The Banyan
This article was published in the newsletter of the Bangalore Environment Trust.
Banyan Tree, Sanskrit: Nayagrodha, Hindi: Bargad, Kannada: Ala mara
India has over 80 known species of the Ficus family of which the Banyan (Ficus Bengalensis) is the most prominent followed by the Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa).
The Banyan tree has been, for millennia, the best known tree of India. Pliny the Elder, in A.D. 70, described this tree of India 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.”
Much before Pliny, the Aryans sweeping across the arid wastes of Asia were awestruck by this mighty shade giving tree. The Aryan chiefs, imbibed ritually of the Banyan sap believing that the liquid would bestow immortality on them, increase their vitality and empower them to control the lands they had conquered. Surely this must have been the most spectacular of the trees the Aryans came across at the end of their epic journey when they stood in front of one of the largest river valley systems in the world – the Indus and its tributaries. Their thoughts are recorded in the Vedas.
Dazzled and awestruck the Aryans ask :
"Which was the wood,
Which the tree from which
They (the Gods) shaped
Heaven and Earth?"
- Rigveda
Many millennia later, Milton writes of the Banyan:
"The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renown’d;
But such as at this day, to Indians known,
In Malabar or Decan 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"
Paradise Lost, ix, 1101.
The Banyan is known as Ficus bengalensis after the great Banyan tree in the Botanical gardens at Calcutta whose origin has been traced to undigested seeds dropped by a bird into the crown of a date palm in 1782. This tree today occupies over one and a half hectares and has a circumference of a little less than half a kilometer with 100 subsidiary trunks and 1775 prop roots. It is interesting to note that Alexander’s 7000 man army sheltered from rain under a single Banyan tree and their conceptions of “roots” and “stems” were shaken.
The Banyan was so named by the first Europeans who came to India who noticed that merchants, particularly Banias from Gujarat, conducted their business under a Banyan tree. There is a Banyan tree on record which started adjacent to a small village in Gujarat and has movedlinearly (with the original trunk/trunks having withered away) and now stands 2 miles away from where it began life 200 years ago resulting in it being referred to as “the tree that walks”.
The oldest Stock Exchange in India, the Bombay Stock Exchange, first conducted business under a Banyan tree in 1851 where Horniman’s Circle is located today. With the construction of Horniman Circle and the cutting of the Banyan tree the Stock Exchange moved to conduct business under another Banyan tree, this time at the intersection of Mira Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road, till they were forced by an expanding Bombay to move out in 1874 to Dalal Street which is their current address. Thus, the oldest Stock Exchange in India conducted business for 23 years under the shade of 2 Banyan trees. The largest Banyan tree today is in Andhra Pradesh and has been known to house over 20,000 people. It is literally a small forest. There are many other well know Banyan trees across the country such as the one at The Theosophical Society in Chennai.
The distribution of Ficus trees embraces all tropical continents and islands with the exception of the Hawaii’n islands. The Banyan is a tree with a huge spread with characteristic aerial roots which upon touching and entering the earth, draws sustenance from the earth, thickens/lignifies and becomes a new trunk. The vine like aerial roots plunging down from the main limbs of the tree form a network of trunks with surface roots spreading in all direction. The leaves are leathery and oval shaped with the berry or figs emerging in pairs which are globose and ripen to a red colour. Typically the flowers – male and female and gall flowers all grow radially inwards towards the centre of the hollow berry or fig. The tree is evergreen though briefly leafless at the peak of the hot season in dry localities. The leaves are fodder for cattle, elephants and camels. In many princely states the felling of Banyans was forbidden within a mile of camping grounds as the leaves supplied elephant fodder.
The figs provide food for a variety of animals particularly birds and have been used as a famine food by man. The leaves traditionally have been made into “green” plates with slivers of Bamboo stitching up the leaves.
The manner in which all species of the Ficus genus are pollinated is fascinating and brings into sharp focus what environmentalists and ecologists talk about when they assert that all life is interdependent. All figs species have flowers, but these are not visible as they grow radially inwards in the hollow berry. A Wasp, in most cases specific to a species of fig tree, enters the berry/fig of a Banyan tree and lays its eggs on the gall flowers. The eggs develop into larvae and in turn – wasps. These wasps find their way out of the fig through the male flowers when they are fully covered by pollen. The Wasp now goes to another fig tree of the same species, enters a fig and the cycle is renewed. Generally each fig species has a Wasp specific to it. Thus, if the figs species did not exist the wasp would not know where to lay its eggs and, in turn, if the wasp didn’t exist the figs on a ficus species would not be pollinated and therefore would have sterile seeds. The Banyan species is one of the species of fig trees which can become "strangler figs".
The Mayans and Aztecs used barks from native strangler figs to make a kind of paper for the original Mexican codices. Thin strips of bark were pounded with a stone resulting in a sheet of paper similar to the production of papyrus by the Egyptians.
The Banyan tree has numerous uses in medicine. A fusion of Banyan seeds makes a very effective aphrodisiac and the latex from the Banyan applied externally speeds up the healing of wounds and open sores. Ayurveda has used the Banyan in medicine which assist in blood clotting. Banyans contain astringent and antiseptic properties while an infusion from the Banyan bark alleviates diabetes.
The many footed Banyan is the most prominent sacred tree in India. It is one of the few trees the twigs of which can be used to raise the sacred fire or Agni. The Banyan when fully grown is a majestic sight. From within the tree and standing amongst the multitude of trunks the Banyan gives the impression of a many pillared cathedral. For rural folk across India the Banyan casts a benediction on the surrounding land on which they live.
We have a number of precise photographs of the Banyan tree taken out by Mahesh. These cover characteristics of the Banyan such as the aerial roots, the tangled lignified roots around the trunk, the branches, twigs and leaves. Some of the rarely noticed denizens of the Banyan, the spotted owlet and the grey gecko have been snapped on the Banyan trees. Deities, trishuls and other objects of worship under a Banyan tree have also been captured in Mahesh’s shots.

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