Nestled in the picturesque Margalla Hills National Park in Islamabad, I have a sacred space in a village called Kalinjar.
This is where my soul tree, Maa teh nau bachey [Mother and nine children], lives. The villagers of Kalinjar and Suniari named it this because, from a distance, the banyan tree looks like 10 trees but is actually a mother with nine offspring. The amazing aspect of banyan trees is that the aerial roots of the mother grow back in the ground and turn into sturdy trunks.
Since there are hardly any experts in Islamabad who can verify the age of ancient trees, I relied on the information given to me by the villagers, who claim it is 1,200 years old. This knowledge was apparently passed on from one generation to the other. Whether the tree is actually that old or not, at least for the villagers, Maa is 1,200 years old.
In 2006, I discovered this monumental tree while looking for an ancient rock shelter mentioned in a paper by the renowned archaeologist late Ahmad Hassan Dani. Maa was featured in my coffee table book Glimpses Into Islamabad’s Soul. Since then, I have been frequently visiting her.
A banyan tree, purported to be centuries old, nestled in the Margalla Hills has provided a much-needed sanctuary to wildlife and flora. But its serene surroundings will soon be replaced by yet another golf course
I absolutely loved photographing my work (sculpture or fabric installations) under her serene shade, had many joyful picnics there with friends and family, arranged school visits for children to admire this wonder of nature, and begged and implored the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to protect it as a natural monument.
After my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, she became an integral part of my healing. I read somewhere that hugging a tree causes unique vibrations that affect us in many delightful ways. Hugging an ancient tree is like absorbing the tree’s natural life-giving energy, stored for centuries in her heart. I have experienced this life-giving energy while hugging this mother banyan.
Visiting Maa was never an easy process; it was like visiting another country — one had to pass checkposts and get special permission. This is not any other sector, it is the area of the new General Headquarters of the army. Unfortunately, like many villages that were bulldozed in order to develop Islamabad for those who can afford this expensive city, Kalinjar and Suniari are now marked for demolition too.
With the help of my environmentalist mother-in-law Helga Ahmad, activists such as Tahira Abdullah, Dr Essa Daudpota and a few friends, we were able to protect some ancient trees in Islamabad as “natural monuments”, but the CDA would always insist that Maa was off limits. On paper, national parks are open to every citizen but, in reality, this particular section of the park is not open for “lowly” civilians.
After the Covid pandemic, I started displaying my artwork under ancient trees, to celebrate their protection as natural monuments by the CDA. I always wanted to do that under the wondrous canopy of Maa as well but, because of its inaccessibility as a high security zone, that is an impossible dream.
I last hugged Maa in 2022. It was a long and tight hug, because it was becoming increasingly difficult to visit her. Until then, she was in the most pristine of conditions, the only concrete around being the tombs in the nearby cemetery.
I absolutely loved looking at my work while listening to the sound of Maa’s leaves rustling in the evening breeze, the special call of the herders of Kalinjar and Suniari, the clinking bells around their cattle’s necks, and the chirping of beautiful birds. However, the best sound of all is only heard during the monsoons, when water flows in the freshwater stream nearby, which otherwise remains dry in other seasons.
Soon, these beautiful sounds will be replaced by the deafening noise of bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks and other heavy machinery, as they level the ground for another ‘development’ project. Nearby, yet another luxurious golf course is also planned to be built.
It is heartbreaking that, for centuries, Maa has seen nature’s bounties but now a lot of land around her will be cleared in order for a golf course to be built. It will result in the destruction of many trees and natural habitats. Just one old tree is home to many arboreal insects, animals and birds; imagine how many beautiful creatures will end up losing their homes as a result of a golf course.
For centuries Maa has given shade to people of many races and religions, maybe even our British colonial masters. But now she will see our present masters play a colonial relic of a game. Maa must have seen animals consume only what they needed, but now she will be a witness also to the insatiable greed of humans. Only a kilometre away, is another golf course in the Air Force Colony.
If only we had copied some laws from the United Kingdom and other developed countries, which protect old trees, Maa would have been protected as a ‘natural monument’ by now.
Italy recently passed a law granting 20,000 trees legal protection as natural monuments. In the UK, the Tree Preservation Order in a Conservation Area protects ancient and veteran trees because they are vital havens for wildlife as well as important carbon stores. Old trees are called ‘living legends’ in developed countries, but all we copy is their so-called development projects that play havoc with nature.
In Islamabad, our beautiful and valuable ‘living legend’, Maa, stands vulnerable despite legal protections and despite the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), which is supposed to ensure the protection and preservation of wildlife and other species in the park vicinity.
If only we were a law-abiding nation, there would be no golf course, restaurant or any other construction in a protected national park. The great tragedy is that, recently, the CDA even announced the construction of a stadium and a hotel in the Margalla Hills National Park. National parks are called ‘protected’ because they need protection from developers’ bulldozers.
There are so many indigenous trees around Maa that this could well have been a beautiful nature walk, a haven for nature lovers. But no, it seems the need of the hour in a country hit hard by climate crises, is yet another water-guzzling golf course!
The writer is a visual artist, children’s author and advocate for old growth trees.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2023