Arboreal wonder

Published : Jun 15, 2012 00:00 IST

With a canopy area of 19,107 square metres, Thimmamma Marrimanu in Andhra Pradesh is said to be the biggest tree in the world.

in Kadiri

THE dusty town of Kadiri in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh is just a few hours' drive from Bangalore. The hub of the local economy, it is also famous for being the town closest to Thimmamma Marrimanu, which is often described as the world's biggest banyan tree. The fame of the tree, however, has not travelled far. Compared with better-known banyans across India, this grand example of nature's majesty is relatively obscure.

Several giant banyans ( Ficus benghalensis) in India have aroused curiosity historically. There is something in the soil and climate of the subcontinent that provides the right mix for these giant trees to flourish; it is no wonder that the banyan is named the national tree of India.

India's giant banyans find mention in the work of the Roman scholar Pliny, who lived between A.D. 23 and 79. In his magisterial work Naturalis Historia, he describes the superlative canopy area of the Indian fig tree thus: The upper branches spring, like a forest, from the vast body of the mother tree: most of them measure sixty paces in circumference; and they cover a space of two stadia with their shadow.

Pliny's knowledge of the giant Indian banyans came from Alexander's army, which sought refuge under the Kabir Vad Banyan on the outskirts of Bharuch in Gujarat. The army of 7,000 men is supposed to have sheltered under the broad and intricately linked branches of this great tree. If this legend is indeed true, it makes this banyan tree one of the oldest living trees, apart from being one of the largest trees, in the world.

Banyan in literature

The banyan has often been talked about in literature too. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, was not unaware of the great Indian banyans. In the sensational Ninth Book of the epic poem, where he describes the scene immediately after Eve and Adam become aware of their shameful nakedness following the great sin they committed, Milton says they cover themselves with the leaves of the banyan tree.

He writes: ...and both together went/ Into the thickest wood; there soon they chose/ The fig tree; not that kind for fruit renown'd,/ But such as at this day, to Indians known/ In Malabar or Deccan, spreads her arms/ Branching so broad and long, that in the ground/ The bended twigs take root, and daughters grow/ About the mother tree, a pillar'd shade/ High over-arch'd, and echoing walks between:/ There oft the Indian herdsmen shunning heat,/ Shelters in cool, and tends his pasturing herds/ At loop-holes cut through the thickest shade. Those leaves/ They gather'd, broad as Amazonian targe,/ And with what skill they had together sew'd/ To gird their waist. Vain covering, if to hide/ Their guilt and dreaded shame! (lines 1,099 to 1,114).

In another literary instance, Robinson Crusoe (the protagonist of Daniel Defoe's novel of the same name) builds his home in a banyan tree. A famous collection of short stories by R.K. Narayan is titled Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories. The banyan also has a religious significance in India; it finds mention in the Bhagvad Gita.

The great banyans of India recently attracted the attention of the ecologist Y.D. Bar-Ness, a Fulbright scholar, who spent two years in the country cataloguing and measuring these trees. Bar-Ness plotted them on a map and used satellite images from Google Earth to calculate the canopy area of the trees. His list of eight great Indian banyan trees are the Giant Banyan of Majhi near Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), the Great Banyan in the Kolkata Botanical Garden (West Bengal), the Ranthambore Banyan (Rajasthan), the Kabir Vad Banyan, the Big Banyan Tree on the outskirts of Bangalore (Karnataka), the Theosophical Society Big Banyan in Chennai (Tamil Nadu), the Pillalamarri Banyan Tree on the outskirts of Hyderabad and Thimmamma Marrimanu in Anantapur district (both in Andhra Pradesh).

In an article in the March 2012 issue of Geo Magazine, Bar-Ness writes that till date there has been no systematic cataloguing or measurement of the largest of them using modern technology. He says that if the crown canopy coverage area (the area covered by the canopy of the tree measured in square metres) is used as the criterion to find the largest tree, Indian banyans score well above other trees in the world. If other criteria such as the height of the tree, the girth of the trunk and the volume of the wood of a single tree are used, then there are other contenders around the world for the title of the world's largest trees. Bar-Ness states that Indian banyans are the largest to the best of our knowledge, meaning, according to the information available to botanists and ecologists.

Largest canopy area

According to Bar-Ness, Thimmamma Marrimanu ranks first in canopy cover (19,107 square metres). With a canopy area of 17,520 sq m, Kabir Vad is the second largest banyan tree.

The road leading to Thimmamma Marrimanu is dry. With the temperature touching almost 40 degrees, summer has been particularly harsh this year and many districts in the area have been declared drought-hit. Paddy and maize fields are on either side of the road.

