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March 2004

Healing the Banyan

- based on an interview
by Alan and Narad's notes

“I have faith that everything will be done according to the Divine's Will,” says Narad

NaradNarad (Richard Eggenberger) was asked by Mother in 1969 to design and build the Matrimandir Gardens . In the early 1970s he set up the Matrimandir Nursery for collecting, studying and propagating many rare and beautiful plants from all over the world. Twelve years later he returned to the U.S. where he continued to extend his deep knowledge of plants and trees and to collect specimens for the Ashram and Auroville.

He has revisited regularly. On his most recent visit he spoke about his concerns for the Banyan Tree by Matrimandir and about his continuing involvement in finding new varieties of plants for the Gardens.

AVToday: Do you feel you have a special relationship with the Banyan Tree by Matrimandir?

If you were to ask me, ‘What are the two most sacred trees in the world today?' I would answer without hesitation, ‘The Service Tree over the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the Banyan Tree at the centre of Auroville'. Mother gave me the work of caring for the Service Tree for the rest of my life. It is an inestimable blessing carrying with it a great responsibility, and it is in this light and with the same sense of devotion that I speak of the Banyan Tree.

Recently you expressed concern about the Banyan.

The Banyan before some aerial roots were trimmed

Yes. Firstly there is the matter of size. One must keep in mind the proportion of the Banyan to the Matrimandir and the perspective and balance of the entire area. We measured the tree the other day and its diameter is now fifty metres, an increase of thirty metres in twenty-eight years! The eastern side of the tree is now at the edge of one of the western petals. It is not difficult to calculate what could happen if this rate of growth is allowed to continue.

Then there is the problem of the grass under the Banyan. It is certainly attractive but it has led to serious problems; for example, frequent watering may have contributed to the fungal condition now in the central trunk. Also, the first rule in tree culture is to water deeply but infrequently to encourage the roots to move down into the earth so that they can eventually find their own sources of water. Trees are not at all averse to keeping their roots at ground level or slightly below to take advantage of free water at the surface. This is why they often go into shock when someone who has been watering the grass goes on vacation or forgets to water or an irrigation system breaks down.

The Banyan is a strong tree and can survive long periods of drought. But when it has been force-fed for years things become a lot more precarious. I would not recommend removing the grass immediately, except perhaps for the inner area around the main trunk, but suggest that the interval between watering is gradually extended until the minimum amount of water needed to keep the grass alive is determined. At this point a decision can be made as to whether to continue with minimal watering and keep the grass or remove it completely. I would recommend removal.

As for the aerial roots, I would not recommend that further roots be encouraged to descend without serious study of the necessity of such roots for the support of essential branches. One has only to see the size of some of these roots to realize that if many of them are not removed now they will grow into each other, creating an impenetrable wall that will be totally lacking in beauty. I never prune more than is necessary and if extensive pruning is required, as is the case here, I undertake that in stages to stress the tree as little as possible. For the same reason I don't think it wise to shine strong lights on the Banyan, as happened recently, although low-key lighting to illuminate the path beneath seems a sensible idea.

Finally, our Banyan has numerous limbs with extensive rot and decay that have never been attended to in the twenty-three years I have been away. These will have to be cleaned out and some of them removed.

Is your view shared by others?

Yes. I met Juan, a professional tree-pruner, and we're in total agreement about the work that has to be done. He and I will work together on pruning the Banyan (we've agreed not to use any power machinery, which is the policy I've always adopted for the Service Tree in the Ashram) and we will also go all over the outer gardens and discuss the pruning of the rare trees there. Roger is also very happy with my involvement. I met him recently under the Banyan and there was a wonderful feeling of harmony and peace between us.

The last time you visited Auroville you were very concerned about plans for a large lake which would submerge many trees in the outer gardens.

I think that until we solve the problem of the water supply, the decision about the size of the lake is way down the line. I'm willing to work with everybody to help resolve this issue harmoniously and see if we can't achieve both the harmony of the lake and the beauty of the trees. Actually, I think things will work themselves out.

Do you feel that also about the design of the inner gardens?

