A FOREST is usually made up of many trees. But there is a forest that is made from just one tree. The banyan is a most unusual tree, which can spread until it covers an area of more than five acres [2 ha]! How does it start growing? How does it keep extending itself until it can truly be called a forest?
The banyan belongs to the flowering plant order called Urticales and the family Moraceae, or the mulberry family, which includes some 800 species of fig plants. The banyan, or Bengal fig, starts its long life from a seed contained in the droppings of monkeys, birds, or bats who have eaten the fruit of the banyan.
In the branches of a host tree, the seeds germinate, and the roots flourish in organic matter collected in crevices. Humid conditions help the roots of the new tree to grow rapidly; they thicken around the trunk of the “victim” tree and grow down into the ground. As they gain in strength and size, they suffocate the host tree, giving the name strangler figs to this type of plant.
Now the banyan is ready to expand. Not only do roots spread from the base of the parent trunk but as branches lengthen horizontally, aerial roots drop down from them toward the ground and anchor themselves in the soil. The making of a forest has begun.
Found in tropical Africa and India, the banyan, with its large, flat leaves, serves as an umbrella of shade for humans and animals. One tree in India is so vast that it is said to be able to shelter more than 20,000 people! The fruit is not good for human consumption, and the wood of the banyan is soft and porous; however, a white, sticky substance called birdlime, which comes from the wood, is used to capture birds.
How long does the banyan live? One tree in the state of Andhra Pradesh is estimated to be over 600 years old; other notable, protected trees are well over 250 years old. And the growth and spread of a banyan goes on indefinitely.
What is said to be the biggest banyan known is located in Sri Lanka. It has 350 large trunks and more than 3,000 smaller trunks all attached to one parent tree. In India a tree with over 1,100 prop roots and a canopy cover of more than five acres [2 ha] was recently measured and found to be the biggest in that country. It is guarded constantly by four armed men to preserve it from damage. Other famous banyans in India include one near Bangalore that covers three acres [1.2 ha] and is a favorite picnic spot for the city dwellers. Then there is an awesome tree situated in the Ranthambhore wildlife park. Mentioned in the writings of a Mogul emperor 500 years ago, this tree provides shade for birds, bats, snakes, squirrels, and hordes of small animals and insects, besides being a playground and a hunting ground for the tigers and other predators in the park.
Perhaps the best-known banyan in India, though, is the 240-year-old tree in the National Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. Over 80 feet [24.5 m] tall, it covers an area of three acres [1.2 ha] and has more than 1,800 aerial roots and a vast crown with a circumference of 1,400 feet [420 m]. A veritable forest!
Religion and the Banyan
From ancient times people have worshiped trees. The banyan is no exception; it is considered sacred in India even today. Sacred trees are supposed to represent particular deities—in the case of the banyan, the god Vishnu. It is viewed as worship to the deity of the tree when a tree is planted, watered, and cherished.
In ancient Polynesian societies too, the banyan was held as sacred. Religious ceremonies took place in a rectangular plaza, or tohua, around which houses had been built. At one end of the plaza was usually found a temple with a sacred banyan, on the branches of which were suspended the packaged bones of prominent members of the tribe who had died.
The name of this mighty tree was originally given by Europeans. In the Persian Gulf and in India, the early European travelers saw that the vast, umbrellalike canopy of the tree provided shade under which merchants spread their wares to protect them from the burning heat of the sun. In the Hindu caste system, the merchants were from the major division called Vaisya, and a subcaste, the banyas, were notable sellers of grain and other grocery items. Noticing that a banya would sell his goods under the shady tree led these foreigners to call the tree a banyan.
In those days the banyas usually wore a cotton vest with hidden pockets for their money. Cool and easy to launder, the vest was so common to the banya traders that the name banyan was given to the garment, and later the name was used for any man’s vest or undershirt. This name is still used for a man’s undershirt in India, and the banyas’ habit of wearing this type of garment when working remains even today.
Let’s Climb a Banyan
Would you like to climb up into the heart of a banyan? You could if you ever visited Hyderabad in south India. Near the Begumpet Airport, and close to the heart of the city, is the Machan, a treetop restaurant built into the sturdy branches of a banyan and its neighboring pipal, also a fig. Climb the thick rope ladder past platforms set at intervals.
The structure you are on is made of bamboo, coconut leaves, and ropes. The pyramid-shaped bamboo roof protects you from sun and rain as you enter the higher of two dining rooms set at different levels. You are now 30 feet [9 m] from the ground. Delightful cane furniture and tribal wall hangings add to the forest feeling.
As you sit down, you are handed a menu card called Mowgli, a name familiar to readers of Rudyard Kipling’s stories contained in The Jungle Book. This too adds to the forest atmosphere. Now settle down to the unique experience of eating a meal in the middle of a banyan. Enjoy some Indian delicacies, such as rich biriyanis for which Hyderabad is famous, kebabs, and a variety of other dishes.
Your meal over, climb carefully down the rope ladder, see the mini waterfall and the lotus pond, and make your way out of this unique treetop restaurant perched in the vast canopy of the banyan—the tree that can spread and spread and spread until one tree has become a forest.