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TREES of INDIA
Introduction – These are 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.
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
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 banyan 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
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
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 is 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 peepal 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Shakyamuni meditated in a forest of sallow-wood trees (shorea robusta.) It is also known as the salwa, sakhu, shal,
kandar and the sakwa. It is famous for being the kind of tree under which the Buddha lay down to die. It is said that the
white sal florets that bloom in bunches in the springtime fell and covered him. It is a slow growing hardwood that
reaches heights of 100 feet or more, producing an extremely dense timber that is very resistant to rot. It has large, oval
It is the source of an opaline white resin used as incense, as a caulking for boats, and a fuel for lamps. In times of
famine, people have been known to grind its fruit for flour, and use its sap to mix with ghee. It is, therefore, a fine and
apt symbol for the Dharma.
In the Indian state of Orissa, the Santhals celebrate the three-day Baha festival that focuses on the Sal. Their sarna or
holy place is a sacred grove of these trees. They have no other temples nor idols, but maintain a joyous, harmonious
relation with the natural world as symbolized by the sala tree.
Neem or Margosa
The neem (Skt.: mahanimba) tree, or margosa (Azadirachta indica) is famous for its healing qualities. The olive-shaped
fruit has well-known antiseptic properties, but is also famous for providing beads for use in Catholic rosaries. Twigs
from it are used as toothbrushes. The bark contains an alkaloid and can be used as an insecticide for protecting rose
bushes and also for the elimination of head and body lice.
It is said that when the amrita (elixir of immortality) was being carried to heaven by Garuda, a few drops were spilt on
the gracefully drooping branches of a neem. Therefore, people consider the neem tree to be a cure-all, and merely
touching it or walking around it is considered beneficial.
The tree has always been associated with wisdom and immortality. Hindu scripture describes a celestial tree having its
roots in heaven and its branches in the underworld that unites and connects beings of all kinds. This is a reversal of our
usual experience of trees. However, consider the teaching of the Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah. Master Mosheh
KHayyim Luzzatto, in the 18th-century classic The Way of God, explains that the higher realms are actually roots that
manifest spiritual influence through branches and leaves that permeate the lower realms.
The Norse thought of the three worlds of existence as levels of a great ash tree, Yggdrasil. The figures of their writing
system, the runes which Odin retrieved from the underworld, are each named for a kind of tree.
The tree forms the symbolic and basic structure that charts, in an image known as the Refuge Tree, a distinctive
Buddhist tantric lineage.
Most readers know that the Enlightenment of the Buddha occurred under a tree. In fact one tradition holds that it was the
tree itself that inspired him to spread the dharma instead of remaining as a pratyeka buddha, eternally resting in
meditative absorption. In fact, when we read Ashvaghosha's account closely, we find that several kinds of tree are
associated with Buddha's attainment.
The tree is one of the most potent of symbols, as we also know from Genesis' Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. And if
you read Judeo-Christian scripture closely, you will find more than one kind of tree there too, for it is the prohibited Tree of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil that harbors the snake, and it is distinct from the Tree of Life.
The Sanskrit word chaitya, which many take to be a synonym for stupa, actually means sacred grove. For example, at
Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, India, is a grove sacred to Hanuman, the monkey god.
Green Tara, the Buddhist protector, appears in association with an acacia grove. A Buddhist goddess of the grove near
Lumbini appears at least as early as the first century; she is mentioned in part 17 of Ashvaghosha's Acts of the Buddha.
A renowned 12-volume work on mythology, religion and magic, the ultimate tree book, Sir James Frazer's The Golden
Bough (1922), was initiated by his interest in the glade [a space in a grove of trees] of Nemi that was a sanctuary sacred
to Diana. There no fugitive could be hunted down, nor any animal killed.
In the Nemean grove dedicated to Zeus, a sacred child was commemorated whose characteristic pointing gesture is
evocative of that of the infant Buddha. When the child was irresponsibly but perhaps un-avoidedly laid to rest on a bed of
wild celery, he was killed by a snake's bite.
In the Roman Forum, " ... the sacred fig-tree of Romulus was worshipped down to the days of the empire, and the
withering of its trunk was enough to spread consternation through the city."
The Banyan and the Pipul associated with the life of the Buddha are actually types of fig tree. And didn't Adam and Eve
sew their aprons from fig leaves?
