PEEPAL TREE by M. Amirthalingam
1. DESCRIPTION OF THE LIVING BEING
1.1 The Tree
Peepal tree is one of the most familiar trees in India. It grows very fast. The roots are attached to the trunk as if they are pillars supporting it. The trunk of the tree is irregularly shaped with low buttresses. Its bark is light gray and peels in patches. This is a tree that reaches very large proportions and it is the largest of our indigenous fig trees. In its younger stages it is often epiphytic, that is, it grows on other trees, which are gradually strangled by its rope-like roots. Or the tree may grow in cracks on walls, which are slowly but inexorably cracked and split open by the growing roots. The Peepal tree in Sri Lanka is believed to be 2147 years old. It is one of the longest living trees of the world. The peepal is resistant to drought and frost.
The leaves and young branches are smooth, shiny, somewhat leathery, and broadly oval in shape and suddenly narrowed at the apex into a long tail and the base is rounded or heart-shaped. The leaf has a solid middle nerve, which deserves attention. In addition there are 5—9 lateral pairs which unite at their ends to form a wavy line near the margin of the leaf. The leaves are generally pendulous, that is, hanging down. The long pointed leaf tips help to drain water off the leaves and dry the tree after rainfall. They are shed in March and April and in some areas in the autumn months. When the new leaves appear they are often pink and darken to copper and then green in colour.
The flowers are hidden within the figs. Figs come out in pairs at the angle between the leaf stalk and the branch; at first they are green and smooth, finally they turn purple when ripe; each fig contains a few male flowers near the opening at the apex; each flower consists of a single stamen supported by three minute colourless ‘petals’. The female flower consists of five ‘petals’ enclose a pistil.
The fruits are known as figs. These figs ripen in May and June generally, but one can find this fruit throughout the year depending on the areas. The fig wasp is a visitor to these fruits as well as the Banyan figs. Birds and bats are rather fond of the Peepal fruit and the seeds pass out undigested and are scattered all over the country and start growing from a gutter or the wall of a house. Under conditions of sufficient moisture, such seeds germinate in the most unlikely places. The tiny plant gets all its food from the air and water but uses the wall or gutter as a support.
2. GEOGRAPHICAL SETTING
Origin of the tree is not really known to anybody, but, there are also some interesting legends associated with the Peepal tree. The peepal is the first-known depicted tree in India. A seal discovered at Mohenjodaro, one of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (c. 3000 BC - 1700 BC), shows the peepal being worshipped. Excavations are suggestive of the fact that even in those times; the peepal tree was worshipped by Hindus.
Peepal is native from India to southeast Asia and it is found wild and cultivated upto 5000 feet. Ficus religiosa is cultivated in various tropical areas of the world. It is grown in southern California, Florida and Hawaii, Homestead and Miami in the United States.
Regardless of its origin, the tree needs lots of space, and the soil must be deep enough to let the roots grow down a long way. It is a large tree of about 20 m. heights with a well developed crown. It can grow in a wide variety of soils and it grows in a sub tropical climate with hot summers and frost during the monsoon season.
3. SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION
The peepal tree belongs to the Moraceae commonly known as fig family – one of the most well-known members of the plant families. It belongs to the dicot order. Members of the genus Ficus are usually treated as separate tribe within the family Moraceae because of their unique inflorescence and wasp-dependent system of pollination. There are about 40 genera and 1000 species that have been described in this family, nearly all with milky sap and mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions, less common in temperate climates. Ficus religiosa Linn. is the Latin name or binomial name of peepal tree.
Classification of Peepal
Kingdom : Plantae
Order : Rosales
Family : Moraceae
Genus : Ficus
Species : F. religiosa
Scientific Name : Ficus religiosa
This tree which reaches very large proportions; it is in fact about the largest of our indigenous fig trees. Peepal grows in northern and central India, in forests and alongside water. It is also widely cultivated throughout the subcontinent and south-east Asia, especially in the vicinity of the temples.
