Two sleepy villages, two very special Banyan trees, and a manmade miracle

What does it take for two Banyan trees to live again? It’s a magical formula of social media blitz, genuine efforts, and quick action by politicians and concerned authorities. If you need to save one tree today, this is the story you must read. And share

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This is a story about two Banyan trees. In the month of July and August — just when the country was gradually “unlocking” itself after a long, coronavirus-induced lockdown — these trees were counting their last breaths. One had almost died a natural death, and the other was all set to be guillotined to satiate human greed. But they survived to pass on their stories to the next generation. What’s extraordinary is that the protagonists of this survival story are people living in two sleepy villages in Maharashtra and Goa. They were at the forefront of rescuing these very special Banyan trees.

The efforts by these local people show that if people are willing, if they persist and if they get help from social media, authorities, and politicians, an effort could be made to save the trees that are on the verge of being cut down in the country. Picture this. Between 2014 and 2019, 1.09 crore trees were cut in the country for development purposes.

And that is why, the stories of these two Banyan trees need to be told.

Location: Bhose village, Sangli district, Maharashtra
The giant Banyan tree in Bhose village in Sangli

A 400-year-old Banyan tree in Bhose village in Sangli district of Maharashtra – 375 kms from the state capital Mumbai – has been silently witnessing one generation giving way to the other for centuries. It has been silently guarding the village for nearly 400 years, just like an old and protective grandfather.

People living in Bhose village sprang into action in the last week of July when they learnt that the tree, whose canopy is spread over 400 sq m, stood in the way of a service road, which was a part of the Ratnagiri-Solapur highway, and was going to be chopped off.

“The contractors, who came to carry out a survey for the highway project, kept us in the dark for almost a year,” said Rahul Ganeshwade, a primary school teacher, who lives in the village. “We were told that the Banyan tree, and the Yellamma temple next to it, would be spared.”

The villagers were blissfully unaware until they saw a picture of the tree in a local newspaper. The caption mentioned that the tree was counting its last breath. “I felt so bad that I wrote a Facebook post saying the tree has given us so much over the years so we should not let it die,” said Ganeshwade. He added: “The post went viral. Many local journalists and environment activists took note of it and joined the cause. On July 24, 2020, we organized a ‘chipko andolan’. Many villagers and nature-lovers participated in the day-long andolan. The local media covered it and the news went viral on Facebook and Twitter.”   

The presence of the media helped the cause immensely

Ganeshwade gives full credit to Aditya Thackeray, the state environment minister, who not only reacted to this news but even got in touch with the Sangli collector and requested him to look into the matter. “We met the collector. We made him understand that the tree could be saved and only a small diversion to the highway was needed. The collector gave a positive response to the environment minister. He got in touch with Nitin Gadkari (the Union Minister for Road Transport and Highway), who immediately asked a survey team to reach Bhose village.” It took five days of sustained efforts to save the 400-year-old Banyan tree.

But the tree could not be saved entirely. Some branches had to be chopped off. Monkeys, langurs, and many species of birds that had made the tree their home for decades were petrified the day the branches facing the highway were trimmed. Ganeshwade is also upset that not many villagers – especially those who benefit from the tree the most– turned up for the andolan. “The fact is that we don’t value trees. The next generation will not even get to see such big and beautiful trees,” he said.  

The Banyan tree, and the Yellamma temple next to it, are of great significance to the Warkaris — pilgrims who march on foot from various locations in Maharashtra to the Vithoba temple in Pandharpur on a particular day every year. The tree and the temple are en route Pandharpur, and in that period, many Warkaris visit the temple and rest under the Banyan tree.

Despite best efforts, the tree could not escape the chopping and pruning of many of its branches

There is an interesting story about how the temple came up next to the tree. “In the early 1970s – during the drought years – there was a plan to build a pond in the outskirts of the village. Originally, that’s where the deity was kept. To save the deity, the villagers shifted it next to the tree and made the temple,” said a 70-year-old environmentalist, who is fondly known as Papa Patil. He was also a part of the mission to save the Banyan tree.

While the mission was on, some people questioned if the Banyan tree was indeed 400-year-old. When asked over the phone to comment on this, an infuriated Patil said: “Maybe it’s not a 400-year-old tree, maybe it’s just 100-year-old, or 50, but it’s still a tree. Lakhs of trees are being cut in the name of development. If we are trying to save one tree, why do people have a problem with that? Every tree is important. It’s never about just one tree.”

His sentiments are beautifully echoed by the residents of Arambol village, which is nearly 225 kms from Bhose.  