About 3 thousand years ago, the Canaanites worshipped their deity in the form of a sacred pole or ashera, named for the
goddess Ashera, who was a naga or serpent.
Sacred trees and also poles, the essence of a tree, are thought of as axles about which the sacred universe revolves.
The beribboned May pole of Britain is the focus of vestiges of that belief, as is the Buddha's place of enlightenment.
A Buddhist stupa or chorten has a sacred pole at its core. See the sokshing or life-force pole at the centre of the Great
Stupa that was dedicated Aug. 2001 in Colorado. You may be able to read the inscriptions [see image of red tablet].
"The 25-foot tree rests on a mandala in the stupa. Cut from straight cedar six years earlier, the tree was carved in the
shape of an obelisk, a half-dorje carved at the bottom, and a stupa carved at the top. Many relics were embedded into the
The worship of, or at least the veneration of, the tree is a custom found all over the world. Sometimes, it is an offshoot of
respect for life and the fertility of the earth. Sometimes it is related to the view that a special tree marks a sacred centre.
In environments where there are few trees, the individual tree is viewed as a kind of ladder that links the realms of
heaven, earth and also, in many cultures, a mysterious underworld. Often, the tree is thought to be the abode of a deity.
In India, this type of spirit is known as a yaksha or yakshasi. In Ashvaghosha's account of the events in the life of the
Buddha, he mentions that a female deity in the woods supported the Buddha's determination in his quest for Awakening.
There is good evidence to suggest that before the custom originated of building temples, sacred groves fulfilled this
function. Eventually, the special area was enclosed by a fence of wood and then later, stone.
In Sanskrit, the word for tree is vriksha. Indian scripture mentions specific ones, such as the Kalpa vriksha and the
Chaitya vriksha. In some of these cases, it may be that a tree was planted as a marker or we might say, as a memorial,
to a special individual or to a momentous event. Even when the reason for the planting of such a tree is lost to local
memory, tree worship can continue as an element of village or neighbourhood life. Sthalavriksha is the term for sacred
Scriptures such as puranas that are legendary accounts, are not necessarily very old -- a number of them date from the
18th through 19th centuries. (Although an account may be ancient before it is actually written down.) In any event, it is
known that there was a sthala purana (tree lore) movement about two hundred years ago that sought to record the
mythology of India's sacred trees and to relate the characteristics of a particular tree to the river, spring or other energy
source (teertha) of its sacred place.
In South India, there are a number of tree shrines. Notable ones include the mango (ekamra) tree at Kanchi, a black
plum (jambu) at Jumbukeswaram near Tiruchirappalli, the Indian plum (panai) at Tirupanaiyur and the "blinding' tree (tillai)
at Chidambaram. Shrubs, too, can be considered sacred: the jasmine (mullai) at Tirumullaivayil and a gooseberry (nelli)
Besides gods who are widely-revered, such as Shakti, Shiva, Murugan and Vishnu, Indian sacred trees are often
associated with local deities or village guardians. One of these is Arkamma, named after the erukku plant, and
Panaiveriyamman who is the goddess named for the Palmyra palm or panai, but who is also called Taalavaasini, a name
that extends the association to all palms.
The presence of a particularly bountiful tree may have given rise to the idea that a deity is present who offers her
blessings in the form of the fruit, as in the case of the tamarind tree where Puliyidaivalaiyamman is worshipped, or the
kadamba tree that is associated with a deity called Kadambariyamman.
According to C. P. R. Environmental Education Centre, the sacred trees or sthalavrikshas of Tamilnadu often constitute
a single genetic resource for the conservation of a species. As a consequence, in July 1993, the Government of India's
Ministry of Environment and Forests decided to help fund a research project on these sthalavrikshas. About 300 temples
and trees were studied and photographed. The findings are to appear in a publication entitled Sacred Trees of
Tamilnadu, which will give details concerning the sixty different species or varieties of tree in the precincts of South Indian
temples. To be included are facts of botanical, pharmacological, environmental, and religious or mythical importance.
It is not clear whether solitary trees such as those that serve as village shrines are included in this study.
~ From cpreec.org/sactree.htm which is no longer available on line.
Nyagrodha or Banyan
The tree under which the Buddha sought Enlightenment is classified as Ficus religiosa or sacred fig-tree. The heart-
shaped leaf is revered and used as a charm. Research has demonstrated that the fruit contain serotonin, so it may have
once been used as an entheogen [a neologism coined in 1979<god-within].
