of another tree if given the chance. As its roots are quite capable of pushing through bricks and mortar, it is best to plant it some distance away from buildings.
No other tree has a leaf which tapers to such a perfect point as the peepal. When it rains, you can see the water drip from the points. Water runs off more easily from a point than from a blunt end, and the sooner a leaf dries the better it is for the tree.
The leaf is beautiful, and has been likened to the perfect male physique. From the stalk (the human neck) the edges of the leaf run squarely out on either side (the shoulders) and then curve round and inwards to end in a finely-pointed tail (the waist), so that the suggestion is of a square, broad torso upon a narrow waist-a body such as we see in pictures of Krishna.
While the chief occupants of the banyan are various birds and insects, the peepal is said to be the residence of a wide variety of ghosts and mischievous spirits.
The most mischievous of these in the Munjia. He lives in lonely peepal trees, and rushes out at tongas, bullock-carts and bushes, trying his best to upset them! Our grandmothers still advise us not to yawn when passing under a peepal tree. Should you yawn, it is best to cover you mouth with your hand, or snap your fingers in front of it. “Otherwise,” says Grandmother, “The Munjia will rush down your throat and completely ruin your digestion!”
Peepal trees have very long lives. There are some ancient peepals in Hardwar which are even older than the present town, probably as old as the eleventh century Mayadevi Temple. A peepal tree taken from India to Sri Lanka in 288 B.C. is still alive and flourishing. Records of its growth were carefully preserved over the centuries, and it must new be 2257 years old. Peepal trees have very long lives. There are some ancient peepals in Hardwar which are even older than the present town, probably as old as the eleventh century Mayadevi Temple. A peepal tree taken from India to Sri Lanka in 288 B.C. is still alive and flourishing. Records of its growth were carefully preserved over the centuries, and it must new be 2257 years old. Peepal trees have very long lives. There are some ancient peepals in Hardwar which are even older than the present town, probably as old as the eleventh century Mayadevi Temple. A peepal tree taken from India to Sri Lanka in 288 B.C. is still alive and flourishing. Records of its growth were carefully preserved over the centuries, and it must new be 2257 years old. Peepal trees have very long lives. There are some ancient peepals in Hardwar which are even older than the present town, probably as old as the eleventh century Mayadevi Temple. A peepal tree taken from India to Sri Lanka in 288 B.C. is still alive and flourishing. Records of its growth were carefully preserved over the centuries, and it must new be 2257 years old.
To fell a peepal tree was once looked upon as a great sin. On the other hand, anyone who planted a peepal was said to receive the blessings of generations to come.
Let us also earn the blessings of future generations by planting not only more peepal trees — which are quite capable of looking after themselves — but all kinds of trees for shade and shelter, fruit and flower, beauty and utility.
Can you imagine a country without any trees, a country that has become one vast desert? Well, that is what could easily happen here if we keep cutting our trees and forests without bothering to grow others in their place.
GREAT SPIRITS OF THE TREES
No account of the trees of India would be complete without a mention of those old familiar favourites, the neem, the tamarind (or imli), the dhak and the champa – not forgetting the powerful spirits who are believed to dwell in them!
During the rains, when neem-pods fall and are crushed underfoot, they give out a strong, refreshing aroma that lingers in the air for days. This is because the neem gives out more oxygen than most trees. When the sages of old declared that the neem was a great purifier of the air, and that its leaves, bark and sap had medicinal qualities, they were quite right, for the tree is still valued in medicine today.
From the earliest times it was associated with the gods who protect us from disease. Some regarded the tree as sacred to Sitala, the goddess of smallpox. When children fell ill, a branch of the neem was waved over them. The tree is said to have sprung from the nectar of the gods, and people still chew the leaves to purify themselves, both in the physical and spiritual sense.
The tree is also connected with the sun, as in the story of Neembark, ‘The Sun in the Neem Tree’.
The Sun-God invited to dinner a bairagi whose vows prevented him from eating except by daylight. Dinner was late, and as darkness fell, the bairagi feared he would have to go hungry, but Surajnarayan, the Sun-God, descended from the neem tree and continued to shine till dinner was over.
To early man, trees were objects of awe and wonder. The mystery of their growth, the movement of their leaves and branches, the way they seemed to die and come again to life in spring, the sudden growth of the plant from the seed — all these appeared to be miracles as indeed they still are, miracles of nature!
Because of the tree’s miraculous way of growing, people began to believe that it was occupied by spirits or a god, and devotion to the tree was devotion to the tree-god or the spirit that occupied it. Before a man cut down a tree, he had to beg its pardon for the injury he was about to do to it, and he would not even shake a tree at night because the tree spirit was asleep then and might be disturbed. When a tree was felled, the woodcutter would pour some ghee on the stump, saying: “Grow thou out of this, O Lord of the Forest, grow into a hundred shoots! May you grow with a thousand shoots!".
There was a forest in Bera, which was dedicated to a neighbouring temple, and no one dared buy or cut the trees there. The sacred groves near Mathura, where Lord Krishna played as a boy, were also protected for centuries. Today, even the sacred groves are disappearing, giving way to more and more houses for people. This is sad, because every human needs a tree of his own, if not to worship, at least to love.
The tamarind has for long been a favourite with both Hindus and Muslims. In Gwalior a famous tamarind stands over the tomb of Tansen, the great musician at Akbar’s court. It has become a tradition for singers to eat its leaves to improve their voices.
Tamarind leaves are used in curries, and the fruit is used both as a food and a medicine. The seeds too have their value, and they are put to use in an interesting way: they are ground into a paste, which makes strong cement used in binding books.
Another beautiful wayside tree is the champa, or magnolia, with its wax-like blossoms that pour out their fragrance on summer evenings. There are several kinds of magnolia; some are small, others are tall and stately. Magnolia wood polishes well, and is used for furniture, while the flowers are often used in religious ceremonies.
Near the tomb of a famous saint at Ahmedabad there used to be a large old champa tree — perhaps it is still there — the branches of which were hung with glass bangles. Those anxious to have children came and offered bangles to the saint — the number of bangles depending on how many the supplicant could afford. If the saint favoured the wish, the champa tree “snatched up the bangles and wore them on its arms”.
Another spectacular tree is the dhak, or palas, which has given the battlefield of Plassey its name. It has the habit of dropping its leaves when it flowers, the upper and outer branches standing out in sprays of bright orange. The flowers are sometimes used to dye the powder used at Holi and the wood, said to contain the seed of fire, is often used in lighting ceremonial fires.
The babul, or keekar tree, is not very impressive to look at, but it is valuable for its bark and wood, and it will grow almost anywhere, in desert or marshland. Babul wood is hard and durable, and is used for making wheels, curbs round wells, sugar and oil presses, rice-pounders, ploughs and other implements. The pod is a favourite food for cattle, sheep and goats.
Every tree is associated with legends and beliefs that go back into antiquity, into the timeless regions of man’s pre-history. It is impossible here to do justice to all the beautiful trees that grow in India; but lest the tree-spirits be offended, let us promise to plant more trees, of all kinds, whenever and wherever possible.