Ode to the Banyan: Banyan-Sahasranamam/ A garland of names (and a prayer)

Written by Sita Reddy, inspired by Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: “For I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the Trufulla trees, for the trees have no tongues”. Drawing by Kobita Dass Kolli

The sad saga of NH163
Is that development often misses the forests for the trees
For that widening road is meant to replace and ride over
Telangana’s perfectly good StateHighway4
Along which live more than a 1000 stately banyans, marked for the axe
Since holocausts rely on cold numbers, not faces or names
This is an ode to putting hearts back.

Names matter, say the ancient banyans gracing that road
If we could speak from our shaggy-haired crowns
Our voices would rumble from our roots through our habits
For we are far from voiceless, we speak many tongues.
And we have more names than we can count on our thumbs

What’s in a name? Everything, it sets things apart
We name what we love, what endures, what should stay
Its where we believe the environmental movement must start.
We love what we name, we protect what we love
It’s the high-minded road we believe green policy must take

Our story begins in primordial mists
Around 80 million years ago some of our fig ancestors
Cut a deal with a wasp: Eupristina masoni
Both species (tree and wasp) got their Latin tags later
When Linnaeus coined his binomial nomenclature.

But eons before we were named Ficus benghalensis
On jambudvipa, our peninsular home in the tropics
The earliest tree names (in Sanskrit, in Tamil) described our strange forms:
Bahupada, many-footed
Nyagrodha, downward facing
Inward blooming
Outward branching
Secret flowering
The oldest, largest, noisiest canopies in the world
Every tree a circus! A mela! Teeming with animals and birds
The most cosmically upside-down trees on the planet
Sanctuaries, shrines, pathshalas and groves
To put it quite simply – each one a whole forest!

Colloquial names soon followed; nouns, less adjectival
Reflecting the many tongues of people who loved us
Marri. Badh. Bar. Bor. Bargad. Bargot.
Although our genealogies trace back to jungle figs
We slowly began to travel where moved
Via wasps and animals, birds and bats
Where seeds found their way and decided to stay
We found singular spots to hang our marri chettu hats
Our names became place-names, linked to journeys and roads
We spread north, we went west, we flew east, we grew south
From Calcutta’s swamps to the Adyar mount
Each tree carried tales of its own spirits and ghosts
The largest, from Thimamma’s funeral pyre where she followed her husband
The oldest, from Kabir’s toothbrush when he threw it in a dustbin!

And then came the Europeans (no strangers to naming), to maraud and to plunder
But lo! when they saw us were struck in nameless wonder
Alexander was gobsmacked; his general Syko too
He waxed about 10,000 soldiers standing under one tree roof
But the Greeks couldn’t name us; even that botanical guru Theophrastus
Saw in us only scientific proof
Of giant fig cousins to those on their islands

It wasn’t until medieval times when function followed form
And we got our current name based on those we sheltered
Our birthplace may well have been Bandar Abbas in Iran
Where one Thomas Herbert saw a tree festooned with garlands
Bannyan, he and other Englishmen called it, the tree under which the baniyas (traders) gathered
Baniyans, said the Portugese, who recognized the same in Gujarat
And our name banyan was born; For an entire tree species, the largest figs of them all.

Much like our girths, the meaning of ‘banyans’ kept expanding
To any tree that was strangler or epiphytic
And thence to an entire figure of speech
So that now banyans refer to (and it could’ve been worse)
A sheltering, sweltering, skyholding universe
A collective noun, an umbrella, a canopy of things.

Which is entirely appropriate for us banyans of Chevella
For nowhere else in the country – we think – would you find such a large road-lining cluster
To get rid of us, to cut us till we bleed
Would be to decimate a clan, an entire demi-fleet
Put a ban on cutting banyans before its too late
They are Blake-an worlds sprung from little seeds of sand

To name is to care; naming is an act of love
And so, since our name comes from traders whose language was commerce
Let’s do the math …
We are NOT mere numbers, we have many names
Mark us with love, with drishti and haldi and charms against harm
With spell songs and poems and art galore
But do not mark us for death, that’s way premature.

If names don’t convince you, here are some numbers that might
Sway your bureaucratic minds with our plight:
1165 trees lining both sides of road
(and that’s just one fig species from at least 850 more)
At least 200 bird and animal species count us as home
And I’m not even including the ghosts and spirits who live in our branches
Or the countless villagers who sit in our considerable shade
To commune and gossip and sing songs and dances

We cannot be translocated; our canopies will die
And our interlocking branches would surely collapse
We are keystone species; we support entire eco-systems
If you cut us to stumps (and we are stumped why you would!)
It will take us decades to grow back and develop those broods
But if saving trees as ecology will not convince you, here are some figures:
We will cost to be moved; at least 4 lakhs per tree
And that’s not even counting the risks of sure death
As you cut off our arms and hack down our roots.
Some 80% die each day in this foolhardy migration
We ask and beseech you: Please let us stay!

We hold in our arms your heritage, your pasts
Tagore wrote about us, as did Sarojini Naidu
Your nationalist heroes even made us your state tree
But what state do we stand for – if its not reciprocal?

Stand for us! Now that would be a grand gesture!
More so because we think we are utterly unique as a group
So be good fellas
Think plural, think larger; no other road in the nation has this many banyan clusters
As our beautiful old tree-lined SH4 to Chevella
Don’t make us history; that would be foolish
Think forward, not backward. Let US be your future.
Do it for your children and your children’s children; think big
Let them know you cared a whole fig!

For once make the right call
Don’t be cruel; don’t cut us to heartwood
Will we not bleed just as you would?
Name us Heritage Banyans and let our Xylems stand tall!

Sign the petition here