One of Shakyamuni Buddha's former lives was as a bird and in the Jataka of The Four Friends, the bird says: "I must be
older than any of you. When I was born I ate the fruit of a tree south of this spring. The seed of the nyagrodha passed
through my body as waste, so I planted it."
fruit and seeds of Ficus microcarpa, a Moracaea similar to banyan.
The nyagrodha (Ficus bengalensis) a.k.a. banyan is one of the truly massive trees of north India. When mature, its
branches are so stout that the largest birds can perch on them without their breaking yet they are believed to be
vulnerable to the tiny tailorbird who can peck its life away. Its bark is the colour and texture of an elephant's hide, and its
base forms caves and channels where it is possible to take shelter from the rain. It is a tree that grows up like most
others of its kind, but also down as aerial roots which emerge from the branches descend to implant themselves in the
soil. Therefore one tree can form a grove all by itself.
Ayurvedic medicine recommends the use of a concoction made with its astringent milky sap to arrest miscarriages.
Therefore, the tree is associated with healing, protection, sensitivity, reliability and generosity.
In Lam Tsuen, Hong Kong, people tie wishes inscribed on paper strips to oranges and then fling them into the branches
so that the tree is decorated and draped in red and gold.
The Hindu scripture, Chhandogya Upanishad (ca. 800 - 500 BCE) begins with a parable about the nyagrodha that is
much misunderstood. It is regularly misapplied to support the existence of God or of a universal soul [Skt: atman] when
in fact it does no such thing -- no pun intended.
A father says to his son that for a Brahmin 12 years of book-learning is not enough to attain wisdom. The father sends
him, now 24 years old, to fetch a fruit from the nyagrodha tree. He asks him to break it open and tell what he sees there.
There were the tiny seeds.
He then asks his son to crush a seed and tell what he saw. " Nothing" replied the boy.
Yes, there is nothing there but yet inside the tiny seed resides the power to produce a giant nyagrodha tree with all its
Cause and Effect
The Buddha used the banyan in a parable reminiscent of the "widow's mite" (New Testament):
The Buddha asked the brahmin, "Have you or have you not ever seen anything in this world which only rarely occurs and
which is only seldom seen?"
The brahmin replied, "I have indeed seen such a thing; once I was traveling on the road with other brahmins when I saw
a single nyagrodha tree that cast a shadow large enough to shade a caravan of five hundred wagons - a more besides.
Now that was a phenomenon which only occurs rarely and which is [even more] rarely encountered."
The Buddha asked, "Is the seed of that tree large or small?"
He replied, "It is only a third the size of a mustard seed."
The Buddha asked, "But who could believe you when you say that there is a tree of such great size but which has a seed
so extremely small?"
The brahmin replied, "It is so, World-Honored One. I have seen it with my own eyes; it is no falsehood."
The Buddha said, "So too it is that I have seen that this elderly woman by making a faithful offering thereby gains such a
grand resultant retribution. It is just like the tree where the cause is minor but the effect is great and it is the a result of the
magnificent field of merit of a tathagata (Thus- Come- One.)
The brahmin's mind opened [to this idea;] he understood and prostrated himself fully. He repented of his error [He had
said that the merit of a small action by a lowly individual is not worth very much] saying, "My thoughts have been uncivil
and thus I have stupidly failed to believe in the Buddha."
~derived from Kalvinka.org
banyan specimen in Calcutta's botanical garden
Vietnamese myth: Cuoi, and the banyan, the tiger's child, and the moon.
Vata Savitri Vrata
In India, a Hindu vrata [fast] is observed on the full moon night in Jyeshtha, in honour of mythical princess Savitri, who like
Isis of Egypt and Greek queen Alcestis, brought her husband back from death. By fasting, wives hope to prolong their
husbands' lives. They pray to the vat (banyan) because it was under this tree that the husband of devoted Savitri,
Satyavan, came back to life.
The tree of peace struggles for life: The Age. Melbourne, Australia', 29 Dec. 2001. Extract from "What Matters" by
"In the centre of the garden, in a green tree-guard like heavy a cage, a sturdy tree grew, silver branches covered in buds
and a few new heart-shaped leaves. It looked foreign to me beneath the old elms and beeches, as if it were used to
breathing a different kind of air. This, said the discreet plaque, was a Bodhi tree and the Peace Garden had been planted
by Victorian [a south Australian state] school children in 1992 to commemorate the Dalai Lama's visit to Melbourne.
