The logo of the South Asia Centre is a leaf from the Sacred Fig tree (Ficus religiosa), known popularly across South Asia as the ‘Pipal’, ‘Bodhi’ and ‘Ashvattha’ tree. It symbolises at once social, cultural, religious and ecological benevolence, representing a shared cultural geography and noetic economy. The intriguing nature of this commonality – cutting across political boundaries, and religious and identitarian constructions – provokes curious inquiry and ties the Centre to LSE’s motto: Rerum cognoscere causas, ‘to know the causes of things’.
Ficus religiosa is an easily visible dry-season deciduous tree seen across South Asia in parks, by the road, along highways, in village plazas, farmlands, private gardens, and outside religious places, in majestic splendour. A hardy tree suited for tropical climes, it is native to Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and is found in small numbers in Bhutan. It grows up to 30 metres, the diameter of its trunk being up to 3 metres. Its leaves are caudate, with a distinct ‘drip-tip’ stretching several centimetres, and the leaf itself growing up to 12 cms with a 6-10 cms petiole. Its fruits are small ‘figs’, about 1-1.5 cms in diameter, green ripening to purple. While its density, height and strength make it a nesting paradise for several kinds of birds, its leaves provide fodder for two of the greatest South Asian pack-animals, the camel and the elephant. The bark, leaves and figs of the Ficus have several medicinal attributes, and are used in Ayurvedic, Yunani and other alternative medical knowledge-systems, helping to treat open wounds, inflammations, glandular swellings, ulcers, asthma, digestive ailments and heart diseases.
The combined height and breadth of the tree, alongside its deciduous nature, gives the Ficus its principal South Asian popularity – as provider of shade from the scorching sun in the summer, and warm, filtered sunshine in its cold winters. This is why it is found so easily along roadsides and in public spaces. As an ancient provider of relief from nature’s furies, the Sacred Fig holds an obviously affectionate place in the hearts of the peoples of South Asia.
The Ficus religiosa’s religio-cultural significance is equally important -- across Hindu and Buddhist communities, worshippers believe that the gods reside in the leaves: an interesting point to note is that its wide, long-tipped leaves are constantly quivering, even when there is no air in the atmosphere. While the Hindu Lord Krishna identifies himself with ‘Asvattha’ in the Bhagavad Gita (X: 26), saying ‘Of all trees, I am the Pipal tree …’ (ashvatthaha sarvavrkshanam …), the Buddha attained his Enlightenment under this tree in Bodh Gaya in eastern India, thus giving it the name ‘Bodhi’ (from the Sanskrit root word meaning ‘wisdom’; ‘Asattha’ and ‘Rukkha’ in Pali). A branch from this original Bodhi tree was planted in Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) in 288 BC, when the religion travelled across the Palk Straits – now called the ‘Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’, it is considered to be the oldest flowering plant in the world.
The combined qualities of the Ficus religiosa thus gives it a valence amongst the folk, cultural, popular, political, religious, medicinal, entrepreneurial, and elite. This widespread subscription makes its base act as a seat for several kinds of events and authorities: most South Asian villages treat them as an axis, paving their plazas around it, hosting entertainment events, and village councils hold public meetings underneath it; ascetics and religious figures meditate below the tree; sacred threads are tied to it on religious and festive occasions; promises are made by swearing on the tree; several countries have mini and makeshift shrines below it; people circumambulate it as a pious act; and they have even appeared in Bollywood movies signifying promise, permanence and authority. The Tamil name of the Ficus, ‘arasa maram’, literally translates as ‘King’s Tree’, underlining its regal status.
Its popular affection is represented in the several names by which it is known: apart from the most common ‘Pipal’, ‘Bodhi’ and ‘Ashvattha’, it is also called ‘Bo’, ‘Beepul’, ‘Pimpal’, ‘Pippal’, ‘Jari’, ‘Arani’, ‘Ragi’, ‘Bodhidruma’, ‘Buddha’, ‘Shuchidruma’, ‘Esathu’ amongst many others.
Banner image credits: 'Ahot' by Dinesh Valke (CC BY-SA 2.0)