The trees of an akhara are in many ways associated with snakes and themes of fertility. Three trees in particular grow in akhara compounds: pipal (Ficus religiosa), banyan (Ficus indica) and nim (melia azadirachta). All of these trees have general religious significance in Hindu ritual (cf. Crooke 1926: 400–419; Enthovan 1924: 117–127; Pandey 1964; Philpot 1897; S. N. Roy 1931), but here the concern is only with their relation to two main symbols relating to Nag Panchami: milk and snakes.
Crooke (1926: 407) points out that the pipal tree is revered because it exudes a milky substance. Although snakes are said to populate many types of tree, the pipal is regarded as particularly suited for snakes to live in. They are thought to live entwined in its roots (H. Zimmer 1946: 72). Snakes are also regarded as part of the pipal because its branches are associated with Shiva, and Shiva is said to be adorned with snakes (Crooke 1926: 384, 407). Given that pipals exude a milky sap and are associated with snakes, it is not surprising that they are regarded, in some instances, as sources of fertility. Crooke reports that women circumambulate special pipal trees “in order to gain fertility” (ibid: 408). Women in Banaras wrap threads around the base of pipal trees and light lamps among the roots as an act of supplication or as fulfillment of a vow for a boon of fertility (cf. Enthovan 1924m: 119). One of the pipal trees at Akhara Ram Singh is occasionally used for this purpose.
Along with the pipal tree, the banyan is also regarded as a dwelling place of snakes (cf. Maity 1963: 128; Hastings 1979: 417). The banyan’s aerial roots which hang down and coil around each other are regarded as serpentine. Crooke points out that these roots are associated with the matted hair of sannyasis. The matted hair of sannyasis symbolizes not only snakes but also the reserve of semen which sannyasis are said to store in their heads (O’Flaherty 1980). According to Enthovan (1924: 120) the banyan tree, like the pipal, is associated with Shiva. Being of the same fig family of tree as the pipal, the banyan also exudes a milky sap. One wrestler said that the new fruit of a banyan—which is about two inches long and red with a white tip—can be broken off and eaten. Many claim it to be more nutritious than a glass of milk.
In Bombay, Crooke reports (1926: 407), women fast and pray to banyan trees on the full moon of Jyeshth (May–June) in order to preserve themselves from widowhood. This theme is echoed in the story recounted by Enthovan (1924: 120) where Satyavan died of a snakebite under a banyan tree. He was brought back to life by his wife’s entreaties to Yama, the god of death (cf. Rakesh 1986: 43–45). The banyan in this story is associated with life in general and fertility specifically. On a few occasions people would come to Akhara Ram Singh and ask to take some of the leaves of a large banyan to use as ritual ingredients.
While the banyan and the pipal are associated with snakes and fertility through their milky sap, the nim tree is juxtaposed to snakes by virtue of its power to cure venomous bites (Crooke 1926: 391, 410; Enthovan 1924: 137–140). The nim is not an antidote to poison but it is nevertheless a purifying, purgative agent. Its bitterness is regarded as symbolically parallel to poison. If a person can eat bitter nim leaves he is said to be cured. Zimmer mentions that images of snakes are often set up under pipal and nim trees and that these two trees are regarded as a married couple since they often grow on the same ground (1946: 72). Pipal milk is also used for curing snakebites (R. Sharma n.d.: 6) but in a different way from the nim; pipal milk draws poison out while the bitter nim leaves neutralize venom. In its curing capacity pipal milk acts like mother’s milk whereas the nim fights fire with fire. While alike in some respects, the milky sap of the pipal may thus also be juxtaposed to the bitterness of the nim. If the trees are regarded as a matching pair than there is a symbolic reconciliation of opposites. Through this opposition it becomes logical for snakes to be regarded as comfortably entwined in their roots.
If one considers pipal, banyan, and nim trees together, one is struck by the familiar opposition between milk/fertility and poison/danger which is but another articulation of the general theme of milk-drinking snakes. The bitter nim is juxtaposed to the life-giving sap of the pipal and banyan. In this respect the tree triad underscores the overall theme of controlled sexuality in the akhara. One may see, in this triptych scheme, the power of fertility without any real threat of unleashed erotic passion.
As a final note in this regard let us consider the healing properties of nim, pipal, and banyan trees. All three trees have important curative qualities (cf. Ramsanehi Dixit 1967a; R. Sharma n.d.) and are used as ingredients in numerous remedies (Sen 1985). All three trees, however, are used to treat sexual disorders in men and women. This is not surprising, for many herbs and minerals in India are used for treating illnesses relating to impotency, semen loss, and infertility (Gotham 1983). However, given that the trees grow on akhara grounds—and, as pointed out earlier, they mix their essence with the earth, water, and wind of the compound—one may assume that there is a tacit symbolic association between the trees’ essence and the charged sexuality of the earth, the water, and the body of the wrestler. The sap of the pipal can help cure semen loss and increase the flow of milk from a woman’s breast; the milky fruit of the banyan can reinvigorate an impotent person; and the leaves of a nim can make a man virile and bring milk to a woman’s breast. In every instance the remedies derived from these trees build up semen in men and either cause milk to flow in women or enhance fertility in general. In this regard the milk of the banyan and the pipal can be used as a substitute for cow’s milk (Atreya 1986a: 50).