Gentle Giants Rooted in the Villages of India
TREES make you feel young. And the older the tree, the younger you feel.
Whenever I pass beneath the old tamarind tree standing sentinel in the middle of Dehra's busiest street crossing, the years fall away, and I am a boy again, sitting on the railing that circled the tree, while across the road Granny ascends the steps of the Allahabad Bank, where she kept her savings.
The bank is still there, but the surroundings have changed, the traffic and the noise far greater than they used to be. I wouldn't dream of sauntering across the road as casually as I would have done in those days. The press of people is greater too, reflecting the tenfold increase in population that has taken place in this and other north Indian towns during the last 40 years. But the old tamarind has managed to survive it all. As long as it stands, as long as its roots still cling to Dehra's rich soil,
I shall feel confident that my own roots are well embedded in this old valley town.
There was a time when almost every Indian village had its spreading banyan tree, in whose generous shade schoolteachers conducted open-air classes, village elders met to discuss matters of moment, and itinerant merchants spread out their wares. Squirrels, birds of many kinds, flying-foxes, and giant beetles, are just some of the many inhabitants of this gentle giant. Ancient banyan trees are still to be found in parts of the country; but, as villages grow into towns, and towns into cities, the banyan is gradually disappearing. It needs a lot of space for its aerial roots to travel and support it, and space is now at a premium.
If you can't find a banyan, a mango grove is a wonderful place for a quiet stroll or afternoon siesta. In traditional paintings, it is often the haunt of young lovers. But if the mangoes are ripening, there is not much privacy in a mango grove. Parrots, crows, monkeys, and small boys are all attempting to evade the watchman who uses an empty gasoline tin as a drum to frighten away these intruders.
The mango and the banyan don't grow above the foothills, and here in the mountains the more familiar trees are the Himalayan oaks, horse chestnuts, rhododendrons, pines, and deodars. The deodar (from the Sanskrit dev-dar, meaning tree of God) resembles the cedar of Lebanon, and can grow to a great height in a few hundred years. There are a number of giant deodars on the outskirts of Mussoorie, where I live, and they make the town seem quite young. Mussoorie is only 160 years old. The deodars are at least
twice that age.
These are gregarious trees - they like being among their own kind - and a forest of deodars is an imposing sight. When a mountain is covered with them, they look like an army on the march: the only kind of army one would like to see marching over the mountains! Although the world has already lost over half its forest cover, these sturdy giants look as though they are going to be around a long time, given half a chance.
The world's oldest trees, a species of pine, grow in California and have been known to live up to 5,000 years. Is that why Californians look so young? The oldest tree I have seen is an ancient mulberry growing at Joshimath, a small temple-town in the Himalayas. It is known as the Kalp-Vriksha or Immortal Tree.
The Hindu sage Sankaracharya is said to have meditated beneath it in the 16th century. These ancient sages always found a suitable tree beneath which they could meditate. The Buddha favored a banyan tree, while Hindu ascetics are still to be found sitting cross-legged beneath peepal trees. Peepals are just right in summer, because the slender heart-shaped leaves catch the slightest breeze and send cool currents down to the thinker below.
Personally, I prefer contemplation to mediation. I am happy to stand back from the great mulberry and study its awesome proportions. Not a tall tree, but it has an immense girth - my three-room apartment in Mussoorie would have fit quite snugly into it. A small temple beside the tree looked very tiny indeed, and the children playing among its protruding roots could have been kittens.
As I said, I'm not one for meditating beneath trees, but that's really because something always happens to me when I try. I don't know how the great sages managed, but I find it difficult to concentrate when a rhesus monkey comes up to me and stares me in the face. Or when a horse chestnut bounces off my head. Or when a cloud of pollen slides off the branch of a deodar and down the back of my shirt. Or when a woodpecker starts hammering away a few feet up the trunk from where I sit. I expect the great on es were immune to all this arboreal activity. I'm just a nature-lover, easily distracted by the caterpillar crawling up my leg.
And so I am happy to stand back and admire the "good, green-hatted people," as a visitor from another planet described the trees in a story by R. L. Stevenson. Especially the old trees. They have seen a lot of odd humans coming and going, and they know I'm just a 60-year-old boy without any pretensions to being a sage.