The oldest historical tree in the world

“In Sri Lanka, there grows to this day, a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world.” — H.G. Wells

Late last year our family made a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The World Heritage site illustrates millenia of Sri Lanka’s cultural history and remains a lively contemporary religious and regional centre. Our visit coincided with the Ill Full Moon Poya day public holiday that draws crowds to the Thuparamaya — the most ancient of Sri Lanka’s stupas and the origin of Sri Lanka’s Buddhism, and to the ancient Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi — the oldest cultivated tree in the world with a documented written history. The veneration accorded this particular tree, especially by devotees of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, reflects the direct connection to the living Buddha.

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.  
Photo © Stephen J Forbes

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi was established from the southern branch of the peepal (or esathu) tree (Ficus religiosa) in whose shade the Buddha achieved enlightenment. This branch was brought to Sri Lanka from India in 236 BC by the Buddhist nun Sanghamitta Maha Theri, through the patronage of King Ashoka, a convert and powerful supporter of Buddhism — she is often referred to as his daughter, and accordingly, as a princess. So, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is around 2,250 years old and from that origin has been steadfastly curated and protected by Buddhist monks and adherants. Such devotion to a tree deserves contemplation — certainly the tree is approached with piety for its connection with the Buddha but the tree is singular, and an individual in its own right. The achievement in protecting the tree demonstrates what good people can do.

Buddha’s enlightenment dates from around the 5th century BC and took place near the river Neranjana at Bodh Gaya in the Bihar State in northern India. The peepal tree was already a place of devotion, and after the Buddha’s enlightenment became identified as the Bodhi tree and consequently a pilgrimage site during His lifetime. Sanghamitta’s arboricultural endeavours turned out to be timely as subsequent arboricidal events show. King Ashoka’s second wife, Tisayaraksita, jealous of her husband’s love for the Bodhi (or perhaps the nymphs she believed it harboured), had the tree pierced by poisonous mandu thorns.* Although the tree regenerated Ashoka subsequently built a three meter high stone wall (- elephants particularly like them). But within half a century the tree was destroyed by King Pushyamitra Shunga during his persecution of Buddhism. The tree planted to replace the Bodhi, possibly at that stage a scion from the original, was destroyed at the beginning of the 7th century AD — this time by King Sassanka. Thus there is considerable doubt as to whether the present tree at Bodh Gaya is even a scion of the original Bodhi. Indeed the present tree planted by Alexander Cunningham, a British archaeologist in 1881 most likely represents the successor of a long line of substitutions. Such doubts over the provenance of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya see the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura viewed as the closest authentic link to the living Buddha and, consequently, as the preferred for scion wood for establishing the Bodhi trees that are now central to many Buddhist temples in Asia.

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Photo © Stephen J Forbes

While the Bodhi tree is important to Buddhists, the tree that the Buddha chose to sit under was already a sacred tree in Hindu doctrine. In the Bhagavad Gita the Lord Krishna declares that, ‘Of all the trees I am the peepal tree’ and the peepal is mentioned as one of the names of Lord Vishnu in the Vishnu Sahasramana. In India sadhus choose them for meditation and many Hindus still practice pradakshina including circumambulation (meditative pacing) around peepal trees with an accompanying chant of ‘vriksha rajaya namah’ (‘salutation to the king of trees’). So while the Buddha chose the peepal tree perhaps the peepal tree might also have chosen the Buddha.

Sacred trees aren’t isolated to Hinduism and Buddhism in human history. The earliest written chronicles including the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible record both the destruction and the planting of sacred groves. Hiking in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia the only stands of trees still remaining are such sacred groves, including the ‘church forests’ associated with Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches and monasteries. In earlier times these sacred groves were revered by Agao pagans whose religious gatherings, sacrifices and burials were associated with the groves. These groves were apparently adopted by early Christian, and later, Islamic converts. The traditions associated with such groves are disappearing globally alongside the global destruction of forests and the globalisation of culture yet a profound truth in these relationships remains relevant. In a post last November Reuters journalist Dean Yates outlined his experiences following the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a war correspondent. While professional help has been critical to his recovery Yates witnesses the solace provided by the ancient trees of the Tasmanian wilderness. Trees play a critical role in food, water and climate security, but they also play a critical role in our spiritual wellbeing. Our future depends on them.

* Prof. B.M.P.Singhakumara, University of Sri Jayewardenepura observes that the madu thorn is found on the leaf bases of the cycad, Cycas circinalis, also known as Queen sago palm.  However, the nature of the mandu thorn is still obscure.

© Stephen J Forbes

Originally published in The Adelaide Review January 2017 & on-line

Stephen Forbes is a botanist and writer exploring the relationship between people and plants — still amazed by the miracle of photosynthesis.

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