Would anyone have ever imagined that an ancient banyan tree in a remote village could feature in Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film Life of Pi?Its caretaker Maheswari traces the history of the tree, the temple it shelters and how the shrine came to be her home

The shadows cast by the huge wayside trees form a chequered pattern on the road. We stop in front of a rusty gate that guards a giant banyan and a temple situated on the outskirts of Sivaranthagam village, just a few miles before Kizhur village and around 20-odd km from Puducherry.

The stony walls that support the metal railings have colourful idols mounted atop them, but the gate is secured with a heavy chain and a large lock that dangles in front. Like a statue garbed in a turmeric and fiery red-hued sari, Maheswari stands at the entrance to her home, beckoning us in through a small gap near the gate.

A small shrine, the Ponniamman temple, built under the shade of the banyan, has been Maheswari’s home for 45 years. Garbed in the colours so characteristic of amman devotees, with a generous smearing of ash and vermillion, her presence is overwhelming. “The gate has always been locked, since they left,” she begins, looking at no one in particular. “They came for two days to shoot. And now, this tree has won an Oscar. Its name has spread far and wide.”

Recalling the shoot

‘They’ refers to the Oscar-winning crew of Taiwanese director Ang Lee. The film is, of course, Life of Pi. The air beneath the banyan is cool on a Sunday morning in March, the time of year when the mercury begins to soar. Maheswari is cheerful as she recounts her few minutes of fame. “They brought along the entire market from Puducherry and set it up here. The lights were blinding, there were so many flowers, and it was so colourful,” she reminisces. “I was part of the film too; I was the priest of the temple where the hero and heroine stop to pray. I didn’t know where exactly they came from because they spoke so many languages!”

She motions to a smaller shrine, now abandoned, beneath the main trunk and tells her story. “That is amman’s original shrine. She was there for about 100 years before I came here. It was neglected and when I arrived, along with my 5-year-old son, this tree was small and dying. We cleared the wild undergrowth in the area and decided to take care of the banyan and the temple.” She can’t make up her mind about how old the tree is, maybe a few hundred years, she says thoughtfully.

Huge trunk and canopy

While the canopy now spreads over an acre, it was possible thanks to Maheswari’s efforts. “We sowed the aerial roots in the soil and watered them. No one offered to help us,” she says, walking around the tree. “Look at what we’ve managed to achieve. The main trunk is now 29 metres wide.”

Her home is a small building right beside the new temple, built a few decades ago. “I live here now with my son Murugan, his wife and my grandchildren. I couldn’t educate him because I lived purely off the donations made to the temple. Murugan does odd jobs in the nearby towns to sustain his family but it’s never enough,” she says. Any questions about her past only evoke a stony silence. “All that is insignificant after I pledged my life to amman,” she eventually says.

Maheswari has even composed songs in praise of amman, though she’s illiterate, setting her verses to tunes from old movies. “It’s very difficult for us to live here like this. There’s barely any money, despite the tree being so famous.” She stresses, “It won an Oscar! The Government said they would convert the temple into a tourist spot, part of the tour of places where the movie was shot. But nothing has happened so far. The crew that came here to shoot erected this gate and even that got damaged in the Thane cyclone. I wish we had more help.”

In the many years that she has lived here, Maheswari has never ventured out of the little forest she’s made her home. And so, she is abundant with stories about its ecosystem. “Many snakes live here, a couple of them even 12 feet long,” she says, quickly adding, “you can only see them once in six months or so. The smaller ones are always around; they often enter my home and sometimes can be found near where I sleep. But they don’t harm anyone. They’re all part of the temple.”

We leave Maheswari leaning against one of the roots of the banyan she nurtured. “I don’t know much of the world beyond this tree,” she admits, “but years ago, when I first came here, something told me to nurture it. I knew that if I did, it would some day be known all over the world.”