Location: Arambol village, Goa
The Banyan tree at Arambol village in Goa. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook

A 200-year-old Banyan tree in Arambol – a fishing village 35 kms from Goa’s capital Panji — is not just a tree, it’s an experience. The locals believe that The Beatles meditated under the tree when they had visited India in 1968. It is said that in the 1960s, Arambol was at the center of the Hippie movement. The giant Banyan tree, lovingly called ‘The Source’, was a source of happiness for the hippies who visited then and continues to be a hub for the foreigners who visit now.

On August 4, when Sabastiana Fernandes, a resident of Arambol village, stepped out of her house, she was heartbroken. The mighty Banyan tree in front of her house had fallen and its roots were uprooted. It had rained heavily the previous night. Every day she would sit under the tree – it stood in Fernandes’ land — and sell tender coconuts.

The Banyan tree is a popular spot in Arambol. Many tourists, local and visiting, assemble here post-sunset and dance under the tree … popularly known as ‘The Source’ (of happiness). They plug speakers and lights to Sabastiana house post-sunset and disperse by 10 pm. She charges a small fee for this, but her main contention is that people should respect the tree and they do.

When the tree fell after a heavy downpour, Fernandes’ heart broke. When the word got out, people came to see the tree. They took to Instagram and Facebook and posted pictures of the tree lying helplessly on the ground … its branches spread out. When tourists spread across different parts of the world and in the country, who had danced under the at least once tree, saw the pictures, they promised to help. What followed was out of the ordinary. Heartbroken local people, tree lovers and tourists raised around Rs 2 lakh through crowd-funding to help in the rescue of the Banyan tree.

After a few hectic hours, by 3 pm, amid much cheering, the tree stood up again. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook

Looking at the enthusiasm it was decided that an attempt had to be made to resurrect the tree. The old tree had died but new roots were spotted which meant there was hope. When the word got around, Goa-based Marc Francis from Living Heritage Foundation, an outfit which undertakes conservation of bio-diversity, and Sanobar Durrani, an environmentalist and convenor of the Banyan Tree Project in Goa, connected and reached out to Uday Krishna of Vaata Foundation, a tree expert based in Hyderabad. All the experts brainstormed for days to come up with a resurrection plan.

After planning, came the implementation part. If the tree had to be resurrected, heavy machinery was needed. The money pulled in through crowd-funding was put to use. The fallen bulk of the tree and the roots weighed more than 100 tons, so 40 tons of canopy was clipped. As the tree was dead, it didn’t make sense to put it back where it stood. After much deliberation and many permutations and combinations later, the experts and environmentalists, who had landed in Arambol just for this, decided to dig a pit and place the Banyan tree in it so that it could grow all over again.

August 19 was the D-day. In the morning, Group Seon, which provides construction and related services across a wide range of industries and sectors, arrived at the spot with three excavators and the Bull Backhoe loader. Many anxious and curious locals and foreigners were present there too. After a few hectic hours, by 3 pm, amid much cheering, the tree stood up again.

“The tree is fine now,” said Fernandes when this reporter contacted her in September for the story. The network was extremely sketchy and the call went through with great difficulty. But when she said: “It’s standing. I am happy”, there was a sense of relief in her voice. 

Local people took along with them the fallen parts of the Banyan tree. They said they would plant them somewhere close to their homes. Image: Living Heritage App/Facebook 

“After the tree was successfully raised, we got many messages from people around the world as the story had really inspired them,” said Anna Marsy, a Russian dance conductor, who witnessed the resurrection of the tree. “The Banyan tree story has managed to awaken the trust in the power of the community, trust in a deep belief that everything is possible if we are united and committed for one common cause,” she added.

Marsy is one of the many who has attended the most wonderful yoga and dance practices under the majestic Banyan tree. After every session, people would express their gratitude to the tree which reminded them about the beautiful connection between humans and nature.

“People from all over the world have danced under the Banyan tree and experienced the most unforgettable moments of life — freedom, health, joy and happiness. For all of them, the Banyan tree is a significant part of their memories,” said Marsy.

What’s also significant is that the day the tree was resurrected, local people took along with them the fallen parts of the Banyan tree. They said they would plant them somewhere close to their homes. 

“It is just the beginning of a new era. Humans are finally acknowledging that they are not separated from nature, but are one with the environment. It’s high time we think, act and take responsibility for what will our children inherit,” said Marsy.

* The image on the left in the lead picture has been sourced from the Facebook page of ‘Living Heritage App’

Published by Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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