The Internet threw up hundreds of links, many telling the story of the original Bodhi tree that grew on the banks of a
Ganges tributary. Legend has it that the Buddha became enlightened under its branches, in the shade of its heart-shaped
leaves. I could find no botanical information - except that in the yard of a bookstore in Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, is a
Bodhi tree three storeys high.
It had been a long and painful saga, the people at Parks and Gardens told me. The Melbourne Bodhi tree had been
propagated from the last of four seeds blessed by the Dalai Lama who came here to spread his message of peace and to
alert the world to the fate of Tibet under the Chinese. The first little tree planted in 1992 was stamped on and killed. The
second and third trees were also killed -- one quite deliberately. The other, said Parks and Gardens, was possibly
squashed by a vigorously courting couple.
The last of the special seeds, raised for nine years in a nursery, was then planted out in a strong protective tree guard.
And for a while all was well.
It was raining and still almost dark the morning I found it. The Peace Garden was like the scene of a murder. The tree
guard had been wrenched from its moorings and flung aside. The branches with their new growth were tossed to the
ground. The trunk had been broken or cut with something sharp almost at ground level. Deep footprints beside the tree
showed where someone had stood to get purchase to chop and slash.
The people who manage the gardens quite correctly refuse to sheet home the blame to anti-Tibetan groups in Melbourne.
There is no evidence, after all, just a series of small crushed trees blessed by the Dalai Lama in a simple garden ringed
with camellias and planted by school children. We'll never know except that some people feared and hated what the
Bodhi tree stood for enough to try to kill it.
The stump is being cared for in a nursery and will survive, I am told. And it's the Melbourne City Council that one day
must decide whether to return the Bodhi tree to the Peace Garden or to quietly plant it out in a less provocative place."
[This item appeared at the end of 2001 when forest fires, many set by arsonists, raged around Sydney, Australia. That
Parliament (Feb. 2002) also silenced the Dalai Lama, who had been invited to speak on peaceful matters.]
In Hinduism, the banyan is considered female and the peepul or ashwatha, another kind of fig tree, is male. Many
ancient Indian villages have a pipul in their center, where people can gather in the shade and also make offerings.
In Puri, state of Orissa, the original image of Jagannath [< juggernaut] was found at the foot of a fig tree, in the form of an
Indranila or Blue Jewel. Its blinding brightness, had prompted the deity, Dharma, to request it be
hidden in the earth.
As we have seen, the peepul [also, pipul] tree under which Buddha Shakyamuni sought
enlightenment, is a fig (ficus religiosa after that event) and like the banyan or nyadgrodha, it is a
representative of the World Tree as axis mundi or turning point of the world. It is venerated by
Hindus and Buddhists.
The one that is standing today in an enclosure in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India is regarded as the same
one by many people. Legend has it though, that King Ashoka (3rd c. CE) cut that one down and
burnt it, but that it grew back. He was so overcome that he would not return home, and so his queen
arrived to do the same. Again it re-grew.
Described as a 'banyan' in a Times of India article, read how a daughter of the Tree escaped hurricane damage in Dec.
2000, as it has for 23 centuries.
There are different traditions regarding Shakyamuni's great meditation: He sat for seven weeks or he sat for seven days
there, then 7 under the goatherd's tree, then 7 in Rajayatana, then returned for a final week to Bodh Gaya.
A cutting from the bodhi or bo tree was planted in Shri Lanka.
The Shri Lankan scion of the "Bo Tree" and its arrival.
Do the leaves of this tree which also symbolize compassion/love appear in many emblems, reversed and painted red ?
If you would like to have a reminder of the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) in your garden but you live in a northern climate,
the linden (Tilia cordata) has been used in northern Japan for this purpose at least since 800 CE. It has similar
somewhat larger 'heart'-shaped leaves and seeds suitable for stringing.
Once, the Buddha agreed to a request of King Bimbisara's to perform miracles at the Full Moon at a well-known spot in
Shravasti [Pali: Savatti] under a mango tree, with a week's advance notice. The king's crier went out into the countryside
on his official elephant to announce the event.
