The last push came when operator Nandan Tiwari from Bihar decided it was time. The Bull Backhoe loader, a machine he usually uses at mining sites or when he is told to pull down trees, went full thrust. And pushed a 200-year-old banyan tree, ravaged and uprooted by the rain a fortnight ago, till it was up again.
The tree, believed to have been dead, was brought back to life through “community will” – one that saw a fundraiser bring in goodwill and money all the way from Russia, Britain and “from all over the world”, had locals and biodiversity groups pitching in with logistics and planning, and a tree expert flying down from Hyderabad.
Several attempts later, with many ropes splintering, Goans pulling a prayer and foreigners whistling, the main hulk of the tree was pulled from the ground and made to stand again, at 3 pm Wednesday.
Throughout the exercise, a silver snake, whose home is the banyan, stayed inside the trunk, emerging at intervals as machine excavators operated on the tree.
The wide canopy, the venue for the season’s “ecstatic dancing” according to Russian dance conductor Anna Marsy, is the “most famous place in Arambol”.
On August 4, when she reached the spot, she saw the trunk was down, its roots uprooted, and the might of the canopy spread out “helpless”.
“We were always dancing here, and every time ended with a gratitude ceremony for the tree. Across the Internet, it’s called The Source. Last season, it reached its highest point — with highest emotional level in togetherness. We decided to use the same spirit to revive her as she is not just a tree. People who have found happiness under her, from across the world, felt connected to her. Everyone reached out, from Berlin to London. We started researching and someone told us they had saved a banyan tree in Chennai. Word for help went out,” Marsy said.
As word spread via Facebook and Instagram, Sebastiana Fernandes, in whose land the tree stood, remained inconsolable. ““I thought the banyan not get up,” she said, recalling the times when she opened the door of her house to find the canopy missing.
“I would take tender coconuts and sit under the tree with a chair, selling it to tourists. In the evening, they would dance. All the speakers and lights were plugged to my house, so at 10 pm sharp every night, I would switch it off and ask them to go home. I kept an entry fee for all this but always made sure they respected the tree,” Fernandes said.
When word got around, Marc Francis of Living Heritage Foundation, an outfit which undertakes conservation of bio-diversity with “active involvement of the community”, and Sanobar Durrani, an environmentalist and convenor of Banyan Tree Project, connected and reached out to Uday Krishna of Vaata Foundation, a tree expert based in Hyderabad. Soon the tree became a “global SOS” and many like British national Clive Phillips and Finland’s Santeri Saahko reached out through Facebook and social media for help.
A little over Rs 2 lakh was collected with many foreigners donating, “having danced under the tree”.
“Initially we didn’t think we could get her to stand but when everyone came together, hope rose,” Phillips said.
Saahko, who volunteers as a dog feeder across north Goa, said he even called his previous employer in Finland, where they would use heavy machinery in metal construction, for expertise.
“Cranes were easiest but with narrow stretches, impossible to get. We started a Google sheet and fundraising began as more equipment would be needed,” he said of the two-week campaign.
Krishna and his men began work early morning soon after they arrived on August 16. “The old tree had died but new roots had taken shape with several trees now merged. We first studied the fall, and figured it’s best to dig a deeper pit and get her back into it, and make her put an effort to stretch and grow roots again, instead of just placing her back with support on all sides,” he said.
At the site, initially the fallen “bulk of tree and her roots weighed more than 100 tons”. He will be flying back on Thursday to transplant 400 trees in Hyderabad after taking a “class for the locals” on how to “nurse the tree for the next few weeks as she is still in shock”.
“We tried all permutations and finally clipped 40 tons of canopy to be able to lift her. This is usually done by cranes but since we were underpowered, we had to use four machines to lift her,” Group Seon LLP’s Sumesh Gawas, who planned the Wednesday action of three excavators and the Bull Backhoe loader, said.
“Usually we are at civil construction sites, the complete opposite of nature, and known for destruction. It’s the first time these machines have worked together to give life, and that too to a banyan tree. All the operators put in their full effort,” he said.
“There is evidence that resources are better preserved when the community is involved,” Durrani said.
Later this week, Francis said, a board will be put up. “The board will say the tree had a bad accident and is now recovering. Please respect her space and co-operate,” he said.
For Goans the exercise couldn’t be more symbolic as one lakh trees have been marked to be axed for several projects across the Western Ghats.
Avertino Miranda, an environmentalist who assisted in the operation said, “This is historic moment as it is for the first time in Goa a transplanting model involving the community and various stakeholders has shaped. Now, the government has no option anymore. They cannot say trees have to be axed, timber taken and no transplanting possible. This is not a standalone act, it has showed there is an option. We are now going to write to Chief Minister Pramod Sawant to invest in such machines for tree transplant.”
Caroline Collaso, an advocate who travelled from Mapusa to watch the “historic moment” added, “These centuries old trees, are sometimes iconic for bringing meaning and memories to a village, and today, it’s been shown it could be transplanted. This is even more important in the current times when large projects cause indiscriminate tree feeling, with the government calling it development.”
The local Dheeriyo bull who watched the entire exercise as the tree stood again finally rested, and the seven stray dogs were back beneath the banyan, marking their territory. Everything was normal again.