I love December in Calcutta. It is a cool, pleasant month that I associate with childhood memories of picnics, and visits to the horticultural gardens or the zoo without fear of broiling in the hot, tropical sun.
It had been many years since I had spent a winter in Calcutta; in fact, ever since the children can remember we have always visited Calcutta in the hot, humid monsoon months of July or August, or during the beginning heat of April, seasons when outdoor activity is limited by the sun. Our visit this last December to Calcutta seemed like a bonus, a chance to show my husband and my children facets of my beloved city that they had never seen before.
So, one morning, we piled into the car and drove off to the Botanics, as the Gardens are locally called.
The Gardens are quiet and well maintained; herons and kingfishers flash white and blue along lily-covered ponds and pukurs, and groves of palms and bamboo line the long, straight paths. We walk along the river path - a wire fence separates the Gardens from the river.
The Hooghly here is very wide, deep and placid; a soft haze blurs the harsh lines of the factories and warehouses on its far bank.
We stop to photograph a cormorant sunning itself on a dead branch in the middle of a pond, but our camera is not powerful enough to capture the bird in its full glory.
We walk on and stop in amazement at the sight of the giant Amazonian lilies - the lily pads cover the pond like giant trays and seem big enough and strong enough to support Vipasha, though, of course, we discourage her from all such experimentation!
We keep walking - the sun is high in the sky now, and the children are beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable.
We haven't yet seen the glory of the Gardens, its most famous sight, the Great Banyan Tree.
We follow the signs for the banyan tree, and get hopelessly lost. At last, after more walking, and clever deciphering of some rather confusing and complicated signage, we see the Great Banyan Tree ahead of us.
The first sight of the tree is impressive, a sight not to be forgotten. From a distance, it looks like a small forest, and it is hard to believe that what we are looking at could be a single tree.
The children are sceptical and disbelieving; but as we come closer we see the aerial roots, the hundreds of trunks, and the intertwining branches of the great tree.
We walk with reverence into that strange forest of roots and trunks. I understand now why banyan trees are said to be the favoured haunts of ghosts and goblins, of vetaal and pishach.
A sign gives the following information about the tree in English, Hindi and Bengali:
The Great Banyan Tree draws more visitors to the garden than its exotic collection of plants from five continents, the plant houses, or the special gardens of bamboos, palms, succulents etc. Botanically known as Ficus Benghalensis L., and belonging to the family Moraceae, the tree is a native of India. The fruit is like a small fig but is not edible and is red when ripe. This tree is over 250 years old and in spread it is the largest known in India, perhaps in Asia. There is no clear history of the tree as to the time of planting etc but it is mentioned in some travel books of the nineteenth century. It was damaged by two great cyclones, 1864 and 1867, when some of its main branches were broken exposing it to the attack of a hard fungus. With its large number of aerial roots which grow from the branches and run vertically to the ground and look like so many trunks, the Great Banyan looks more like a forest than an individual tree. Interestingly enough, the tree now lives in perfect vigour without its main trunk, which decayed and had to be removed in 1925. The circumference of the original trunk at 1.7 m from the ground was 15.7 m. The area occupied by the tree is about 14428.44 sq.m. The present crown of the tree has a circumference of 450m. and the highest branch rises to 24.5 m. It has at present 2880 aerial roots reaching down to the ground.
The sign is dated 21.02. 2005.
It is difficult to find the words to describe the Great Banyan adequately. So let me not write any more, but hope instead that all those who read this will one day be able to see this marvellous tree for themselves.