Banyan Trees of Bangladesh

A unique temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva is located in the Akhaura Upazila of Chittagong Division’s Brahmanbaria District. Standing fifteen feet tall, the temple’s brick walls and roof can no longer be seen under the network of roots of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). If it were not for the four entrances allowing access to the temple, one would not know that it was there at all. It is thought that the temple is around 150 years old, with the banyan tree possibly being up to 80 years old.

The seeds of banyan trees are dispersed by birds and germinate as epiphytes – plants that grow upon other plants, or buildings and other structures, taking their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. A germinated banyan will send roots down towards the ground, often enclosing its host, as is the case with the temple in Akhaura. Sometimes, the host tree will die and rot, leaving a hollow where it once stood, and because of this parasitic-type habit, banyans are often referred to as ‘strangler figs’. Roots that have grown outwards and down to the earth often grow as thick as a tree trunk and can spread out over a huge area – even hectares.

Banyan trees feature prominently in the religions and myths of Asia, with the leaf of the banyan tree seen by Hindus as the resting place for Krishna. In his incarnation as Dakshinamurthy, Shiva is often depicted as sitting under a banyan tree which, due to its ever expanding growth habit, symbolizes eternal life. In Buddhism the banyan’s habit of supplanting its host tree is likened to the manner in which humans are overcome by sensual desire.

Interestingly, the name ‘banyan’ came about when early Portuguese travelers to India noted that traders, or banias, set up shop in the shade of these enormous trees. Eventually the Gujarati word for ‘merchant’ became the name of the tree itself. When traveling in the fascinating country of Bangladesh, be sure to take note of the most unusual banyan tree.