Ramnath Yadav (98) has lost his vision and can no longer walk without support. However, he still remembers his wedding with Mangli Bai Yadav of Harnya village in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh.
“My marriage procession travelled to the bride’s place on 10 bullock carts. Our accommodation was arranged under a huge banyan tree standing near her house. Even the bullocks were fed there,” reminisced Ramnath of Lakkadjam panchayat in Betul district.
“At that time, transport facilities were not available. Bicycles were the prized possession of a few rich people,” he adds.
Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) and sacred fig or peepal (Ficus religiosa) play a significant role in marriage rituals in the state. “My wife passed away 21 years ago. When she was alive, I used to visit Harnya quite often. After a point, that banyan cannot be seen there. Her relatives told me that it had to be removed as the family size grew, and division of land happened. People needed every bit for farming, including the land that was once considered barren,” said Yadav, who now recognises people only by their voice.
The religious, ecological and medicinal significance of banyan — India’s national tree is not lost on the people and government. Nevertheless, it is losing out to population pressure and infrastructural development.
Yadav animatedly described the banyans of Lakkadjam. “The humongous Matamai banyan tree in Pandu Yadav’s field was a sight to behold. Performing religious ceremonies and hosting marriage parties under it were common then. In summer, cattle found shelter there. People would make dung cakes there and take them home to light their stoves or sell to brick kilns,” he reminisced.
The Matamai banyan temple has a platform on which stones considered auspicious are kept. Women worship the place and offer a prasad of coconut and halwa. Now, a mango tree has replaced the banyan tree once present there.
Yadav recalled another banyan tree in nearby Gawlijhira village. “That tree in Amari Yadav’s field was very old and near a river. A fire destroyed it. Where are the big trees now? I am not sure if the present generation will ever be able to see such large trees,” said Yadav.
The miracle tree
Banyan is one of the 750 species of fig trees that are pollinated only by its own species of wasps that breed inside the figs of their partner trees. It reaches a height up to 30 m and spreads laterally. Aerial roots that develop from its branches descend and entrench in the soil to become new trunks.
A single banyan tree may assume the appearance of a dense thicket due to the tangle of roots and trunks over the years. They are the world’s biggest trees in terms of the area they cover. Thanks to their extensive growth, banyan trees sustain many species of birds, fruit bats and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds further.
Banyan and peepal produce more oxygen than other trees, says RK Dixit, retired sub-divisional forest officer in Madhya Pradesh. “The banyan has thick and wide leaves rich in chlorophyll, due to which it releases larger quantities of oxygen,” Dixit told 101Reporters.
Dixit talked about the huge banyan of Kalu Amkheda in Vidisha district that is also a famous religious site. “I have gone there several times. Bhagavad Gita sermons, mass marriages and community feasts are organised under this tree. The branches of this banyan are spread over 800 m, capable of sheltering 5,000 people,” he said, adding that banyans have a lifespan of thousands of years.
Dixit also cites its health benefits. “Its wood, leaves, roots and milky latex are used in ayurvedic medicines to treat vata, pitta and kapha disorders. In villages, the latex is applied on wounds and is used to clean eyes,” he said.
Banyan is also used to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, leucorrhoea, piles, gum and teeth disorders, lower back and rheumatic pain, female infertility, ear problems, skin and hair woes, nasal troubles, nausea and diabetes.
In Madhya Pradesh, which has banyan as its state tree, its leaves are used to dry homemade papads. Wood from these trees is used for religious ceremonies. “In our village, people make disposable plates out of banyan leaves for serving food during community feasts. Traditionally, barbers did this job and when there was a demand, they sold the plates in exchange for grains,” said Ashok Rawat (64), a resident of Basari village in Chhatarpur district.
“There is a devi sthan (temple) under the banyan, right at the entrance of our village, but the two large trees inside the village, where people rested and socialised during hot afternoons, are now gone,” said Poojari Yadav of Pat Raiyyat panchayat in Betul district. Poojari reminisced about children playing on the sturdy banyan roots and listening to stories from elders under its shade, all things from the past.
Why are big trees not wanted?
“Not only banyan and peepal, but many species like mango, jamun, harra, behera, haldu and mahua are also gradually disappearing from the fields,” AK Baronia, a retired state conservator of forests, told 101Reporters. Recalling an instance from 1955, when he accompanied a marriage party to Hoshangabad (Narmadapuram now) that was lodged under a banyan tree, he said the danger to these trees has increased like never before.
“Earlier, farming happened as per need and not for sale. But now, with increase in families and division of land, no land can be spared from cultivation. The sprawling lateral branches and roots of the banyan take up precious space as nothing grows under them. The ecological need of these trees is valid, but so is the point of people in whose fields they stand,” Baronia added.
Shyamu Singh* of Lakkadjam said there was a banyan tree in his field and a mahua tree next to it. “When mahua fruits dropped, they would get stuck in the broad branches of the banyan. As a result, I had difficulties in collecting it and suffered losses. Though the banyan was on the edge of the field, its branches spread far and wide, due to which no crop grew there. So I set fire under its trunk, and it was gone in two or three attempts. I really had no other option,” he said.
To cut any large tree in rural areas, permission has to be taken from the gram panchayat, informed Rajkumar Sinha, an expert in forest laws. “On information from the respective panchayat regarding tree felling without permission, the tehsildar can take action under Section 240 and 241 of the Land Revenue Code. But the majority of the panchayats are still not thinking in the direction of environmental protection,” said Sinha.
“There is an age-old belief that deities reside below banyan and peepal trees. I have not seen anyone in the village outrightly cutting down a banyan tree, but definitely seen how it is destroyed slowly. Sometimes the branches are chopped off, sometimes the stems,” said Amarsingh Dhurve, a resident of Lakkadjam.
The forest department does not have any data on the number of banyan and peepal trees in the state, but has launched an initiative to plant big trees in new plantations. “Since last year only, we have decided that wherever we take up new plantations, we will plant banyan and peepal saplings. We encourage our field staff to grow these saplings. Our target is to have at least one or two banyan trees in one hectare. There is a plan to increase banyan plantations in city forests as well, as it attracts birds,” Ramesh Kumar Gupta, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Forest Force Chief of Madhya Pradesh, told 101Reporters.
“However, people themselves will have to step forward to save the trees on private land or in rural areas. Public awareness is needed to save banyan and peepal and I will raise the issue with higher authorities,” he said.