About 25 kilometers from the Indian city of Kadiri, a single tree has grown to be the size of a forest. Thimmamma Marrimanu is a banyan tree, and its enormous canopy was awarded the Guinness world record for ‘Largest Tree’ in 1989. It’s the most spectacular example of the ficus benghalensis species, which is the national tree of India.
Banyan trees are a peculiar type of fig tree that grow aerial roots from their branches, which then form thick trunks. The beginning of their lives is also unusual. They are epiphytes, which means they sprout from cracks and crevices in other trees. Epiphytes are not parasitic, and don’t drain nutrients from their host. However, as they grow larger they can engulf the host entirely, giving them the nickname ‘strangler figs’.
Thimmamma Marrimanu takes its name from the local legend of Thimmamma, a woman whose husband died in 1434. When he was burned at the pyre, she threw herself onto the flames, committing sati. Sati is an ancient practice that is now outlawed, but was once seen as the ultimate form of devotion and sacrifice. Shortly afterward, a banyan tree grew near the pyre. Marrimanu means banyan trees in the Telugu language.
Today, a small shrine to Thimmamma has been build under the tree, and locals believe that childless couples praying beneath it will be blessed with a child the following year. The tree is also a site where Maha Shivaratri is celebrated. This is a yearly festival in honor of the Hindu god Shiva. Thousands of visitors come from all around to worship.
Fortunately for visitors, the tree has grown to a size that can accommodate 20,000 people beneath its canopy. Its branches provide shade to nearly 5 acres, or 2 square kilometers. That’s about 2.5 soccer fields, all under a single tree. However, as the tree receives more visitors, some conservationists are concerned that the shallow roots are in danger of being damaged by the weight.
But that’s not the only problem that the tree faces. As it has become more famous, it has become the target of vandalism and careless mistreatment. Some have commented that this represents a loss of traditional Indian culture, where trees are sacred. Professor Lakshmi Thathachar had this to say about trees with regard to ancient religious beliefs in India:
Trees are not different from us. We are having the body of the human beings. They have got the body of the trees. So in each individual tree, there is life. Not only life, there is an individual soul. So when you think of the individual souls, all individual souls are equal… So from that point of view there cannot be any distinction between the tree and the human being.
The village forestry department is doing what they can to protect the Thimmamma Marrimanu, but they simply don’t have the budget to protect from even natural dangers like flooding. Currently, they are petitioning UNESCO for world heritage status, which would bring with it a surge of funding. With this a surge of visitors would follow shortly, potentially causing further damage. However, if it does become a World Heritage Site, the responsibility for the care of the tree will pass from a group of concerned local villagers to some of the most qualified conservationists in the world.
The future of this tree is unknown, but for now, it continues to grow. Its isolated location and poor infrastructure have limited tourist numbers, but as it becomes more widely known as an incredible landmark with potentially magical properties, it may be in danger. Hopefully it will gain the attention it needs from conservationists, and survives for future generations.