This fortnightly series will feature landmarks from the city that have transcended eras and still stand tall. We start with the Great Banyan at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar, which is believed to be nearly 450 years old.
From a distance, the giant banyan at the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar looks like a surreal miniature of a forest — its age defined by the adult offshoots that rely no longer on the legendary central trunk, which was felled by a gale in 1989.
For a city that seldom pauses to look up at its trees, word about the banyan has travelled famously afar. It is arguably the oldest existing tree in the city, said to be over 450 years old (the city itself came into being 372 years ago). It is known to have accommodated nearly 3,000 people under its shade during the heyday of the society when Annie Besant was at its helm. Even today, many autorickshaw drivers know the Society only as Aalamaram Society (aalamaram is Tamil for banyan).
“Only after Annie Besant became the president (of the Society) did the banyan become the venue for annual international conventions. Towards the late 1970s, the conventions were shifted to the Adyar theatre primarily because the number of delegates attending was increasing, which was disturbing the banyan,” says Harihara Raghavan, general manager of the Society. As of 1950, the tree covered an area of over an acre (over 43,560 sq.ft.) and had a hundred prop root stems.Today, the Society estimates that the tree covers around 65,000 sq.ft.
Located right outside the Blavatsky Bungalow in the Society headquarters, the banyan was discovered in 1908 when Annie Besant, after becoming the president, acquired 200 surrounding acres of woods and other property and developed them into gardens. Since then, the banyan has been witness to several momentous speeches and lectures, such as the 1909 ‘In the Twilight’ speech by Annie Besant. During the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Society, held in 1935 under the banyan, loudspeakers were used for the first time in India. It was also under this tree that personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi, J Krishnamurthi, Maria Montessori and the Dalai Lama spoke.
“There is a saying that the banyan is so big that an entire army can rest under it. A banyan can grow only in areas such as like parks and reserve areas, and the banyan at the Theosophical Society has been able to grow very well. Because it is close to the sea and due to a few other reasons, the central trunk collapsed sometime ago. Nevertheless, it is a monumental tree,” says G. Dattatri, a former chief urban planner of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and who is now an advisor with Nizhal, an NGO that works towards conserving trees.
Though not as loaded with history unlike the banyan, the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) at the Government Museum in Egmore is yet another ‘living tree monument’, according to M.N. Pushpa, curator of the botany section of the museum. It is one of the oldest baobab specimens found in the city today.
“When the museum was established in 1851, the tree was already there. So, it is definitely more than 160 years old,” she says. Native to Africa, baobab trees are among some of the longest living trees. “The diameter of this tree is around 30 feet; and the trunk of the tree can be hollowed out to accommodate around 20 people,” says Pushpa. “Since the wood of this tree is soft and porous, it acts as a water reservoir and can store up to 4,500 litres of water.”
Asked if the tree needs looking after, she said, “It is an adult tree. It can take care of itself.”