Banyan - history

Native to India and Pakistan, banyan trees now grow widely throughout tropical Asia. Because they are held sacred and represent eternal life, they have been an important plant throughout history.

History

In most traditional villages of South Asia, a huge banyan tree provides a meeting place for the community. They gather in its shade to sleep, chat, relax or discuss important issues and make decisions. So important are the trees as a meeting place, that the name banyan is derived from the merchants, called banias, who would rest under the trees to discuss their business.
An historical watercolour of a large banyan growing near Hindu temples on the River Soane, India.
Banyan trees are frequently planted near temples.

The trees are a common feature of the countryside in South Asia and are frequently planted or allowed to grow near houses, temples and around villages and roadsides. They are often planted as shade trees.

Banyan in art

South Asian art has featured banyan trees throughout history. One example dating from the 2nd century BC is a stone pillar found in the Vidisha region (now the state of Madhya Pradesh). The pillar is carved in the shape of a banyan tree and is hung with a conch shell, a lotus flower, vases filled with coins and bags tied with string. The tree is enclosed by a latticed railing. This sculpture is believed by some to be the wish-giving tree known as the kalpavriksha featured in the Buddhist Jataka tales. Others consider it to be the sacred tree or sthalavriksha hung with treasures which is associated with shrines of such deities as Kubera, the God of Wealth.

In contemporary India, the banyan is the national tree. Its interlinked roots and branches are often used as a symbol to describe the country's unity within its diversity.