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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Number 176: Rabindranath Tagore "The Banyan Tree"

The Banyan Tree

O you shaggy-headed banyan tree standing on the bank of the pond,
have you forgotten the little child, like the birds that have
nested in your branches and left you?
Do you not remember how he sat at the window and wondered at
the tangle of your roots that plunged underground?

The women would come to fill their jars in the pond, and your
huge black shadow would wriggle on the water like sleep struggling
to wake up.

Sunlight danced on the ripples like restless tiny shuttles
weaving golden tapestry.

Two ducks swam by the weedy margin above their shadows, and
the child would sit still and think.
He longed to be the wind and blow through your resting
branches, to be your shadow and lengthen with the day on the water,
to be a bird and perch on your topmost twig, and to float like
those ducks among the weeds and shadows.

--Rabindranath Tagore

Hap Notes: The Banyan tree is the national tree of India. Do you know, by the by, what the U.S. national tree is? It's the oak- a perfectly lovely tree but I voted (yes, it was several years ago but you could vote for the national tree through the Arbor Day Foundation) for the redwood. Some of the redwoods and the sequoias in California have been around since Jesus was a boy– no kidding. The oak got 110,000 votes, the redwoods got 81,000 and then there were scattered votes for other trees like the dogwood and the maple. The oak has a variety that grows in every state so I see the wisdom of the choice which was made official in congress in 2004. Where were we? Oh, yeah, the banyan tree. Sorry...

The banyan is a good choice for India in so many ways. As you can see from the Tagore poem today they were much climbed upon and dreamed about by children (and adults.) The banyan is usually the center of a small village for trade and meetings since its branches give shade in the hot sun. The leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of Krishna after he consumes the universe and then creates it again (it's sorta like the big bang theory only it's 3,000 years older.) The Buddha obtained enlightenment sitting under a variety of the banyan, the Bodhi tree.

But it's more than this that makes it a perfect symbol for India. First of all, the tree grows by placing its branches down, so its reflection in the water makes it look like it's growing upwards in a kind of solid metaphor for the illusions of the world. The tree's seeds germinate in cracks and crevices of the host tree, sending branches everywhere around it, called aerial prop roots. It's somewhat like a family unit in India where the children stay with the parents, marry and bring their spouses home to have children who grow up and marry and add to the family "compound."

The largest banyan tree in India has more than 2,000 of those prop roots and is over 250 years old. Here it is – this "forest" is all one tree :

Of course we are all one banyan tree, too, aren't we?

Tagore's images are so vivid: the "shaggy headed" tree, the reflections wriggling like sleep struggling to awaken, the weavings of sunlight on the water. He always manages to make beauty that touches the soul, doesn't he?

Here's where we have talked about Tagore before:

and here:

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