The Tree of Life

Image of a woodpecker pecking at a tree

An edited version of this post appeared as ‘A tree that longed for the sky’, an article for ‘Rooting For Nature,’ my monthly column in Deccan Herald. The published column is linked here.

A very special tree once lived on Navilu Kaadu, a majestic Shami tree or Banni Mara (Prosopis cineraria) standing at the centre of our rectangular plot with limbs gloriously outstretched towards the sky.

Jayamma, the erstwhile owner who received the land as a gift from her father, had planted the Banni Mara to enrich the soil on her land, like most farmers of yore cultivating arid fields. The Shami tree is leguminous. Its roots harbour rhizobium bacteria that help fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil.

The tree is considered sacred in Hinduism. The Mahabharata tells the story of the valiant Pandava brothers concealing their celestial weapons on a Banni Mara when they had to go incognito in their thirteenth year of exile after being unfairly beaten in a game of dice by their greedy cousins, the Kauravas. The pandavas came back to the tree on Vijayadashami day after their exile, prayed to it, retrieved their weapons, and went on to defeat their cousins in the Kurukshethra war.

A pair of Indian Grey Hornbills inspect the view from the Banni Mara

It is customary for the Maharaja of Mysuru to worship the Banni tree on Vijayadashami day when the Dasara procession with caparisoned elephants carrying Goddess Chamundeshwari in the golden howdah culminates at Mysuru’s Banni Mantapa. The tradition prevails to this day. A gift of the leaves of the Banni tree revered by Kings and peasants alike, is considered equivalent to gold, if gifted on Vijayadashami.

Coming back to our present-day Banni tree at Navilu Kaadu, it was a favoured resting spot for many wayfaring winged beauties. The tree proffered me my first sighting of a pied cuckoo, the harbinger of monsoons.

A tri-coloured munia

Two summers ago, the Banni stopped sprouting new leaves. I grew anxious. During every visit I would hurry to the tree and inspect it closely for signs of new leaves.

One fine day, my older one and I peeled off some of the bark and used an axe to probe the insides of the tree. The trunk was bone dry with no sign of sap even in the deeper layers. It finally dawned on us that our beloved tree had died a natural death.

The dead tree stood right by our cottage and posed a safety hazard with its dry brittle limbs. We sent for the woodcutters to pull down the tree. None seemed interested unless it was a banyan or a neem tree.

My anxiety escalated with each visit as lose branches threatened to crash into our cottage. One limb even fell on the water outlet from the pump, snapping the valve.

A Handsome Oriental Garden Lizard Skitters up the Banni Tree

Last summer, we decided to trim the limbs and leave the main trunk or ‘snag’ as dead trees are called, standing. Little did we realize that it was only we humans who thought the tree dead. Navilu Kaadu’s non-human residents didn’t seem to have received the memo. They continued to throng the tree more than ever.

Fallen and dead trees render invaluable ecological services by way of nutrients and habitat to many beings, and are vital components of any thriving forest ecosystem. Our Banni mara was no different.

Mushrooms on snags recycle nutrients offering nourishment to beetles, millipedes and earthworms

Woodpeckers hammered away at the snag trying to pry out bark beetles. Handsome oriental garden lizards skittered up and down the snag licking off insects on the go. Mushrooms popped-up in the cervices and on fallen branches, recycling nutrients and offering nourishment to beetles, millipedes and earthworms. The dry tree thrummed with life as it sheltered ants, skinks and many little creatures beneath the bark. There is now a peepal sapling too germinating on the snag.

A Black-Rumped Flameback Woodpecker pecks away at the Banni Mara for delicacies
Our resident white-throated kingfisher

The denuded tree has transformed into a lofty vantage point for birds of all hues and habits, and a fabulous prop to photograph them on. A flock of Indian grey hornbills now perch in formation at the top of the tree, cackling noisily at dawn and dusk.

Tricoloured munias, scarlet minivets, barbets, rose-ringed parakeets, our resident white-throated kingfisher, broody spotted doves, bee-eaters, sprightly cinereous tits, singing larks, garrulous jungle babblers and other gorgeous birds embellish the bare branches through the day.

Our tree is now more alive than dead, offering hearth and home to myriad critters. What’s more, life has come full circle and the Banni mara has an offspring shooting up a few feet away, even as the parent tree continues to defy death to nurture and nourish life on Navilu Kaadu.