The stage was set for a party to remember: a 62-kg cake, live music and ten thousand guests. On that summer of June 2012, the celebrations lasted till late evening. After all, it wasn’t every day that a banyan tree turned 200.
The tradition stuck, and ever since, on June 5 while the world plants saplings on Environment Day, the villagers of Jalikheti in Assam’s Barpeta district, throw a birthday party for a tree.
“Our tree just turned 207,” says Bhaskar Kalita, a resident of the village, located about 100 km from Guwahati. Kalita heads the committee that takes care of the tree: comprising a group of men from Jalikheti who come from varied professional backgrounds: publishers to school teachers to ex-Army servicemen.
“Others might think we are fussing over it , but we know how special our tree is — otherwise why would scholars as far as Korea and Japan come to see it?” says Kalita, who spent most of his childhood under the sprawling canopy of the tree.
Since 2003, the 45-year-old has been running from pillar to post, navigating himself in the trying hierarchy of the Indian bureaucracy, to get someone to notice the tree. Last month, one of its bigger branches came crashing down. It wasn’t the first one.
“We suspect bheku (fungus) is causing the tree to rot,” he says. Suresh Pathak, a 67-year-old teacher and committee member, adds, “And then there’s the Kaladia river that is eroding the land — in the past fives years, it’s crept 30 meters closer.”
The villagers have done everything in their knowledge to stall the river: planted saplings and built an embankment but the Kaladia now flows at a threateningly close 20-meter-distance from the ancient tree.
While these are pressing concerns for the villagers, their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Fed up, in 2012, they decided that they needed to do something about it.
“That’s when the birthday party idea came about. We thought, at least, it would get us attention,” says Kalita. And it did: the 2012 celebrations were covered widely by the media. “However, after the fanfare, everyone forgot about it the next day,” he says.
But the group continued to celebrate the birthday every year on June 5, including this — and last week, hundred of villagers gathered for the party.
“Many believe that devtas or community protectors reside in trees like these. So the villagers will go to any lengths to protect it,” says SK Barthakur, a retired of Botany professor from Guwahati University.
It is common for villagers to consider trees, especially banyan trees, sacred. But for the residents of Jalikheti, the tree, over the years, has become much more: a welcome shade on a hot day, a landmark to guide lost travellers, a backdrop for selfies, a hub of knowledge for school children and scholars. and a home to a variety of birds: oriols, mynahs, bulbuls, barbettes, koels and cuckoos.
Worries that it might meet its end soon are thus not misplaced.
“Since I haven’t seen the tree myself, I can’t tell if the fungus is actually damaging the tree. Most trees have lichen, a kind of fungus that actually helps trees to renew themselves,” says Barthakur.
In the same way, the age of the tree has not been scientifically determined, simply because no authorities have expressed an interest to do so. “But I am certain it’s more than 200 years old. That is the what we have heard from our ancestors,” says Kalita, whose grandfather, Manik Kalita, was the first who helped conserve the tree by building a Shiva temple right next to it in 1901.
While it’s an obvious sense of attachment the villagers feel for the tree, what’s special about the borgos, as the banyan tree is called in Assamese, is its staggering expanse: its ever-growing canopy covers more than 12,000 square feet as the branches grow horizontally and descend on to the earth, forming new mini-trees.
Trees of such antiquity aren’t uncommon in Assam. A famous one is the Bakhor Bengena is Sivasagar — for long, believed to be 700 years old.
In 2017, Professor Barthakur facilitated a carbon dating exercise and found that it was 568.
“The other ways one can estimate the age of a tree is by basing it on the age of the settlement around it. It’s common for people around the world to plant trees the moment they settle in an area,” says Abani Bhagawati who teaches Geography in Guwahati University, “Earlier trees along the highways in Assam would serve as bus stops — that’s how large they were. But with road expansion many of them have been cut down.”
The Jalikheti banyan tree, however, is tucked away inside the village.
On any given day tourists can be found taking pictures with the tree. “Last week a group from South Korea was here. While they were amazed at how big our tree was, they were shocked that nothing had been done to protect it,” says Kalita, “At least the government should help us build a toilet for travellers, and a rest stop.”
In March, AM Singh, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Assam, visited the tree and was suitably impressed by what he saw — making the villagers hopeful of some movement soon.
While technically, the tree doesn’t fall under the purview of the Forest department, officials have ensured villagers that they will help. “We might not develop it as a tourist spot but we will at least get it scientifically checked by the Botanical Survey of India to verify its authenticity soon,“ says Hemkanta Talukdar, Chief Conservator of Forest, Assam.
But till that happens, the villagers vow to continue their fight to save the tree — and while they are at it, throw a smashing party in its honour every year.