Requiem for hacked banyans

STUMPED... Banyan trees, such as these, add value and grandeur to our roads, while leaving adequate space for heavy traffic. Below:  A banyan tree being hacked and dismembered along the Mysore – Madikeri road. In the background are planted alien acacias.  Dwarfed by the stumps of the great trees,  vehicles ply incessantly.  Photos by authors

The roads from Mysore, leading west into Kodagu, and south towards the Biligirirangana 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.

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, until recently, 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.

Trees for the people, by the people
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 travellers—there are many who even now travel on foot, bicycle, cart, and without air-conditioning—rest in the shade and move on refreshed. And who cannot appreciate, in the heat of noon, the joy of a nap under the shade of a ficus tree?

Village children often play swinging on the roots of the banyan or scale the branches to lop some fodder for the livestock at their farm. 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.

Dirge for the dismembered banyan
This is a requiem for the grand banyan that we saw dismembered along the Mysore – Madikeri road. This great tree is now gone, along with many others. Now the authorities plant obnoxious Australian Acacia and Eucalyptus trees—alien species that can never muster even a fraction of the ecological importance or aesthetic grandeur of the banyan. These alien species may detrimentally affect soil and ground water, besides contributing little to the local people, wildlife, or environment.
This is a requiem for the great banyans now being destroyed on the Chamarajnagar – Asanur and Chamarajnagar – Gundlupet roads, near Mysore. Dwarfed by the massive stumps of the destroyed giants, the vehicles and people pass—apparently untouched and unrepentant. 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 lorries are busy collecting the logs—the spoils of slaughter.

All in a day’s work...
We stop to talk to the people cutting one great 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.

Ecological significance
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.
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, labelled 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 them?
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, safe, and 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.
We need to keep the banyans we have, and where they have gone, bring them back as the flagships of our Indian countryside roads.
Is it too much to ask that trees such as these, which are markers of our country’s great natural and cultural history and heritage, be saved rather than sawed?

(The authors are ecologists with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. )

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