Banyan has long aerial roots, hanging down from the branches, which often take root, over time creating a ’forest’ of trunks, all of which are in fact a single individual. In the Botanical Garden in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), eastern India, a 250-year-old banyan is the largest of its kind in the world. The central mother-trunk was destroyed by a lightning in 1919 and has since rotted away, but about 1,825 of the aerial roots have grown into trees, which today are c. 25 metres high, covering an area of more than 14,000 square metres, equivalent to almost 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres).
Pipal has broad, heart-shaped leaves, ending in a long, tapering point. This species belongs to a group of fig trees, called strangler figs. Most pipals begin their life as an epiphyte in another tree, the seed often sprouting in a pile of bird dung, delivered by the bird that ate the fig fruit. Over the years, aerial roots of the pipal wrap around the host tree, growing down to the ground, where they take root. Eventually, the host tree is strangled to death, and as its trunk decays, it leaves the pipal tree as a hollow cylinder of aerial roots. Pipal also often grows in cracks on buildings, its aerial roots, if allowed, enveloping the building and, over time, destroying it.
Villagers often plant banyan and pipal side by side, constructing stone benches, called chotara, around their trunks. Here, in the shade, villagers meet to chat, and hard-working porters can have a well-deserved rest. According to one Nepalese legend, the two species are husband and wife, while another one claims that they are cousins. This is often the reason, why they are planted together.
The small fruits of the two species are an important food item for various birds, such as blue-headed barbet (Psilopogon asiaticus), red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha), and rosy starling (Sturnus roseus), and also for monkeys, including rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) and bonnet macaque (M. radiata).
To Buddhists, pipal is a symbol of nirvana (enlightenment). One day, about 500 B.C., a 35-year-old man was walking along a dusty road near the town of Gaya, northern India. For five years, he had been wandering the roads of northern India, searching for an answer to a question, which had bothered him for years: Why were people suffering?
Foot-sore, he sat down to rest in the shade of a huge pipal tree, determined not to leave, before he had found a satisfying answer to his question. For 49 days and nights he sat here, deep in meditation. Then he got up, convinced that he had found the answer.
From this day, he travelled about, preaching his new philosophy to a growing crowd of followers. His name was Siddharta Gautama, by his followers called The Buddha (‘The Enlightened One’). The pipal tree, beneath which he had obtained nirvana, was called Bodhi (’Tree of Enlightenment’). Over the following centuries, a village, named Bodhgaya, sprung up around this tree, and many Buddhist temples were built here. Today, thousands of pilgrims travel to Bodhgaya each year to revere a sacred pipal tree here, which is a direct descendant of the ancient Bodhi tree.
Read in depth about The Buddha and Buddhism elsewhere on this website, see Religion: Buddhism.