Van Mahotsav Week was first started in India in 1950 by K.M. Munshi, the then Union Agriculture and Food minister. The festival was conceptualized to celebrate and connect with all the green lives out there. The days aim towards spreading awareness about the very givers of oxygen- trees. The original idea was also to encourage every Indian citizen to plant a sapling during the week.
To be able to plant trees, one must first know what type of trees are desirable to plant. Much has been said by our forefathers about the importance of native trees. While the bright yellow flowers of the Gulmohar are something we admire, we must know the consequences of planting non-native trees or introduced trees in the local habitat- they are invasive in many ways. We take this opportunity of Van Mahotsav Day to meet the national tree of India—one that belongs to our local times and places!
Our National Tree – The Banyan
Rooted in Mythological Adulation
The Banyan Tree or Ficus Benghalensis has been exalted in Indian culture and mythology, for its appearance, utilities and sheer magnificence. Its widespread canopy has fascinated many, to the point it was proclaimed that at one time more than 10, 000 people could sit under its shade. No wonder, it is respected and revered all over the country from times immemorial. The Hindu scripture, “Bhagwad Geeta” finds mention of the Banyan tree as Lord Krishna sang praises of it. In fact, Indian lore sees all the three Super Gods- the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer in the various elements of the tree- Lord Vishnu is the bark, Lord Brahma the roots and Lord Shiva the branches. Blessed with immortality, the Banyan is considered the tree of knowledge and the tree of life!
Up, Close and Personal
The tree is common throughout India, and probably indigenous to the indigenous in the sub-Himalayan forests. Rising to a height of over 20 metres, the huge size of the Banyan is sure to belittle the biggest of persons or animals! Sometimes it is known to cover several hectares! The oval and glossy leaves are well spread out and harbour a milky latex, which has many Ayurvedic uses. The tree is truly independent, for it sends out aerial prop roots towards the ground, which fuse with the grounds and help it stand strong and proud! In aged banyans, it is often impossible to identify the original trunk, with the single banyan ecosystem appearing like a grove of trees! The tree bears multiple fruit in a structure called a “syncarp”, it is after all a type of fig tree.
Giver of Life
Almost every part of the Banyan tree is an altruistic giver. The leaf, bark, seeds and fig fruit are used to cure a variety of disorders like diarrhoea, polyuria, dental, diabetes and urine disorders. The wood is used for making door panels, boxes etc. In fact, the wood of the aerial roots is stronger than the main trunk, and finds many applications. Its leaves are used for making traditional leaf-plates. The bark finds application in making paper and ropes. Name a part and you will find a positive use!
Banyan seeds rarely germinate when they fall on the forest floor, they have better chances of flourishing when entangled in edifices of other trees or human settlements. A common sight in India is a Palmyra or Tad-palm growing amongst the roots and trunks of a Banyan tree. One would wonder, why so, is there a lasting friendship between the two? Mind you, the answer may be much harsher. Often, banyan seeds may find their way to the soft and slender nooks of the palm, finding the warmth and moisture needed to germinate. At this stage itself, the banyan begins to grow very slender threadlike roots, which soon grow to mighty cords and grasp and squeeze the palm trunk. The poor palm gets suffocated of water and nutrients and dies off. What remains is a beautiful but bizarre union of formidable Banyan roots and mushy palm remains. Hindu culture speaks of this phenomenon as a religious veneration, relegating it as a holy marriage instituted by Providence! These mighty stranglers are often seen going deep down and uprooting the foundations of all that survives around them, including building foundations! It is therefore best to plant the Banyan in clear and open spaces. If you and I need our own space, imagine, a tree of that size would need it too! And much more of it, to say the least! Let’s give the tree what it truly deserves, and only then decide to plant one!
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