Dr. U. Pethiyagoda

Early this year, my wife and I joined a Pilgrim Group to the Buddhist sites in India. Bodhgaya and Savaththi were visited. The botanist in me was kindled by the  legends associated with the Bodhi (Ficus religiosa) trees at Bodhgaya, Anuradhapura  and Savaththi. It seems  that the Anuradhapura tree was a sapling of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The original tree was reportedly destroyed by vandals and was replaced by a sapling from the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura. They are therefore probably clones. The Ananda Bodhi is a little lessclear. It is recorded that the Buddha gave instructions for a progeny from the original tree to be established at Savaththi as a symbol for when he was no more. Reference is to a “seed” being planted. There is also some doubt regarding the actual planting spot. I sought clues from leaf shape. It seemed that the two trees in India were similar, but the blades were thicker and deeper green and the “tail” or drip tip was shorter that my recollection of the tree at Anuradhapura. Could the difference be due to their being “ecotypes”?  The possibility was also that the picture could be further complicated by one or other not being the real “Bo” but “Ehetu”.

To clear my doubts, I telephoned the Abeywickrama household.  The younger daughter Kumudhini Senaratne is a taxonomist in her own right and a Professor in Botany at the Open University. She was at work and Professor Abeywickrama, when he was told who was on line, wished to speak from his sick-bed. After a few pleasantries, I mentioned my mission. To my great surprise, he caught on immediately to tell me that Ehetu was an epiphyte that often encircled and took over from Bo trees. He explained that it was very easy to see the difference, if only I had looked at the stem end and not the tail – for, he explained, “Bo” had a cordate outline while ehetu was sub-acuminate! I was naturally stunned but the best was yet to come!

When Kumudhini returned from work, apparently his first words were “Get me Volume 3 of…………….Flora”. At the time Kumudhini spoke to me, he was poring over the taxonomy of the Genus  Ficus!

 This was less than a week before he passed away – a tribute to his mental acuity and intellect even at the ripe age of 91 years!  When I visited home at his funeral, Kumudhini told me about a possession that I will treasure. He had traced a neatly dried and pressed sprig of Ehetu with the instruction “Give it to Petha whenhe comes!”   Premonition, Prophetic or what?