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.

Ashoka-daughter-Sanghamitta-bringing-bodhi-tree-to-Sri-Lanka-from-India

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)

Where falling fig trees portend political change

Mugumo

When, after hundreds of years of sustaining life all around it, of providing shade in which prayers were chanted and blood was spilt in sacrifice, of binding communities who claimed it a symbol, when —after all these things — a great mugumo dies and crashes to the ground, its death echoes through both ecology and society.

In the Kikuyu culture of Kenya, the demise of a sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus natalensis) is more than a local tragedy. It is a portentous event. Now, with two giant mugumos having fallen this year, and another expected to crash down soon, many Kenyans are wondering if some big change is coming.

Mugumo trees are awesome to behold. Some grow upwards from the soil, while others are strangler figs that grow from seeds that fall on other trees. They send down pendant aerial roots that dominate all they touch. In time, these roots coalesce into a solid mass that even an elephant would struggle to topple. To birds, monkeys and fruit bats, a mugumo’s figs offer a lifeline. To people, these titans symbolise strength and power.

Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s origin story. Once consecrated as a shrine, they serve believers as a conduit to god. As such, they must never be cut. As I recount in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), taboos against felling fig trees are not unique to Kenya.

Elsewhere in Africa, as in parts of Central America and much of Asia and the Pacific, many different cultures have developed such bans – often with punishments, both real and imagined, for transgressors.

According to a recent media report, a Kenyan man’s skin turned white after he pruned a sacred fig tree in 1972. Contrast that with the fate of some Kikuyu converts to Christianity who — according to the missionary Constanzo Cagnolo writing in 1933 — were killed for chopping down a mugumo for firewood.

With such strong protections in place, the sacred mugumos have been free to grow into giants. And so, the very notion of one falling has become wrapped up in faith.

Perhaps the most famous of Kenya’s fallen fig trees is one that grew in Thika until 1963, and whose downfall was prophesied more than a century and a half earlier. In the late 1800s, a Kikuyu seer had foreseen the arrival of pale-skinned people toting ‘fire sticks’ — their guns. He saw an iron snake that would eat people and vomit them out – the train. He also predicted that when a huge fig tree in Thika fell, his people would be free.

When representatives of the British Colonial Government heard this story, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. It did not help. Part of the tree fell in May 1963 and a month later Kenya had gained internal self-rule.

The remainder of the tree fell six months later. Within a month – on 12 December – Kenya became an independent country, with Jomo Kenyatta its first Prime Minister. One of Kenyatta’s first acts as leader of the new nation was to plant a mugumo fig tree where the British Union Flag had fluttered in the wind.

In the years ahead, people would link falling fig trees with the declines of heroes of the struggle for independence. On 2 March 1975, the day after one of these trees fell, a popular politician in Kenyatta’s administration called JM Kariuki was found dead. He had been assassinated, his burnt body dumped on an ant nest. The tumbling-down of another sacred mugumo in 1978 foreshadowed the death of Kenyatta himself, later that year.

Falling fig trees can also signify shifts in power. A giant mugumo in Nyeri County fell shortly before Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in 2002, ending nearly 40 years of unbroken rule by Kenyatta’s party KANU.

Another huge mugumo fell just days before the March 2013 general election. As in 1963, this mugumo split in two before it fell. In Kikuyu lore, this signifies ituika — the change of guard from one group to another. Kikuyu elders said it presaged a generational change in Kenya’s leadership. Sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru won the presidency – replacing Kibaki and shifting political power from the old to the young.

These mugumo fig trees have played many other curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office. In the story I tell in my book, they star alongside a queen, a Nobel Prize winner and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Now, with Kenya’s next general elections taking place on 8 August 2017, the country’s fig trees are again under intense scrutiny. Since the start of the year, dozens of media reports have pondered the significance of an apparent increase in falling fig trees, such as the one that crashed down in Karatina, Nyeri County on 3 May.

Back in March, the body of another sacred mugumo cracked and began tilting toward people’s houses in Kiambu County. A village elder said mugumo trees do this when the society has committed a sin: “God is angry and people need to seek forgiveness,” he said.

Three days earlier, a giant mugumo fell in Kiamigwi village, Nyeri County. Some locals suggested that this symbolised the death of Nyeri’s Governor Nderitu Gachagua, in February. Others said it was because a snake had made its home among the fig’s roots and defiled the holy place.

The Kikuyu elders chanted, sacrificed lambs and sprayed libations of beer to cleanse the shrine and, as one elder put it, to “say goodbye” to the tree. When asked what the mugumo’s demise meant, the elders said there was nothing to fear. On this occasion, it was just a case of old age.

Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)