October 29, 2017

Pillalamarri - An awe-inspiring 800-year old Banyan tree in Mahbubnagar

Note: No photo can do justice to this tree. Please view these images on full screen to understand and appreciate the tree better.


Looking at Pillalamarri gives you an exhilerating, other-planetary feeling. In the 800 years of its existence, its branches bore roots that became branches that bore roots that became branches that bore roots that became branches that bore roots...many many times over. It must have been planted during the rule of the Chalukya or the Kakatiya dynasty, and grew and kept growing even as the rulers built their temples and  forts, fought wars, won and lost, followed by the Golkonda Kingdom, Qutb Shahi dynasty, Asaf jahi dynasty, Indian independence and everything else that happened to human beings in these parts between the 12th century and now!

This banyan is unlike any of the others I have seen so far. While others such as the one in Chennai’s Theosophical Society grew tall and formed a forest, this one seemed to have crawled parallel to the ground, and twisted and turned, sometimes looking like a huge python, sometimes like a dragon or a hydra or the head of Medusa. Sometimes it looks like the Lochness Monster, and sometimes like an octopus with a hundred arms. You can see a yoga pose here, a dinosaur or a Bankura horse there! An amazing natural installation, a ‘living sculpture’, as a friend put it, which would inspire not only the naturalist, but also the artist.

An old man walks past the convoluted network of branches.
Those who grew up reading the Young Folks’ League page in the Illustrated Weekly of India, would remember a fascinating graphic story called ‘The topsy turvy tree’, about a little girl’s adventures as she climbs down and discovers a tree that grows underground instead of above the ground, twisting and turning and forming an entire world down below. Pillalamarri reminded me of this story and I wouldn’t be surprised if it may have inspired that story.

A little boy bends down to cross the branches growing close to the ground.
I am sure many contemporary stories happen on and around this tree. As we spent a precious 3 hours under this tree, we observed many bird species, saw a territorial fight among parakeets trying to make nests, a dog that had just given birth to puppies in a safe hollow at the base one of the trunks, a huge group of school children picnicking under the tree in disciplined silence, a man walking around speaking loudly on the phone, telling someone his life’s problems, couples finding love amidst its twisting branches, and there we were - three nature-loving friends - completely swept off our feet, trying to comprehend this magnificence. 

She just had five puppies. They are black, white and brown. The banyan keeps them safe!
When you discover something good, unfortunately, you also discover the bad that is being done to it. Pillalamarri used to be spread over 4 acres, but is now reduced to 2.5 acres. Parts of the tree are drying up, there is fungal infestation in places, and parts of it are breaking up. While one can see attempts at propping it up with cement structures, a lot more needs to be done to take care of it. This tree should be treated as a national treasure and given the due respect, so that it will thrive, flourish, spread and live for several hundreds of years more.    

Attempts to hold up the tree - the cement props.
Fungal infection that needs to be addressed

The word ‘Pillalamarri’ comes from ‘pillalu’ (children), and ‘marri’ (banyan), meaning a banyan tree with its children. It also called Peerla marri because there is a Muslim Saint’s tomb under it. 
Offerings at the saint's tomb.
Pillalamarri is 5 km from Mahbubnagar, which is 108 km – about two and a half hours drive – from Hyderabad on the Bangalore highway. It makes a great day trip, either by bus or by car. Decent restaurants and toilet facilities on the way make it a relaxed and comfortable drive. 

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*Please credit photos to Sadhana Ramchander in case you use them somewhere. Thank you.

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