Last week I visited Pakistan with a group of doctors from Liverpool. We were there to develop research links. I was also keen to find out how they run health care in rural areas.
Before we left I was very conscious of the troubled times people are living through, with political instability and natural disasters like last summer’s devastating floods in the Indus Valley. These were evident, but by no means oppressive, during our visit to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Much more in evidence were the strengths and resilience of the country, and the people we met. A rolling hilly landscape, dotted with stupas, temples and shrines arising from a rich, diverse cultural heritage much older than ours in the West. A brief but memorable meeting with Dr Tariq Mehmood. He’s a rural medic who works with few resources beyond his own knowledge and skills, yet provides the sort of patient-based care with which I feel great affinity. And wherever we went, generosity and hospitality beyond measure.
But I was most captivated by the Banyan Trees. Most villages in the region have at least one. One village we passed has six Banyans grouped together.
Banyans are fig trees, which start life as seeds germinating in the crevices of other trees. Once established they can live for hundreds of years, sometimes more than a thousand. They are immense. Deep, deep roots come above the surface and provide natural (and remarkably comfortable) places to sit and rest. Branches spread outwards and upwards into the sky, seemingly forever, and their green leathery leaves offer shade from the baking sunshine.
Sitting under the Banyan Tree I feel at ease, secure, sheltered. I have a clear vision of the world around me. I also have an awareness of the immense strength and solidity of the tree, an undeniably tangible, peaceful, natural being who has seen it all before, and has survived and flourished. I imagine it offering its wisdom and protection to me, and whoever else wishes to rest under its care.
It doesn't surprise me that Buddha found enlightenment while meditating under the Banyan Tree, or that Krishna should choose a Banyan leaf as his final resting place. I can see why Shiva is commonly depicted as sitting in silence under the Banyan, with wise people at his feet.
And I can see why Robinson Crusoe decided to make his home in one.
A Banyan Tree is a wonderful refuge in times of trouble.