In order to ensure no one would turn up, the opponents of Buddhism arranged to have all the mango trees felled. Not
one was left standing and so no one could know where to assemble. But before the appointed hour, so they say, the
king's gardener offered a fine specimen of a mango to Buddha. He enjoyed eating the fruit, and then requested that the
gardener plant it right there. From that mango pit immediately grew a fine tree 100 cubits [c. 20" x 100] tall and visible for
miles. It matured as it grew, and the fruit ripened and were enjoyed by all.
Nagarjuna taught that:
Human beings can be likened to the fruit of the mango: Unripe but ripe looking, ripe but unripe looking, unripe and also
unripe looking, and ripe and also ripe looking.
There is a famous Indian trick that has been reported down through the centuries by travelers from many different lands
in which a fakir of other magician causes a mango tree to grow from a seed before the very eyes of the audience. No
doubt it was inspired by the miracle performed at Shravasti by the Buddha.
Everything about mangoes.
The boteh motif that is an element of paisley designs is a representation of a mango.
Named perhaps, because of the legend of a tree that would not die, the ashok [Sanskrit for anti-suffering] tree is a symbol
of longevity. It sometimes appears emerging from the vase of amrita (nectar of immortality) that is held in the lap of
longevity deities like Amitayus, where it can resemble a cluster of grapes.
The Ashok is a small evergreen (Saraca indica) whose branches droop over each other in layers unless it is trimmed
back. It grows in the central and eastern Himalayas as well as on the west coast of India. Its bright orange flowers bloom
in abundance in the spring. Since Lord Rama's bride, Sita is said to have sat under this kind of tree while she was being
held captive by Ravana, it is also called the Sita Ashok, and is not considered auspicious around Hindu homes --
especially those with daughters --- for that reason.
However, it is also sacred to Kama Deva, the God of Love, and its brilliant flowers provide delicately perfumed temple
Kalidasa's poetry includes: "Young women's hearts bleed at the sight of ashok tree branches laden with flowers, blood
red from stems to petals." So it is no wonder that Mahamaya, Gautama Buddha's mother on her way to her mother's at
Ramagama, the capital of Koliya, stopped to rest at the Lumbini garden. There, admiring an ashok tree in full bloom, she
felt the pangs of birth and steadied herself by taking hold of a branch.
On Marpa Lotsawa's (1012-1097) return trip to India in search of his guru, Naropa, that master proved elusive, indeed.
People would say that he had "left," or else the guru seemed to appear in all sorts of disguises. This activity Marpa later
considered to be a test of his comprehension of the nature of reality. In later life, he reported that he knew his guru was
near when he approached an ashok tree and had a vision of Nairatmya, consort of the many-armed deity Hevajra. She
was as if reflected in a mirror, with ribbons of mantras swirling at her heart.
In the 19th century, Huc and Gabet, two French Catholic (Lazarist) priests went as missionaries from the Mission at
Peking (now, Beijing) to Lhasa. In their Journal (Hazlitt's translation (London: 1856) Huc describes the "Tree of Ten
Thousand Images" which they saw at the Gelugpa monastery of Kum Bum. Tibetan legend says that when the blood
from the birthing of Tsong Khapa fell to the earth, a tree sprang from it which bore a distinct Tibetan letter or phrase on
There were upon each of the leaves well-formed Thibetan [sic] characters, all of a green colour, some darker, some
lighter than the leaf itself. Our first impression was a suspicion of fraud on the part of the Lamas, but, after a minute-
examination of every detail, we could not discover the least deception. The characters all appeared to us portions of the
leaf itself, equally with its veins and nerves; the position was not the same in all; in one leaf they would be at the top of the
leaf, in another in the middle, in a third at the base, or at the side, the younger leaves represented the characters only in a
partial state of formation. The bark of the tree and its branches, which resemble that of a plane-tree, are also covered with
these characters. When you remove a piece of old bark, the young bark under it exhibits the individual outlines of
characters in a germinating state, and what is very singular, these new characters are not unfrequently different from
those which they replace.
The tree of the Ten thousand Images seemed to us of great age. Its trunk, which three men could scarcely embrace with
outstretched arms, is not more than eight feet high; the branches, instead of shooting up, spread out in the shape of a
plume of feathers and are extremely bushy; few of them are dead. The leaves are always green, and the wood, which is
of a reddish tint, has an exquisite odour something like cinnamon. The Lamas informed us that in summer towards the
eighth moon, the tree produces huge red flowers of an extremely beautiful character.