A few kilometres from the tree, the fields give way to a barren, scrubby forest with hillocks that must be a lovely sight to behold during the monsoons; they are dull and rust-coloured, with dry vegetation now. A small village called Gootybailu is almost upon us even before we realise it. A grocery store at the end of the village leads to a barren ground and suddenly, without warning, the great banyan is right in front of us.

At first glance, the single tree seems more like a grove of small banyans. A dilapidated sign proclaims that this is the world's biggest banyan tree according to the Guinness Book of World Records of 1989 ( Frontline could not verify whether the Guinness Book has actually recorded this). Contrasted with the barren and dusty plain on which it is located, the verdant tree looks fresh and welcoming. A narrow path leads to the tree, whose dense canopy swallows visitors as they disappear into its shadow. A row of beggars on the path leading to a small temple, which has been constructed recently, look hopefully at the curious visitors.

All this time, one is surrounded by the massive tree whose hundreds of aerial roots weave a spider's web up above. The tree is not tall, but it has sent its branches shooting sideways. These branches have dangling roots that strike the earth to form new trunks.

The entire area looks like an architect's nightmare, with colonnaded-pillar-like-trunks running amok. Searching for the mother trunk is futile even if it is still there, as scores of trunks span the area and have become mother trunks in their own right, letting their wayward roots scamper all over the place.

Little-known wonder

J. Venkatesh, a lecturer in English at the Government Degree College in Banagapalle, a town some 200 kilometres away in Kurnool district, was visiting Thimmamma Marrimanu for the third time. I have come to show my children this magnificent tree, he said. I will also be visiting the tomb of Vemana [a Telugu poet revered as a saint], which is not very far from here. It is a pity that this great tree is not well known.

K.R. Srinivas Swamy, the priest at the temple located in the middle of the grove, echoes his sentiments. There are absolutely no facilities here for the visitor; no drinking water, no restaurant, no decent place to stay, he said.

Many great banyans in India, like other significant trees littered all over the subcontinent, have a mythological and religious significance. Kabir Vad, the great banyan outside Bharuch, for instance, is said to have grown from the sage Kabir Das' toothbrush twig.

Many banyan trees have survived for centuries because they are revered locally as sacred groves. Publications such as the Sacred and Protected Groves of Andhra Pradesh (World Wide Fund for Nature-India, A.P. State Office, 1996) and organisations such as the ENVIS Centre on Conservation of Ecological Heritage and Sacred Sites of India have endeavoured to chronicle such sacred trees in the past.

Many scholars have also written on the importance of sacred groves for the conservation of tree and animal species and on how traditional tribal belief systems have been appropriated by other faiths. Often, once a tree is recognised as holy, a temple is constructed at the location and a part of the tree or the grove is cleared to facilitate the construction.

Thimmamma Marrimanu sports a swanky new temple, which was constructed last year by a benefactor from Bangalore. Srinivas Swamy explains an interesting legend floating around about the tree's origin. The tree is 650 years old and sprouted on the spot where Thimmamma, a royal lady who committed sati, jumped into her husband's pyre, he said. A raised platform just outside the temple marks this spot.

The original trunk of the tree is said to have been seen until the early 20th century, but Srinivas Swamy is unsure of this. The tree is being looked after by the Forest Department of Andhra Pradesh. Close to a hundred domestic tourists mostly from the surrounding districts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh come here, as do four or five foreign tourists. The tree has a religious significance as some 25,000 to 50,000 people come here during Shivaratri, he said.

A thick carpet of dried banyan leaves crackles loudly, breaking the silence, as one walks around the tree. Some dead trunks are withering away, with light green leaves sprouting from their roots and tiny maroon figs cocooned in the fresh leaves. It is this tiny fruit that attracts the myriad birds chirping away in the canopy above. They help spread the seeds far and wide, giving birth to thousands of other banyan trees.

According to Vijay Thiruvady, author of the book Heritage Trees In and Around Bangalore, many banyan trees start their life as epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants or structures and survive on sunlight, heat and rainwater and whatever debris that comes with the rainwater). The origin of the Great Banyan of Kolkata can be traced to undigested seeds dropped by a bird into the crown of a date palm in 1782. Eventually these unwelcome guests strangle the host tree as their roots drop down to the earth and find their own sources of sustenance. They sound like anacondas devouring their prey as they constrict the very life out of their host. Maybe Thimmamma Marrimanu also started its life like that, as a tiny sprout that eventually became a massive arboreal fantasy.

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