The Trees of Life That Became Colonial India's Agents of Death

The banyan and peepul trees are sacred to people of diverse faiths, especially Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. However, the British repeatedly turned to these trees as gallows.

When British soldiers hanged the Indian rebel Amar Shahid Bandhu Singh from a sacred fig tree in 1857, a legend was born. Local stories say the execution took seven attempts and that, when eventually Singh died, the tree began to bleed.

The public hanging took place in Gorakhpur in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh. The tree, at which Bandhu Singh had worshipped the goddess Durga, was just one of many sacred fig trees the British used as gallows during their control of the subcontinent.

Many hundreds and perhaps thousands of local people died hanging from these trees – most commonly banyans (Ficus benghalensis) but also peepul trees (Ficus religiosa). Both are species of strangler figs that have played important roles in the culture and religion of the region for thousands of years. Both are sacred to people of diverse faiths, especially Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. They are abodes of gods and symbols of life, fertility and knowledge.

Yet repeatedly, the British turned to these trees as gallows. In 1860, in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, they are said to have hanged 257 rebels from the branches of an individual banyan in a single day. These public executions were designed to not only punish but also to terrorise the local populace.

A British soldier, Sergeant William Forbes-Mitchell, published an account of what happened when colonial forces captured “great numbers” of local men in another part of Uttar Pradesh. “I cannot say what form of trial the prisoners underwent, or what evidence was recorded against them,” he wrote.

“I merely know they were marched up in batches and shortly after marched back again to a large tree of the banyan species which stood in the centre of the square – and hung thereon. This went on from about 3 o’clock in the evening till day-light the following morning when it was reported that there was no more room on the tree, and by that time there were one hundred and thirty men hanging from its branches. A grim spectacle indeed.”

“Locals were forced to watch these executions,” says Kim Wagner, a senior lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London, and the use of sacred trees “surely exacerbated the horror felt”.

While no historical evidence suggests the British chose fig trees as gallows because of their religious significance, they would surely have known how important these trees were to local people. British writing from the colonial period abounds with descriptions of people praying at and revering banyan and peepul trees.

The hangings fit into a pattern of what Wagner has called the “racial arrogance and callous brutality” of the British empire, and the “colonial ritual of violence during the nineteenth century”.

The banyan from which Sangolli Rayanna was hanged in 1831. Credit: Praveenkumar112/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The banyan from which Sangolli Rayanna was hanged in 1831. Credit: Praveenkumar112/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The executions were cruel spectacles. In 1857, after they hanged 144 rebels from the branches of a huge banyan in Kanpur, the British threw the corpses into the Ganges riverOther times, they prevented families of those executed from taking the bodies away. Instead, the bodies remained, decomposing in full public view.

Gajendra Singh, a lecturer in South Asian history at the University of Exeter, points out that such treatment of a body after death precluded traditional funeral rites from taking place. “The rotting corpse not only pollutes the environment in a physical and religious sense, but is something beyond religious rites of cremation or burial,” he told me.

In a 2016 paper, Wagner wrote, “Colonial violence ultimately undermined colonial rule by alienating the native population and turning its victims into martyrs of nationalist movements.”

After India gained its independence in 1947, it adopted the banyan as its national tree. Since then, memorials have been installed at several of the fig trees. Some of the trees are still alive today but others have fallen and are passing out of collective memory.

On May 45, 2010, The Times of India reported that an ancient hanging banyan in Kanpur had died of neglect. A stone inscription placed beneath the tree in 1992 had quoted the banyan itself at length.

… No flower garlands are hung on my branches. Today thick bushes have grown around me and I am overrun with weeds. Everything is still and quiet and there is an aura of sorrow surrounding me. But even today I can hear the sounds of horses galloping, the screams of revolutionaries and the firing of canons. I am an old banyan tree, relegated to the margins of history… When I remember the cruelty of the British while punishing the revolutionaries I still get shivers up my spine.

Partial list of executions that used sacred fig trees:

1785, Bhagalpur (Bihar): On January 13, the British hanged rebel Tilka Manjhi from a banyan tree, after first tying him to the tail of a horse, which dragged him to the site of his death.

1806, Medinipur (Odisha): On December 6, the British executed Jayee Rajguru, who had led a local rebellion. They are reported to have tied Rajguru’s legs to two of a banyan’s branches and then pulled them part, splitting his body into two.

1831, Kasaba Nandagad (Karnataka): On January 26, rebel Sangolli Rayanna was hanged from a banyan.

1832, Pune (Maharashtra): On February 3, the British hanged rebel leader Umaji Naik from a peepul (Ficus religiosa) tree. A sign there says, “His dead body was hanged on this peepul tree for three days to strike terror into the hearts of the public.”

1857, Barrackpore (West Bengal): Mangal Pandey, who fired the famous first shot of the 1857 War of Independence, was hanged from a banyan tree on April 8.

1857, Gorakhpur (Uttar Pradesh): On August 12, Amar Shahid Bandhu Singh was hanged from a sacred peepul tree. He was one of hundreds of freedom fighters said to have been hanged from the same tree.

1857, Bijraul, (Uttar Pradesh): 26 men led by Shah Mal were hanged on a banyan tree.

1857, Satara (Maharashtra): Some of the leaders of an uprising were hanged from a banyan tree.

1857, Sunehra (Uttar Pradesh): On December 28, Baksha Singh was hanged from a banyan he had himself planted. Locals say nearly 200 people were hanged from the same tree.

1857, Dhaka (present day Bangladesh): Hundreds were hanged from banyans in what is now Bahadur Shah park.

1857, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh: The British hanged 144 rebels from the branches of a single banyan, known locally as the Buddha Bargad.

1858, Shamsabad (Uttar Pradesh): 130 men were hanged from a single banyan.

1860, Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh): On March 20, either 257 or 244 men were hanged from a banyan. The state government built a memorial tower next to the tree in 2006.

1871, Ludhiana, Punjab: On November 26, Giani Rattan Singh and Sant Rattan Singh were hanged from a banyan tree for closing down slaughterhouses opened by the British.

This post was originally published on Under The Banyan, and has been reproduced here with permission.

Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer and editor.