There was a very large, ancient pipal tree (ficus religiosa) in the woods of Islamabad, at the foot of the Margalla Hills, at the northern edge of the residential area named E-7. Its gnarled branches sprawled like a huge umbrella over a large area around the tree.
The residents of Islamabad were generally unaware of or indifferent to the significance of this tree. However, some expatriates, mostly from the Asian diplomatic missions, and Asian tourists often visited the tree. Someone had even built a small concrete shelter and a bench next to the tree for visitors to sit and meditate. The tree was believed to be a Bodhi tree.
What is a Bodhi tree and how it came to be in Islamabad?
As many of us would remember from our history books — that is, if we graduated before the 1970s, for afterward we stopped teaching the history of the pre-Muslim era of the subcontinent — that Prince Sidhartha Gautama, some 2,500 years ago, after he gave up the princely life, sat under an old pipal tree to meditate. It was in Gaya, a village near Patna, in the present Indian state of Bihar. He continued to meditate until he achieved nirvana, or was “awakened”. Consequently, the tree under which he sat was named Bodhi, meaning awakening. Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha, the awakened, and the village came to be known as Bodh Gaya. The tree that stands in Bhod Gaya today is believed to be an offspring of the original Bhodi tree, perpetuated by planting cuttings from successive generations of the original tree.
In the centuries after Buddha, the Bodhi tree in Gaya became a symbol of Buddha’s presence and an object of reverence and devotion for Buddhists.
A bit of history before I get back to the Bodhi tree of Islamabad.
King Ashoka (died 232 BC), the third Mauryan king, converted to Buddhism, became a great advocate of the religion, and actively propagated Buddhism throughout his empire. The Mauryan Empire constituted Northern India and the Gandhara region, which included the area around present-day Islamabad and the Peshawar valley in Pakistan, and parts of Afghanistan and Iran.
The Pakistani cities of Taxila (Taxshashila), Peshawar (Parshpura), and Charsaddah (Pushklavati) were important cities of Gandhara. It was during this period that Taxila reached the peak of its development and became the center of Buddhism. Chandra Gupta Maurya and Ashoka spent time at Taxila, and so did their famous political adviser, Chanakya, who taught at Taxila.
King Ashoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, who became a Buddhist nun, is said to have taken a cutting of the Bodhi tree from Bhod Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted it at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of the island, where it continued to grow and is believed to stand even today. Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have Bodhi trees growing around them.
Back to the Bodhi tree of Islamabad.
The old pipal tree that grew in the woods of Islamabad was also believed to be a descendant of the Bodhi tree in Gaya, possibly planted by a devotee, alongside a temple that may have existed here. Taxila, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from Islamabad and is full of Buddhist monuments — stupas, statues, and remains of monasteries.
In the 1980s, General Ziaul Haq ruled Pakistan. In his zeal to “Islamize” the country, he encouraged and helped build madrassas all over the country. One such madrassa was built in the woods of Islamabad, not far from where the Bodhi tree stood. Over the years, the madrassa expanded, as most madrassas do, violating the building codes and encroaching upon the state land, to become one of the largest madrassas in Islamabad. Today, it occupies several acres of prime real estate with an elaborate building complex and a very large playing field, probably larger than any school or college in Islamabad might have.
The madrassa houses a couple of thousand students ranging in age from 6 to 25, or even older. During breaks in their classes, they are seen swarming not only their own playground but also overrunning the nearby children’s park. It is an amusing sight to see bearded young men swinging and sliding on the swings and slides meant for children. But all these violations of civic rules are nothing compared to what they did to the Bodhi tree.
They set it on fire!
A symbol of a different faith standing so close to a madrassa was something too defiant. The incident was widely reported in the Pakistani press.
I suppose the perpetrators were simply emulating the example of the Taliban who, earlier that year, to the horror of the whole world, had blasted the 1500 years old Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. Clearly, the virus had spread wide and deep in Pakistan, too.
Fortunately, because of its very large girth, the tree did not burn down completely. It survived with about half of it still intact. The city administration (CDA) tried to preserve what was left of the tree. They even posted guards for some time to protect the tree from any further attacks. When I saw it last, a few years ago, it was still green and seemed to be recovering from its wounds.
However, when I returned to Islamabad after many years, I decided to look up the tree, a short walk from where I lived. There was no tree there! Only a few logs were lying around like dead bodies. The tree had been decapitated. The small shelter next to it was also partially demolished, its remaining walls covered with graffiti, and the bench was gone.
It was a sad sight, like going to look up an old friend to enquire about his health and being told that he had died a few weeks ago.
No one knows or is willing to say, how the tree finally perished. Did it just die of its old age or past injuries, or did the same people who had tried to burn it earlier killed it?