I knew that the word peepal originated in Hindi and that it referred to the species of sacred fig native to the Indian subcontinent. It was only when I went to Bodhgaya in Bihar, however, that I discovered how little I knew about this medicinal tree. The peepal tree, called the Tree of Creation, is the oldest recorded species, according to a seal discovered in the Mohenjo-daro. I knew another most celebrated detail, of course: The peepal tree—called “ficus religiosa” and known commonly as the Bodhi—was the storied canopy under which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment.
I imagined it had soaked in the thoughts of Sita, and Krishna and all those wise men who had pondered the course of their lives under it. Inside the grey stone of the temple, I felt its vibrations as we neared the gold-painted pillars enclosing the tree. Scores of devotees chanted around it. Some were deep in meditation. Some put their faces to the pillars, loathe, it seemed, to pry themselves away. Many worshippers, including several 8 and 9-year-old monks, counted rosaries and chanted as they circumambulated in grim introspection. Men and women fell to the ground chanting, and then, as they measured three paces with their feet, they fell down to prostrate yet again, measuring the perimeter of the temple. In this timeless place, I was as inconsequential as an aging mosquito contemplating the tenuous, tapered end of the peepal’s heart-shaped leaf as it taxied over it.
During my long stay in India, and in December in particular, the idea of the tree—as a symbol of life and immanence, as a provider of shade and succor, as an object of beauty, as a giver of life, as that something we hold meaningful to our lives—would haunt me many times over as the new year approached.
One evening in the first week of December, I was standing in line at Prithvi Theater in Mumbai’s Juhu suburb when I struck up a conversation with a stranger waiting behind me. By the time we finished exchanging details about our lives, she had offered to lead me on a tree walk to show me the thoughtful curation of the city’s Hiranandani gardens.
At 5 pm, Renee Vyas, a tree expert who had led enthusiasts on over a hundred walks in Mumbai, was awaiting me, a bag drawn across her chest from which she would fish out her botanical encyclopedia several times to explain the details of every specimen. I learned about the difference between the kapok and the silk cotton that were so similar and yet so unique. We walked past twenty-three species of palms in that small garden that had been thoughtfully curated with a row of native species and another row of non-native species. She pointed to the “Cycad Revoluta,” one of the most primitive living seed plants known as the sago palm and growing a nano inch a year in my backyard in Saratoga. The time Renee gave me that evening seemed prescient when, on December 12th, a cyclone ravaged all the foliage and every manmade cable or object lying in its trajectory in my city of Chennai.
As the 90-mile wind thundered through the neighborhood it felled large chunks of giant trees. In the city that had ruthlessly chopped up trees to build sideways and upwards and forwards, the cyclone cordoned off neighborhoods, decimating power supply for days. Down our road, a falling branch of the kapok tree had split a brick wall. Outside our home, a million red seeds of the manjadi tree glistened by their twisted pods. The tree stood, however, proving once again that the love of its owners could overpower the potency of nature.
In the next many days, Chennai reeked of rotting leaves and algae. A week after, as foliage baked in the sun, the city faced the peril of fire hazard as it hurried to clear the debris from the disaster. At Jeeva Park, my late father’s stomping grounds, the destruction from the cyclone was total.
Now, the canopy over Jeeva Park—of neem braiding into peepal, gulmohar, mango, kapok and ashoka—had vanished. The sun seared our heads as we walked. Even though the park’s railings had been torqued and the pathways rent open as trees stood uprooted, one thing had been untouched. The idol of Ganesha still sat under a new, much diminished arbor of the central peepal tree.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.