4. MYTHS AND FOLKTALES
The peepal is one of the most well known trees of India and it is found almost all the villages of country. In India the tree is called the `tree of Knowledge’ ‘tree of life’, `tree of eternal life’, and `tree of creation’ by bringing its branches spread on earth to bring blessings to humankind. It is believed that this tree is closely connected with human fertility. The tree is worshipped by all, particularly women for fertility and longevity. It has been mentioned from the Vedic period onwards. It has to be worshipped daily after the morning bath (Mahabharatha, Vol.X, Anusasana Parva, p.268). In the Bhagavadgita, while describing his Vibhuthi (power and attributes), Sri Krishna narrated that: “Asvatha sarva vrikshanam devarshinam cha Gandharvanam chitrarathah siddhanam kapilo muni” Bhagavadgita, Ch.10, Sloka: 26 In this text, Sri Krishna said: I am the aswatha vriksham, the king of vrikshas. It is believed that Vishnu himself stood in the form of this tree. It is also believed that Vishnu was born under this tree and floats lying on a leaf of aswatha. This tree is never cut down by the people as it is believed that Krishna died while sitting under this tree and thus it has been venerated by the people (Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 652 - 53). According to another legend, Lord Vishnu prescribed this tree as the dwelling place of Alakshmi, the goddess of ill-luck. According to Padma Purana, Alakshmi occupies this tree every Saturday; hence it is worshipped on Saturday, the day ascribed to Lord Saturn, who is mostly associated with misfortune (Gupta, 1991). The sacredness of the aswatha tree could have also originated from the old Vedic ritual of kindling the sacrificial fire at religious ceremonies by friction between two pieces of wood, one of which was the aswatha, and the ceremony was called, the birth of Agni (Ragozin, Vedic India, p.159). The peepal tree is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. It is looked upon as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and an embodiment of Goddess Lakshmi. It is believed that this tree is associated with the trinity - Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara. It is a dwelling place for these three Gods.
Buddhists also consider the tree sacred as Prince Siddartha sat in meditation under this tree and found enlightenment. The tree since is known as the Bo or the Bodhi tree and Siddartha came to be known as the Buddha. A tree planted in Ceylon in B.C. 228 is still alive.
A tree of Aswattha is believed to be growing on the mythical island called Plaksha dvipa. The Gods are said to sit under the Aswattha tree in the third heaven.
The leaf of the peepal tree is shaped like the heart and considered by Sikhs as “Sweet loving Palm of Thy Hand” (Mitra, 1994). According to the Sthala Purana of the Patteeswarar temple at Tirupperur, Lord Shiva came with the Devas and performed his divine dance under the peepal tree on the day of panguni utthirai tirunaal. From then onwards the peepal tree was worshipped by the people of Tamilnadu.
4.1 Creation of the Peepal tree in India mythology
According to Hindu in India it is honoured as`tree of supreme knowledge’ – mythologically it originated from the personality of Indira. 4.2 Legend from Orissa
The tree is considered sacred by some tribes of the Ganjam district of Orissa. According to them before the creation of the world, Kittung and his sister used to live in a gourd. When the gourd broke, the two started living on the Kurabeli hill. This was at a time when there were no trees on this earth. When summer came, the sister complained of the intense heat as there were no trees to give them shade. About this time, a squirrel bit off four fingers of the left hand of the Kittung while he was asleep at night, leaving only the third middle finger. On hearing his sister complain of the heat, the Kittung cut off his maimed left hand and put it on a stone which grew into the Aswattha tree called the Onjerneban tree by the tribal people. 4.3 Folktale from other states
In Bengal a ritual called Aswatthapats-vrata is observed by women on the last day of the month of Vaisakh (April-May). Five leaves of Aswattha are required for this ritual and each leaf signifies a different stage of human life. For instance, a new leaf for the birth of a son, a young green leaf for beauty and youth, an old leaf for long life of the husband, a dry leaf for increase in happiness and wealth, a withered leaf for precious wealth beyond expectation. The plant is a symbol of fertility and is worshipped by women for the grant of a child.
In Purabi, the dialect of eastern Uttar Pradesh, there is a saying used when expelling evil spirits and when talking of someone’s evil temper. It goes: Je Jagdipen nagar ujaaral, raakas chhoral pipar Se Jagdipa aawat baru, haathe le le musar. (Jagdipa, who made the town desolate and from whom even the demon fled the Pipal, is now coming with a pestle in her hand.) Jagdipa was, in folklore, an exceedingly quarrelsome woman. She fought with everyone in the village, all the time. She abused and hit them and made life so unpleasant that the villagers started leaving the village and settling down elsewhere. One day there was no one left to quarrel with. Jagdipa was undaunted. She picked up her broom and attacked the Peepal tree, shouting abuse at it all the while. The demon in the tree stood it for a few days. But finally even his nerve gave way and he rushed away from the tree and sought refuge elsewhere. According the folklore of the Saharia tribe of Central India, once, a marriage party took shelter under a peepal tree because it was raining. Within a short time the branches and leaves of the peepal tree arranged themselves closely to save the marriage party from heavy shower. Since them they worshipped the peepal tree. According to Russell and Lai, Bamhania sect worshipped the banyan and peepal tree, as these are held sacred by the Brahmans (Russell, R.V., and R.B.H. Lai, “The Tribes and castes of the Central Provinces of India”, Asian Educational Service, New Delhi, 1995).
