Peepul (pronounced as ‘people’) trees have been a part of my life since I recall. There was a fine specimen near where I lived as a child. It was encircled by a round curved stone parapet on which sat a bright orange-red longish stone. The stone had ‘eyes’ that seemed to look at me. Folks often put a garland of white flowers or thick olive green rui leaves around it. Granny told me this was Lord Hanuman. The tree bark was pockmarked with leftover butts of burnt incense sticks pierced in it.
The tree itself was huge and rather like the curvy, elaborate chandelier in my grandfather’s home, turned upside down. Come spring and it blossomed with soft leaves the color of a parrot. As time passed, these hardened to a dark oily green, were smooth to touch, and crackled between your fingers. At times we collected these leaves and after much scrutiny placed the best between pages of books to dry to a skeleton. These dried leaves latticed with a fine tracery of veins were painted over with images and converted to greeting cards.
The children from our colony often sat on the parapet wall around the tree, while taking a break from their games. There, we exchanged stories with gruesome delight about how there was a shrieking ghost who lived amongst the branches and ate small children. One early morning, as I waited at the peepul for my friends to emerge from their homes, there was a loud screech from right above my head. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It being morning, curiosity overcame fright. Soon the cause made itself visible. It was a spotted owlet. Most of the time, this bird stares at you with its round eyes, bobbing its head from side to side like a bharatnatyam dancer, resembling an annoyed dignitary. An owl is quite a comical bird. I still do not know why it is considered as a bad omen, especially when the peepul tree on which these birds perch is sacred.
Aptly named ‘Ficus religiosa’ by botanists, the peepul is universally revered by Hindus and Buddhists. Its Sanskrit name ‘Ashvattha’ is composed of ‘Shwa’ ie. tomorrow, ‘a’ meaning ‘not’, and ‘tha’ or “one that remains”. Thus the tree is a symbol of constant change in the universe. This is the ‘Bodhi Vruksha’ or ‘Wisdom Tree’ under which Gautam Buddha found enlightenment. You will rarely find a Hindu temple without a peepul on its premises. Most Hanuman temples are shaded by these gentle giants.
Native to India and South East Asia, this tree is cultivated in far flung corners of the earth such as California and Hawaii. Every part of this tree – bark, leaves, root and fruit – have medicinal value in ayurveda, the ancient system of herbal medicine of India.
Every Indian village had at least a few peepul trees which formed the village meeting place, the local social watering hole. Today the peepul’s size and girth may not find favor among the growing greed of builders and so called progress.
The peepul and I have traveled a long way since then. There is a fine specimen with its generous spread in the park where I often go for a walk. In the evening you can spot the silent flap of wings as owls glide in search of dinner. The fruiting season attracts starlings, crows, bulbuls, orioles, and even the occasional langur monkeys, who enjoy the meal with much noise and clatter. But the best peepuls I have seen are the small seedlings that come to life at the upper reaches of old buildings, in the crack of a rickety old wall, or a water drain pipe. To live, then, is to survive.
(Original story posted on the authors’s blog)