Pipal and banyan – two sacred fig trees



This banyan (Ficus benghalensis) in the botanical garden of Kolkata, eastern India, is the largest of its kind in the world. Today, more than 1,825 of its aerial roots have grown into 25-metre-high trees. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Pipal (Ficus religiosa) readily grows on buildings, as shown in this photograph from Kathmandu, Nepal, where its roots are destroying a small Hindu shrine. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Banyan, or Bengal fig (Ficus benghalensis), has thick, ovate leaves and long aerial roots, which hang down from the branches, and, over time, often take root, creating a ’forest’ of trunks, all of which are in fact a single individual. In the botanical garden in Kolkata, eastern India, is a 250-year-old banyan, which is the largest of its kind in the world. The central mother-trunk was destroyed by lightning in 1919 and has since rotted away, but about 1,825 of the aerial roots have grown into trees, which today are about 25 m tall, covering an area of almost 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres).

Pipal, or sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), 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.

The small fruits of the two species are an important food item for various birds, including blue-headed barbet (Psilopogon asiaticus), red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha), rosy starling (Pastor roseus), common myna (Acridotheres tristis), and Asian glossy starling (Aplonis panayensis), and also for monkeys, including rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) and bonnet macaque (M. radiata).



From larger banyan trees, numerous aerial roots hang down from the branches. Eventually, they take root – unless villagers cut them, which is often the case. This huge tree grows in Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, India. Note the person to the left. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Large banyan in morning light, Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The leaves of banyan are thick and oval. The fruits of the two species are an important food item for various birds, in this case rosy starling (Pastor roseus), observed in Karnataka, South India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ancient pipal, Bandipur, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



A row of planted pipal trees, illuminated by morning sun, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Over the years, the host tree of the pipal is strangled to death, its trunk decaying, leaving the pipal tree as a hollow cylinder of aerial roots, as this one in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Pipal has broad, heart-shaped leaves, ending in a long, tapering point. – Taichung, Taiwan (top), and Pokhara, Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Sacred trees
To Hindus, banyan and pipal are both a symbol of the mighty god Vishnu, friend and preserver of mankind, and they are often planted in Indian and Nepalese towns and villages.

To Buddhists, pipal is a symbol of nirvana (enlightenment), and it is widely planted in Sri Lanka, Indochina, and Taiwan.

Villagers in Nepal often plant the two species 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 a Nepalese legend, the two species are husband and wife, while another legend claims that they are cousins.



Sacred banyan, Kathmandu, Nepal. Strings have been tied around the trunk, and an iron band has been wound around it, to which oil lamps are attached. Red dye and cloth have been brought to the tree as offerings. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The Bodhi tree
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 said to be a direct descendant of the ancient Bodhi tree, beneath which Siddharta Gautama obtained nirvana.

In the Mahamewna Gardens in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is another large pipal tree, which, according to devotees, is a direct descendent of the original Bodhi tree. It is said that in 236 B.C., Emperor Asoka sent the Buddhist nun Sanghamitta Maha Theri to Sri Lanka, where she presented a branch of the original Bodhi tree to King Devanampiya Tissa, who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The king planted the branch in his Royal Park in Anuradhapura. The branch grew into a tree, later known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, which is still alive today, thus being the oldest planted tree in the world.

The Buddha and Buddhism are described in depth on the page Religion: Buddhism.



Buddhist monks, gathered in meditation in front of a sacred pipal tree in Bodhgaya, which, according to legend, is an offspring of the ancient Bodhi tree (top). Other monks are prostrating in front of the tree. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, Anuradhapura. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Statue of the Buddha beneath a sacred pipal tree in a Buddhist temple at Atanagalle, western Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sinhalese woman, watering another sacred pipal tree in a Buddhist temple at Kalutara, south-western Sri Lanka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




(Uploaded February 2016)


(Latest update May 2023)