The Abbé Huc himself puts the evidence with much more ardor. "These letters," he says, "are of their kind, of such a
perfection that the type-foundries of Didot contain nothing to excel them."
There is another remarkable tree -- a juniper -- that appears to have emerged from a rock at the tomb of Karmapa Rolpei
Dorje which is said to smell distinctly of the hair of the meditator who sat there for many years.
Sandalwood and its rather masculine-smelling oil were exported from India from earliest times. The Latin term for it is
santalum album, which is where we get the English term. Its Sanskrit name is chandana. Today, it is mainly found in the
southwestern Indian state of Karnataka.
The thick, golden, aromatic oil was extracted by especially constructed presses and was sold to the Romans at least until
the 3rd century CE. Its long-lasting scent seems to be stronger at night than in the daytime, and it is thought that to
preserve the scent, the object of which it is made, or in which it has been soaked, should be kept enclosed or covered.
It is classified according to its inner colour: white shrikanda, yellow pitha-chandana and red (rakta [blood]-chandana.) A
shrikanda grew where a drop of Tsongkhapa's mother's blood was absorbed by the earth while she was giving birth. The
tree was believed to produce 100, 000 leaves with mantras and images on them, and the third Dalai Lama, Sonam
Gyatso, later had it moved to Kumbum Monastery. (At the link beginning this paragraph, scroll down to see the white
sandalwood tree in its enclosure.)
The 6th Dalai Lama, who was born in the spring of 1683, is known as Tsangyang Gyatso ("Ocean of Melodious Songs.")
He gave back his getsul (celibate monk) vows to pursue a life of sensory pleasure, and is especially admired for having
composed some timeless love songs. Unfortunately, he was a pawn in Central Asian politics and foretold his own
death. He is, despite his exceptional lifestyle for a Gelugpa lama, still considered an extraordinary incarnation known for
miraculous deeds, including the leaving of footprints and inscriptions in stone, which may still be seen in Tawang (in Mon
territory, northeast India) where he grew up.
Before leaving that place to follow his heart, Tsangyang Gyatso planted a trio of sandalwood trees close to each other.
He prophesied that the three trees would grow identical to each other by the day he returned again to Tawang. In 1959,
local people noticed to their amazement that the three sandalwood trees had become equal to each other in size and
shape. Then somehow the trees caught fire, which was a source of anxiety and dismay, for the legend had been kept
alive. Then they learned of the Chinese invasion of their land and, following a week's procession of travelers, foreign
journalists and security personnel, they once again received the Dalai Lama in Tawang -- this time in the person of Tenzin
Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who was on his way to exile in India.
Ginko or Maidenhair Tree
Tall and gracefully willow-like, it is a tree with a prehistoric ancestry; it is the only surviving species of a group of plants
that lived millions of years ago. The leaves of the male are fan shaped, while those of the female are bifurcated (hence,
ginko biloba) and resemble a duck's foot. The leaves turn pink in the autumn. The scent of the female of the species is
so unpleasant that it is banned from many western cities, but in the eastern part of the world the greenish nut is prized as
Because of its longevity -- one in Japan is estimated at 800 years old -- and its usefulness in treating various maladies, it
was planted to the north of many Buddhist temples as a symbol of immortality. In fact one ginko truly embodied longevity
and regeneration as it was the first tree to grow back in Hiroshima after the 1945 atomic bombing.
The Salisburia adiantfolia, or ginko is also known as Silver Apricot or Tree of Life and it produces an extract that has the
capacity of dilating the tiny blood vessels in the brain hence improving cerebral circulation. For this reason, ginko biloba
is used as a memory-enhancer.
Karnikara or Golden Shower
The Cassia, Golden Shower (also known as a Pudding-pine) with its long drooping pods and large racemes or clusters of
star-shaped yellow flowers often features in Indian literature including the Buddha-karita.
Almost every part of the Golden Shower tree is useful: The leafy shoots that tip the branches are cut and steamed as a
fresh vegetable. The leaves steeped in water provide a laxative tea, or ground into a paste sooth skin irritations, and four
grams of the sticky black seeds boiled in salt water is supposed to relieve "heart congestion" when drunk before bedtime.
The macerated bark is said to be a good leather cleaner.
This tall, gorgeous hardwood is also used in construction, and it is so durable that it furnishes the spokes of wheels and
handles for plows. People often planted a karnikara for each child born to the family as an investment for their future, but
also as a kind of sympathetic magic -- a guarantee that the child would grow tall and strong.
