The butchery of the banyans

How difficult is it, in the depths of the human spirit, to find an ounce of compassion, an iota of sensitivity, to Nature? This is a question we are forced to ask, after a few journeys along the roads from Mysore.

The roads from Mysore, leading west into Kodagu, and south towards the Biligirirangan Hills, are old roads. We know they are old, not from the road itself, or the people, certainly not from the speeding vehicles. We know it from the great trees growing by the side of the road for mile upon mile. These are grand Ficus trees, the fig trees we know as banyans, metres in girth and sprawling in canopy, planted and nurtured to life by some blessed soul centuries past. Today, they add the only uplifting aesthetics and rejuvenating shade to the otherwise bare and dour tar road. And yet, all along the roads, these huge, ancient, centuries-old banyan trees are now being hacked.

figtunnel

Winding through a picturesque countryside, taking little dips and turns and the contours of the Deccan plateau, towards the Western Ghats and other hill ranges, these roads seemed to sit gently on the landscape. There has always been ample space for vehicles, even large ones, between the trees on either side. And even as the vehicles plied back and forth, the trees were full of life. Indian Grey Hornbills and barbets and mynas come to feast on the luscious red fruits of the banyans, as do monkeys and squirrels. Myriad creatures feed, roost, mate, sing, rest, hunt, play, and sleep in the trees.

Yet, it is not just the animals that benefit. These are trees planted by people, primarily for people. From the scorching sun of the Indian summer, these trees offer dense, cool shade, the only respite from the heat in the open landscape. Many are the travelers—yes, there are many who even now travel on foot, bicycle, cart, and without air-conditioning—who rest in the shade and move on refreshed. And who cannot envy, or at least appreciate, in the heat of noon, the good fortune of this man, here, who has discovered the joy of a nap under the shade of a ficus tree.

fignap

Even as the man sleeps, a little distance away, village boys are busy, lopping a few branches of the banyan as fodder for their livestock.

figfodder

Scaling the branches like little monkeys, they diligently lop a few choice branches, stack and tie their bundle for taking to their farm for their livestock.

figfodder1

When the trees are many, the lopping seems a minor matter, and the trees have perhaps borne the children and provided for livestock for centuries. But now, the trees are few, and as you read, they are becoming fewer. A massacre of the great trees has been underway along these roads for some time, and continues even now.

Here is a grand banyan being dismembered along the Mysore – Madikeri road.

figcut1

This great tree is now gone. In the background, one can see a few sorry Australian Acacia auriculiformis and Eucalyptus trees—obnoxious alien species that can never muster even a fraction of the ecological importance or aesthetic grandeur of the banyan.

This is the scene from a few days ago on the Chamarajnagar – Asanur road, near Mysore.

figcut2

Dwarfed by the massive stumps of the destroyed giants, the vehicles and people pass—apparently untouched and unrepentant.

greatstump

And all along the roads the logs pile up but will not stay here for long—even when dead, the trees are too valuable and the lorry to take away the logs—the spoils of slaughter—is just round the corner.

slaughter

We stop to talk to the people cutting the tree. They tell us that the order is passed by the Highways and Forest Departments to cut the trees. The order is passed—what a passive statement of active slaughter! They say the road will be made wider—another order has been passed, perhaps. They also think the trees are over 500 years old. They continue their work—swing their axes and pull at their saws, taking turns to rest, and to hack. Two men hold a rope tied to the top of the tree and pull taut, away from the sawyers at the base of the tree; it should not fall on them, or harm them, even in its fall. They saw away with zest.

It is just a day’s wage labour to obliterate the growth of centuries.

justajob

The extraordinary value of the fig trees is something the entire world of ecologists, particularly those from tropical countries, has come to appreciate. Fig fruits are a favourite food of many animals. Research has so far identified over 1200 species of animals to eat fruits of different Ficus species around the world.

    A brown palm civet gorges on wild figs in a rainforest (Photo courtesy: Kalyan Varma)
A brown palm civet gorges on wild figs in a rainforest (Photo courtesy: Kalyan Varma)

Studies have also highlighted how, by fruiting copiously, producing tens of thousands of fruit on a single tree, often during seasons when other foods are scarce, figs are a critically important resource, labeled keystone resource or keystone species by ecologists. The remarkable relationship between the tiny fig wasps and the fig tree is the stuff of ecological legend and fascinating natural history. Anyone who has spent an hour under a fruiting banyan can attest to the life that such a tree brings to a landscape.

Why, then, do we need to cut these trees? Yes, we need roads, good roads; that is something most of us would not dispute. But what really is meant by a good road? Something that is more wide, more open, more homogeneous, and more barren in appearance, and, coincidentally of course, also requiring bigger contracts to be laid? Or something that is well surfaced, well marked with road signs, well integrated into the landscapes that it passes through? Studies have shown that roads with aesthetically pleasing vegetation, with grand trees on either side, even have positive, restorative effects on driver behaviour, reducing frustration on the road and perhaps making it a more enjoyable journey.

What manner of person, what kind of State, would perpetrate this horror, this butchery of the banyans, and that too apparently without hesitation, or a moment’s doubt? Needless to say, it is being done in the name of the Indian citizen and we ask: where are you, citizen, who wishes these great trees cut?

Is it too much to ask that trees such as this, which are markers of our country’s great natural and cultural history and heritage, be saved rather than sawed?