5. RITUALS AND BELIEFS
The sacredness of the Aswattha tree comes perhaps from the old Vedic ritual of kindling the sacrificial fire at religious ceremonies by friction between two peculiarly shaped pieces of wood, one of which was the Aswattha wood and the ceremony was called ‘the birth of Agni’. The vessels containing Soma rus were made of the Aswattha wood. Till today, women worship the tree by circumbulating round it, wrap cotton yarn round its trunk and water its roots.
The tree is regarded as a symbol of the male and is ceremoniously married to a neem tree which is symbolic of the female. In villages in India, usually these two trees are grown side by side with a platform built round them. On the platform inter-twined or coiled snake stones are placed which are symbols of fertility. This symbolic association of the sexes is reversed in Rajasthan and Punjab where the Neem (Azadirachta indica) tree is considered a male. Since women in purdha do not show their face to strange men, women in these areas cover their face with a veil on passing a neem tree.
In Orissa a marriage is performed between the Vata (Ficus bengaltnsis) tree which is considered as the male and the Aswattha which is considered as the female, the tree is frequently planted near a Vata tree so as to mix their foliage and stems from a superstitious notion that they are of two different sexes and their growing together is regarded as an emblem of marriage. The tree is invested with the triple cord like Brahmnn and with the same attendant ceremonies as the thread ceremony of a Brahmana. The Aswattha is also sometimes married to the Kadali tree (Musa paradesiaca), the two trees are grown so close and their trunks intertwine so much that they look like one.
In Tamil nadu, peepal and neem trees are planted so close to each other that they mix up as they grow a naga idol is placed under them and worshipped. This is believed to bless the worshipper with wealth. Women take an early morning bath and circumambulate these trees.
6. TOTEMS AND TABOOS
In Maharashtra, the Peepal is the totemic tree for the Pimples. The late – Vedic Brahmin clan name Paippalada is also named after the peepal (Kosambi, D.D., The culture and civilization of Ancient India in Historical outline, 1964). Pipal is the totemic tree of Barodia clan of Central India ( Debabrata Mandal, “ Social structure and cultural change in the Saharia Tribe”, M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1998). Chakkiliyan people in Tamil nadu place the gangamma ghatam under a peepal tree near a river and worship it for ten days.
Tribals in Bengal call the peepal tree as Vasudev they water the plant in the month of vaishakh and at times of difficulty.
7. SACRED AND PROFANE LOCALES OF IMPORTANCE
According to the sthalapurana or legendary history of Tirupullani, once upon a time Pullavar, Kalavar and Kannavar Maharishis performed penance on Lord Mahavishnu. Lord Vishnu gave darshan to the Maharishis in the form of Arasa maram and thus at Tirupullani the peepal tree is believed as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Some of the places in Tamil Nadu named after the Arasa maram (Peepal tree) are Arisili, Arasadi, Arasur. A temple deity named after this tree known as Arisilinathar.
8. PROVERBS, RHYMES, RIDDLES AND OTHER VERBAL ARTS
In the Varaha Purana, it is mentioned that `one who plant one asvatta (peepal tree) will not go to hell’.
9. COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THE POPULAR PAN-INDIAN EXPRESSIONS, PERFORMANCES AND ARTISTIC EXPRESSIONS
In Vedic times, boats were made of peepal wood. Peepal wood lasts well in water and is sometimes used for building small boats. Wood is used for making packing cases, yokes, felloes, spoons and bowls. Its wood has also been used in modern times for making spoons used to pour ghee and oil on to the sacred fire.
The dried leaves (with just the veins) are used for decoration and often painted upon.
11. EXERCISES FOR COLLECTION, ANALYSIS, AND CLASS ROOM PRESENTATIONS
Make a leaf drawing using the peepal leaf. Turn the leaf upside down so that all the veins are showing. Draw a nice big bold drawing on the leaf. You will have to hold the leaf firmly and press quite hard. If you are using an Ivy leaf, a clown's face or a dog's face fits in well with the shape. Make sure every part of the leaf is covered with thick colour. You may need to sharpen the cray-pas if you want to use fine lines. When the drawing is finished, lay it on a tissue and place another tissue over the top.
12. GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS WITH BIBLIOGRAPHIES AND FURTHER REFERENCES
Gandhi, M., ‘Brahma’s Hair’, Rupa & Co., Calcutta, 1989 Gupta, S.M., ‘Plants myths and traditions in India’, Munshi Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2001. Patnaik, N., ‘The Garden of Life – An Introduction to the Healing Plants of India’, Doubleday Publishing, New York, 1993. Amirthalingam, M., `Sacred Trees of Tamilnadu’, C.P.R.Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, 1998. Mukherjee P., 1988, Nature Guides: Common Trees of India, WWF for Nature-India, Oxford University Press.
Cowen D.V., 1984, Flowering Trees and Shrubs in India, Thacker and Co. Ltd., Bombay.
Santapau, H., 1966, Common Trees, National Book Trust., Delhi.