Twigs from it are used as toothbrushes.
Women have been known occasionally to marry trees, either to avert an astrologically bad match, or to retain certain
liberties that maidens do not have, or to avoid the consequences of eventual widowhood.
Vepachedu (d. 1998) on Tree Marriages.
Bel marriage is a way of avoiding the social sanctions that are imposed in traditional Hindu society whenever a woman's
husband dies. In this way, she can also be free to leave her (human) mate, or to divorce him, and then she can also
remarry as she chooses. In Nepal, Newars who comprise the predominant cultural group of the Kathmandu Valley,
ritually marry pre-pubescent daughters to a fruit of the Bel (Aegle marmelos.) It stands for Lord Vishnu, also called
The word Bel may derive from the Semitic word, baal, which means lord and also, husband.
This is a slender, aromatic creeper called areca that has alternate, heart-shaped, smooth, glossy leaves. In South Asia,
the leaf is folded into an envelope to wrap paan (a mixture of chopped betel nut with a choice of other condiments) that is
used as a stimulant. The astringent packet is macerated in the mouth, most commonly after a meal, in order to sweeten
the breath and to aid digestion. Some juice is swallowed but the remains are expectorated so that woody bits and blood
red splashes stain the sidewalks of public places.
The areca flower is used in a South Indian cult of the goddess, Siri (CBC Radio, "Tapestry," March 16, 2003) who was
born in the centre of the blossom. Women strike themselves with the long stemmed flowers as part of a ritual involving
"spirit possession" during which they can freely express their suffering before the men. It has been noted that when the
bits of this plant matter fall into the temple tank (ritual pool) where they wash themselves, fish are found floating dead on
the surface the next day.
The epic of the hero[ine,] Siri.
One of the substances found in the white areca flower is an alkaloid that seems to have some positive effect on the
symptoms of schizophrenics.
Night-blooming flower associated with Nagas.
This tree bears the oak-apple that features as a medicinal plant. In India, it is associated with the cult of Shiva, so there
are often Shiva-linga beneath them:
Karpur is the Indian word from which we get "camphor." It is the name given to some varieties of cinnamon tree. One
group of varieties provides bark and leaves that can be used as a spice or flavouring; another (Cinnamomus camphorus
and C. parthenoxylon) yields the strongly scented opaque crystalline substance that keeps insects away from fabric and
furniture. For camphor, a fatty substance is extracted from the wood and leaves, which is further distilled, separated and
pressed to yield the cake of white crystals.
The plantain, a kind of banana tree, is a symbol of illusion in Sanskrit literature. It may look like a tree but it is merely a
clump of leaves. As Sylvain Levy points out (The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol.VI, no.4, 613) 1930.) the Buddha on
different occasions (Majjh. I, 233; Sam. IV, 167) uses the metaphor of a man who went with his axe in search of good
wood who only cut the trunk of a plantain tree.
The trunk of the plantain is also a symbol of delicate physical beauty, and in Indian erotic poetry a woman's thighs may be
compared to twin trunks of banana trees.
Also in the jatakas that contain accounts of shipwreck, a man tossed on the waves is compared with the trunk of a
plantain tree, as Levy says "a poor little thing, weak and small, lost on the vast surface of the ocean."
In India, night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum) is called Raat rani. It appears an unremarkable spindly shrub, but
as evening falls, the greenish yellow flowers that weigh down its stems begin to open into stars. As night descends and
lamps are lit, the flowers exude their distinctive, heady scent that wafts on the evening breeze for long distances. These
tiny white blossoms are sold in garlands for offerings and they also dress the hair of the women of northeast India, trailing
down a braid or wound around a bun.
Trees as Offerings
In the Tibetan sang ritual, wood is burned for its scent, but the fire and the smoke are also part of the offering. Five
traditional aromatic trees are used for this, and each is associated with a class of unseen beings: the juniper (lha),
rhododendron (nyen), tamarisk (lu), margosa (tsen) and pine (deu.)
Communication between trees for defense.
The Ents and Entwives that appear in the Two Towers volume of JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy are marching
tree-beings that protect the woodlands.
Treen: Antique objects such as cups and spoon carved from dense wood.
enclosure: This pipul is a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha taught his former companions. To visit the
banyan that is the purported "enlightenment" tree, one has to go out into the countryside.