13 thoughts on “The butchery of the banyans

  1. Yes, n how many times can a man turn his head,
    Pretending he just doesn’t see?
    The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…
    – Bob Dylan

    The battles are either to save pretty trees in the city or native trees in the ‘wild’. Sadly, not many really care about fig trees (or any other) in the countryside.

    Very well written, Sridhar.

  2. its nothing, in my place they rooted all the tamarind trees in both the sides of the road for 35 kms. At least there must be more than 20,000 trees.

  3. Great that you wrote about this silent destruction – well-written and eloquent pictures, but it’s really sad if all we can do after all these years is lament and hand-wring, don’t you think?

    that seems to be always the way writings of this sort goes, extolling the virtues of nature, sounding helpless, sad and powerless against the ‘development’ evils always perpetrated by some faceless people, who may for all you know be reasonable people, like you or me …?? or maybe not.

    Surely, if all of us truly cared, ways could be figured out of convincing the powers-that-be to let at least some of these trees be? influence policy changes on road building and expansions? start a campaign against destruction of roadside trees and get urban citizens show their support for retaining the banyans..

    keep writing, fella.

  4. It is really depressing. I have been involved with the campaign against illegal felling of trees in Bangalore. About 300 trees are being chopped on some of the roads in Bangalore. Recently they chopped off trees in Lalbagh which was also done illegally.

  5. The first paragraph touched my heart and the article broke it completely. Here in Hyderabad, over 6000 trees were chopped in an year to facilitate road widening. And these too were really old trees of varying kinds, from Banyan to Neem. and here too an ‘order’ had been passed. With the city expanding, forests and wildlife parks in the outskirts have fallen victim to the urbanisation and its the wildlife which has been the worst affected-monkeys, insects and snakes alike.
    It hurts. We are an ungrateful lot. And shameless too.
    Keep writing…
    Regards
    D.V.L Padma Priya

  6. very nicely written … vadodara (baroda) where i have put in most of my years gets its name from “vad” = banyan tree (in gujarati) … they used to dot the town … today sadly outside of the university campus and the palace ground they are an uncommon sight … regards … nimesh

  7. No doubt the aricle touches everyone’s heart- My old speimen goes way back- to days when people [ i repeat ‘people’ ] wanted land and sites and roads for themselves [ and their progeny] – They asked for and got CITs and MUDAs [ i’m writing from mysore ] and layouts and nagars which are ‘happily’ sitting on erstwhile —- LAKES. PONDS, COCONUT GROVES, MANGO CLUSTERS , FERTILE FIELDS, NATURAL DRAINS, FEEDER CANALS ETC. —- Having done all these, MUDAs have not finished their mandates yet. Old ‘people’ who got a bit of the loot are receiving remittances from all corners of the world from their ‘progeny’ with a mandate to ‘acquire’ as many and as big sites as possible to pass on to ‘THEIR’ progeny to use [ read enjoy ] if and when they [ i.e.the third generation]decide to return . Our earth [ read land and infrastructure ] should be ready and ‘waiting’ for them .

    Is my old and worn out brain straying far away from the banyans? Or is my ancient heart able to intuitively feel … how the greedy could usurp the needy and form committees, associations, organizations , authorities , corporations to justify/ legitimize/ perpetuate their plans for the future [ = their own future generations] ?

  8. this is really sad. i just cant bear to see this cruelty to these majestic age centuries old trees for the sake of road widening. i am pretty sure some bloody corrupt contractor is laughing his way to the bank.

  9. A very beautifully written article not only here but also in The Hindu (26th July 2009). Its sad to see the lack of foresightedness that we humans have!!!!

  10. Very well written article, and I am sure it drove the point home for many readers. As unfortunate as it is, the urge to save the surroundings is inherently missing among many Indians. I believe it’s a national trait, the Indian mentality is questioned herewith.
    India never lacked in natural resources, infact if anything ‘was’ bestowed with great riches. Then why do we not see the beauty that we see in foreign countries? It’s because they preserve it and we fail to do even a decent job at it.
    Sad will be the day when the great mountains have been dug out, lakes filled for more land, rivers will no longer be as beautiful as they are today. If intend to avoid this picture, each of us must act today and everyday. The animals we see in plenty should not end up in zoos in a decade and enter the endangered species lists.

  11. Call me a cynic or a pessimist, but I don’t think we can stop ‘them’ from cutting trees. I think that the best we can do is to channel our energy into more tree planting and reforestation efforts. There’s one nice one in Bangalore called Trees for Free by a lady called Janet.

    I think we need affirmative action in this direction. There’s no real stopping the cutting down of these trees as much as I bleed when I see them lying decapitated on the roads, skeletons of what they once were, looking down on earthly beings and protecting us. Sigh.

  12. A well written article. It touched my heart.
    “They saw away with zest. It is just a day’s wage labour to obliterate the growth of centuries.” What a deeply saddening sight!
    .
    Nature conservation foundation and the Highways and Forest Departments, both come under the purview of the Government of India.

    One dedicates its services to the conservation of nature and wild life, and the other passes the order to hack down centuries old trees which prove without question that ”roads with aesthetically pleasing vegetation, with grand trees on either side, even have positive, restorative effects on driver behaviour, reducing frustration on the road and perhaps making it a more enjoyable journey”

    It makes no sense the way GOI functions!

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