Why one fig tree in the middle of nowhere has a 24-hour armed guard

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When Parmeshwar Tiwari volunteered to join India’s Home Guard, he didn’t know he would spend five years on a hill in the middle of nowhere defending a fig tree. But he is part of a four-man team doing just that. They protect the tree — in Salamatpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh — for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sharing a tent for shelter, they must contend with snakes and scorpions, a lack of amenities, the baking heat and the ever-present grip of boredom. Now they face being splashed by a wave of opprobrium that is bearing down on the state government.

When Anurag Dwary of NDTV reported this month that the state spends 1.2 million rupees (US$18,600) a year to guard and water the tree, critics were quick to point out that sum could pay for all sorts of better things.

Some called the expense stupid; said it made the state government a laughing stock. Others said it was grotesque to spend such a sum on a tree in a state where more than 50 farmers had committed suicide that month because of debts.

But it may yet prove to be a shrewd investment.

The tree is far from ordinary. It is a kind of fig tree, known locally as a peepal tree and to scientists as Ficus religiosa, and it has a long and fascinating history.

The story starts more than 2500 years ago, when the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating beneath a fig tree in northern India.

That tree became known as the bodhi tree, or tree of enlightenment. In 250 BCE, Emperor Ashoka the Great visited it and created a temple there. Such was his respect and love for the Buddha’s tree that his wife become bitterly jealous and tried to kill the plant.

The tree survived, but after Ashoka’s death King Pushyamitra Shunga had it destroyed. The living link with the Buddha was lost.

Except it wasn’t. Because Ashoka had earlier sent a branch of the tree to Sri Lanka as a gift for the King Devanampiya Tissa, who had it planted in his capital Anuradhapura. The picture below shows Ashoka’s daughter bringing the sacred branch to Sri Lanka.

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Visit Anuradhapura today and you will see a giant Ficus religiosa that Buddhists say has grown from the branch the king planted, making it the world’s oldest living tree with a recorded history.

In 2012, the then President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had a slender branch with no more than 25 leaves removed from the tree. He brought it to India and planted it on the hillock near Salamatpur.

But just two years later, the Hindustan Times reported that the tree was in trouble. The tree had grown six metres tall and its branches were pushing against the roof of the mesh cage that was meant to protect it. Its leaves were diseased and the tree was parched and wilting for lack of water.

The paper blamed the state government rather than the four guards.  Indeed, it noted that they too were suffering, lacking in water and power supplies and forced to defecate in the open for want of toilet facilities.

“Our duty is to ensure security of the tree and we are doing that despite so many odds,” said one of the guards, Atar Singh.

The newpaper’s report sparked a strong response from the head of the Mahabodhi Society of India, Bhante Vimal Tisse who said the government of India had a moral responsibility to care for the tree and that its negligence had offended Buddhists.

Sri Lanka also got involved. Its Buddhist Religious Affairs Ministry said it would take the matter up with the Indian High Commission.

The outrage and diplomacy soon bore fruit. Today the tree is strong and healthy. Every week a botanist from the state Agriculture Department of Madhya Pradesh visits to check its health. But with fresh questions about the value of protecting the tree, its future is uncertain.

The state’s investment may seem high but it has the potential to transform the local economy if, as planned, pilgrims and tourists begin to flock to visit the tree.

Parmeshwar Tiwari told NDTV’s Anurag Dwary that, five years ago, many people did come “but now only a few turn up”. Maybe more would come if they knew the tree’s story.

But as recently as 2015, according to Milind Ghatwai’s report for The Indian Express, even the guards did not know the significance of what they were protecting.

Read more about the tree of enlightenment and other famous fig trees in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers). 

Photo credits: Top (Anurag Dwary/NDTV); bottom (Photo Dharma / Wikimedia Commons)

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Amazing photo of Buddha’s head engulfed by strangler fig roots

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Few photographs have captured the biological and cultural splendour of fig trees better than this fantastic shot by Adam Baker of strangler fig roots engulfing a stone carving of the Buddha’s head at Wat Mahathat, a 14-century Buddhist temple in Ayutthaya, central Thailand.

Strangler figs grow across the tropics and subtropics, starting out in life high on other trees and sending down aerial roots that merge and split and merge again, dominating all that they encounter. These awesome, eerie plants have become embedded in religion and culture wherever they grow.

It was while meditating beneath a strangler fig that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific and parts of the Americas, these plants are homes to gods and spirits, places of prayer and ritual. But they are also ecological linchpins, sustaining more species of wildlife than any other trees.

My book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests. Read a summary here.

Credit: I’ve reproduced Adam Baker’s photo with his permission. Check out the original and his other great photography on Flickr.