Yes. Originally Mother gave me the full responsibility for the Gardens. And She told me, ‘I'd like you to start with the Garden of Unity'. What a telling statement, what layers of meaning are there! But I failed her. There wasn't a lot of time and we needed to set up the Nursery, but more than this I felt that the way ahead would be revealed by the plants themselves, through my communication with them, rather than through my drawing up garden designs. I thought that if I began working with the plants I would be taught what to do. Nevertheless, Mother asked me to do a design and when it was complete, to present it to Her. I never managed to do this: this is what I mean when I say I failed Her.

Today it's a new chapter. Perhaps we could just start with our hands, with the harmony of our labour and our shared aspiration for the realization of the Gardens, and see where it leads. Actually my faith is that it will eventually be done exactly according to the Divine Will. We may stumble, we may go through trial and error, but in the end it will be That.

Over the past twenty years there's been a shift in emphasis in afforestation in Auroville. Now almost all the trees planted in the greenbelt are indigenous rather than exotic. As you continue to bring plants from all over the world for the Gardens, do you feel in conflict with this movement?

There is no conflict. Our work differs in its focus but that is the only difference. We have the greatest respect for each other and I always visit some greenbelt communities every time I return. I was amazed to see the amount of work accomplished by these rugged pioneers who are realizing and have already realized to a vast extent the Green Belt which is creating the beneficial microclimate Mother envisaged. I feel, unfortunately, that their sincere efforts have been largely ignored by the greater body of Auroville.

A recent walk through the Green Belt with Jean of ‘Two Banyans' and Patrick of ‘Revelation' was truly a revelation for me. Jean pointed out tree after tree received from the Matrimandir Gardens Nursery which is now a towering giant. I acknowledge humbly that their knowledge of all the forest species, trees, shrubs, vines, far exceeds all that I learned in the first twelve years of Auroville. To know that two species of civet cat have returned to the forest, to realize that when we arrived in Auroville there were approximately thirty species of birds and today's count is in excess of 300, is a tribute to all the communities of Auroville who have devoted themselves to planting trees and flowering plants. Mother's charge to me to create a beauty never seen on earth before has yet to be realized, but the Green Belt is already on the way towards accomplishing Her vision.

The Matrimandir Gardens are something quite different in aim and expression from the afforestation work, though all work with and for the Earth is essentially one. The Gardens will be intense in the concentration and power of beauty they must manifest, but in size a small fraction of the Greenbelt around the township. The planting of indigenous species and the return of the natural forest has been the aspiration and aim of those who have worked in the Greenbelt since its inception. I am in full accord with this plan. Some may not be aware that in the early years from 1970 on we grew thousands of trees at the Matrimandir Gardens Nursery for planting throughout the Greenbelt . Many of the species we planted were indigenous to South India , collected on visits to forest and jungles with some of the finest Conservators of Forests in the Indian Government.

However, there are also some excellent tree species that were introduced from other areas of the world that accept the same climatic conditions and add to the beauty and diversity of the forest, and these are being cared for as well. When the Supramental force is fully active on earth and the climate changes, we will see wonderful changes in the plant world. That is, however, something of the future of which we cannot now speak.

And your own involvement? Do you see yourself returning to live in Auroville?

I no longer have any attachments to America or to anything. I aspire only for a complete surrender to Mother: She will tell me where I must go and what I must do. Actually, those with inner sight say they don't see me returning here for a couple of years, but going round the world and bringing back plants for the Matrimandir Gardens . This is something I've been active in for many years. I've visited many Botanical Gardens and nurseries and the remarkable thing is that, whenever I've requested plants or seeds for the Ashram and Auroville, nobody ever refused. On the contrary, people always try to give me more than I can carry!

The morning after Sydo's death we transplanted about 18 new varieties of lotus from seed that was sent to me by Peter Slocum, the owner of the largest water lily and lotus firm in America . Mary Helen and I had met him on our world tour of plant collecting in 1977. I had written to him saying that I wanted to bring seeds of the finest lotus hybrids created during the last twenty-five years for Auroville and the Ashram. He then sent me the seeds of their most beautiful cultivars.

Recently we planted these in one of the Ashram gardens and Kabul of the Ashram has worked out the best method for propagation. In just over two months from seed the lotuses have developed excellent tubers and we were able to take 22 plants to Kireet at Gaia's Garden. As these tubers increase and divide and are shared in gardens throughout Auroville, I would like it to be known that they were planted to honour Sydo that all might remember him in the beauty and fragrance of the flowers.

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