Friday, June 5, 2009

A treasure in the midst of the city - Theosophical Society Banyan

Since moving to chennai I have made several attempts to go to the Theosophical Society, only to always be turned back at the gates by the security guard. It was either a sunday or it was that time of the day when one needed a pass. There was one time when i was told, in all earnesty by the substitute for the security guard that in order to walk in the society grounds i needed a pass, to get a pass i had to speak to the director, the director's office was in the middle of the ground, to drive past the entrance gate towards the office the security guard would have to record my car plates in his book and since he was on vacation till the end of the month i could not go in to walk now!
Ludicrous isnt it?! No wonder india ranks number 1 in red tape in the region.

Well today i made it in the nick of time - the society is open to the 'pass-less' public between 830-10 and 2-4 every day. It was five minutes to four, but the security guard let me in, with the 'please be back by five' (The joy of being in India - when we say we close at 4, we actually mean 5). And what a delight it was!! Trees, trees and more trees. The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 to study philosophy, science and religion. The 270 acres that constitute the society headquarters in Adyar, Chennai now serves as an area for city dwellers to escape from the traffic and pollution and enjoy a quiet walk among the many trees that are located here. Many people go to the society for their early morning walk.

The grounds of the society are famous for the Old Banyan - which, at about 450 years, is, i think, the second oldest banyan in the country. The banyan came with the property that was bought in 1908. Its sprawling branches were once held up by a 40-foot tall, 30-tonne trunk and thousands of pillar-like roots dropped from the canopy. Under its shade as many as 3000 people at a time have sat and listened to discourses by J. Krishnamurthi, Annie Besant, Maria Montessori and others. A gale uprooted the giant trunk in 1989, but it has miraculously survived on a weakened trunk and its drop roots. Today the banyan covers about 250 square feet from north to south and about the same from east to west, spreading over an area of about 59000 sqft.

Did you know that the banyan is the national tree of India? The name in sanskrit - Bahupada - means the one with many feet. Our ancestors thought of very apt names did they not?! :) The tree is sacred in Hindu religion - its ever expanding branches represent the eternity of life.
I read an interesting story online about how the banyan got its english name - the word 'bania' in gujarati - an indian language - means merchant. The gujaratis were the merchants of india and they originally conducted their business under the banyan tree. The early english and portuguese settlers in India hence refered to the tree by the same name - banya -- and with the passing of time, the name banyan came to be!
The scientific name of the Banyan is Ficus Bengha Lensis.

More pictures from the Theosophical Society. The tree grows on both sides of the road -

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