By some happy coincidence, this year World Environment Day coincides with the festival of Vat Purnima celebrated on June 5. The onset of the south-west monsoons is also predicted for that day or the morning after. The dark clouds may make it difficult to see the full moon but the break of dawn will see many married women going around the banyan tree with a spool of white thread in hand. There is a legend of how Savitri fought the god of death, Yamraj and saved the life of her husband Satyavan. She is often referred to as Vat Savitri or Savitri Vrat.
According to mythology, the date of king Satyavan’s death was pre-destined, but his wife Satyavati’s fasting and prayers won over Yamraj. And Satyavan was given a new lease of life. The tradition of fasting, praying and tying a thread to the banyan tree continues and hence it is ensured that every village and town has a banyan tree where this can be done. Unlike the tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) at Tulshichem laginn, one cannot have an impromptu banyan tree. It takes years to nurture a seedling into a tree. Pole planting is quicker but it still takes a couple of years to grow it
into a tree.
There is a story as to how the tree got its botanical and local names in English. The frontline officials of the British East India Company noticed that the traders (baniyas) from Oudh (now Uttar Pradesh) tended to sleep under a particular species of trees when they came to trade in Bengal. They called it the baniya tree. The peculiar vest they wore came to be called the ‘banian’ and slowly the name of the tree evolved to ‘banyan’ tree. It was of the Indian fig group that was classified under the generic name of ‘ficus’. Since it was first reported in the Province of Bengal (now West Bengal and Bangladesh) it came to be known specifically as Ficus benghalensis.
There is one Ficus benghalensis krishnae, named after the ‘makkan-chor’ Devki Krishna because its leaf tip is folded to look like a ladle used to serve the desi ghee and local butter or makkan. The best bonsai of this tree in Goa is the one created and owned by Sarita Zantye in Campal, Panaji. There is a huge tree of this species in the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens
Long before it was discovered that the banyan tree was a net oxygen producer even at night, the people of India had discovered that they woke up fresh if they slept under a banyan tree at night. Convention prohibited the burning of wood from a banyan tree while creating a tradition of worshipping the tree at the start of the monsoons. Like the baobab, the banyan tree has a long life span. It perpetuates itself through very tiny seeds in its figs that are eaten by all kinds of birds. The ficus species are survivors even when subjected to severe pruning and deprivation of water and nutrients. What better example could one find for resilience to an ever-changing environment?