Sacred Trees of India

by Head Hunter YD Bar-Ness

Imagine a single living banyan tree that stretches two hundred metres across, old enough that it may be the site where Alexander’s army camped. Imagine a mango tree with 312 varieties of fruit grafted onto a single stem, an ancient bo tree marking the location of Buddha’s enlightenment, and a sprawling fig tree where Krishna delivered the speech immortalised in the Bhagavad Gita.

This hunt for the Sacred Trees of the Indian Subcontinent was part of a multi-year Fulbright Fellowship project documenting trees all over India.

You can click on some of the photos and learn about a few of these trees through the captions. There’s also a project database online.

1. Location details:

 In various places throughout India. The project totalled around 30,000 km of full time travel over almost three years. Some trees were in large urban areas, others in remote mountain regions.

2 .What are the purposes / aims of your plant hunt?

Landmark Trees of India is an ecological geography project, in which individual trees are visited, mapped, photographed, and used as ambassadors for environmental education. Through writing, media access, photography and art exhibitions, these trees can teach us about the environmental settings, problems, and solutions present in India today. Not just historical or sacred trees, but also weird, interestingly placed, curiously utilized, or whimsically interesting trees.

Why? Everyone likes trees! Forests and trees are the perhaps the most prominent living things on Earth. If you like nature, you’ll like trees, and you’ll like insects, and mushrooms, and birds.

3. Is this a unique program, what’s so special about it?

Similar works have been done- as photo art projects, as arboricultural surveys, or as heritage databases. To the best of my knowledge, this is the most extensive and intensive project as of yet done in India, and the only one with a citizen science component built in.   

4. What limiting factors influence your ability to do this work?  

Well, this was actually a very simple project. All you need to do is find a tree (“mark”),  orientate it in space (“land”). There you go- you’ve landmarked a tree!

5. How long are you there for? 

I spent almost three years in India, but the project there was a direct result of being a traveller interested in notable trees. This project was really an exercise is taking this to a logical extreme.

6. How many people do you take and why are they there?

I could always find a companion to go scouting for trees, sometimes a local person, and sometimes a foreigner.

7. Is it very expensive to go on a plant hunt?

Not at all. This type of plant hunt is about as simple as it gets. If you have access to a smartphone, you’ve got more technical equipment on hand than I did to conduct the field research.

9. What organisations are involved in your plant hunt?

I tried to connect with every environmental-minded entity I could track down!

These included:

  • -The US-India Educational Foundation, Delhi
  • -The American Centre, Delhi
  • -World Wildlife Fund-India, Delhi
  • -The Energy and Resources Institute, Delhi
  • -The Indian National Trust on Arts and Cultural Heritage
  • -The Forest Survey of India, Northern Zone, Shimla
  • -The French Institute, Pondicherry (French Government International research institution)
  • -The National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore
  • -Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and Environment, Bangalore
  • -Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi
  • -Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
  • -Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow
  • -University of Mumbai, Mumbai
  • -Sadhana Forest, Auroville
  • -Meghalaya Adventurers Society (Influential in Shillong)
  • -Woodstock International School Environmental Education, Mussoorie
  • -Landour Language School
  • -The Crocodile Bank, Chennai (one of the world’s leading reptile zoos)
  • -The Agmube Rainforest Research Station
  • -The Vattakanal Conservation Trust


Keep hunting…