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Ancient trees with historical land and religious value must be protected

By Jagath Gunawardana

Sri Lanka is fortunate to be endowed with a very large number of trees, some of which even have historical, cultural, social and religious value, growing in all parts of the country.

In June 2009, the Bio-diversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources published a book depicting some important trees, an endeavour that took them several years. However, it has to be noted that two of the trees provided in the text were destroyed within the year itself.

The first to be destroyed was the giant Pus-wela (Woody Liana) in Hunuwila, Opanayaka. It is a famous landmark when reaching Balangoda. The major part of this was cut down for no apparent reason despite public protests, by the company that was laying the road. The other tree to be destroyed within the year was the Ebony tree that was in the middle of the Malabe Junction, a famous landmark and also the largest ebony tree that was outside a protected area. It was killed slowly due to the tap root being cut to accommodate the cementing of the pavement. In addition, the historic Arukku-Nugaya (arched banyan tree) that was across the Galle-Matara main highway was also felled during 2009, despite protests by people, to accommodate the widening of the road.

A tree gets historical significance by the events or circumstances associated with it and the its age or the species is often irrelevant. The historical, cultural and social values are the important factors, although the significance of the species may, on occasion, give an added intrinsic value to it, such as the case of Baobab trees in Mannar. There are trees with historical significance that are comparatively young in age such as the Mahogany tree at Horana planted by Ernesto Che Guevera when he visited Sri Lanka. This tree is only 50 years old but is even depicted in a stamp due to the fact that it was planted by Guevera and to denote the friendship between the countries.

There are instances where an event is associated with a historical tree having different historical significance for different people who look at an event from their own perspectives. The best example of this is the Bo-tree at Watapuluwa which gets its historical value from the first complete rout of the British colonial forces by the forces of the Kandyan kingdom which happened in 1806.This tree was named the Davies Tree by the Colonial administration and a plaque has been placed near it in 1906 mentioning the incident as a massacre. The first great victory by the Kandyan forces against the British forces had been viewed by them as a massacre in which only the officer who led the contingent, one major Davy, was left alive and after whom the nearby road (Davie Road) and this tree have been named.

The identification of, and more importantly, giving legal protection to old trees especially to those with historical and religious value, is important as some of these have been wantonly destroyed during the recent past. The cutting down of the historical Banyan (Nuga) tree at Denipitiya, associated with the Poetess Gajaman Nona, by the orders of the Divisional Secretary is one of the worst such cases. This historic tree was earmarked to be protected way back in 1971 but was not given protection in 1993 when the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was amended, and the authorities were not particularly in a hurry to provide protection by regulations when this was pointed out at the time.

Their reasoning was that such a well-known tree would be protected by all and that giving it legal protection could wait until the next amendment. However, it was cut down under the orders of the Divisional Secretary in 2001, despite many protests, and we could not take any action as it was not protected at the time. The historically and religiously important Na Tree at Parakaduwa was saved in 2001 because it had been protected by law.

These recent examples show that public awareness and protests are in themselves insufficient to protect these ancient trees although there are instances where trees have been saved by civic action. A good example is the saving of the historic Kumbuk Tree at Paramaulla at Alawwa through public protests after an irate colonial administration officer wanted it cut-down as his coach met with an accident when passing it.

In contrast to the disinterest shown to the protection of historical trees in Sri Lanka, some countries are taking great efforts to protect old trees, even though they may not have a historical significance as such. For instance, Britain is taking steps to protect their ancient trees regardless their historic importance and the Woodland Trust, the leading woodland conservation charity, launched a project in 2007 called the Ancient Tree Hunt to find, records and protect the ancient trees found in Britain. Their intention is to find all possible trees which are more than 200 years old. It is worth noting that this effort is to identify old trees in general and not to confine their efforts to trees with historical value.

If Sri Lanka is to conduct a similar survey to identify ancient trees without their historical, religious or cultural significance, the number would be very high. Even if we were to take only those with religious or historic significance, it could be a large number. It is a little known fact that Sri Lanka has the largest number of ancient trees with their histories recorded from their planting up to the present. The oldest tree with a continuous written historical record from the time of planting to the present days is the Jaya Sri Maha Bhodiya at Anuradhapura and the record is unbroken since it was planted in the third centuary B.C. The other oldest trees with continuous records are the eight saplings known as Ashtapal-Bodhi that sprang up from the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya and have been planted in different parts of the country under the orders of King Devanampiyatissa. All of these sacred Bo-trees (Bodhis) have continuous records spanning more than 2000 years.

There is an urgent necessity to identify and document the ancient trees growing in Sri Lanka and priority should be given to those that have religious, cultural, and historical importance and to those which may need immediate intervention to protect their survival. A tree that is important for religious purposes gets a certain degree of protection under the provisions of Section 293 of the Penal Code because the destruction and the damaging of objects of religious value are deemed as offences. Those that have some historical, cultural, social or religious value that grow in public places can be protected under the provisions of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.

The Bio-diversity Secretariat of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources had, based on the survey of historical trees, identified some of those trees that needed immediate legal protection. They were preparing the necessary documents to provide legal protection to them under Section 43 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance when the subject of wildlife conservation was taken away from the Environmental Ministry and handed over to the Ministry of Economic Development.

This subject has in turn been handed over to the Ministry of Agrarian Services in November 2010. The ultimate result is that the move to give legal protection to some important trees has been stalled since April 2010. It is therefore an urgent national necessity to revive this process and give them the necessary legal protection before many other such valuable trees are wantonly destroyed.


If this happens in the South, imagine how trees were cut down in the Northeast occupied by the army over the last four decades. But then the news about the Northeast is hushed in the South.

When the government is oppsed to all forms of dissent and all forms of civil societies, we may see more carnages than these in the North(already there is much less man-and-material to carnage) and the South.

Posted by: eureka | March 16, 2011 03:56 AM

I read this article with much interest - happy that we still have amongst us many who fit into that description of "the learned" On the few occasions I interacted with the affable Jagath I found him a passionate environmentalist. Thanks to Mr Jeyaraj we have the good fortune to learn how the writer has taken such meticulous care and labour to record the more significant trees that is part of our heritage and commonwealth. A society that takes care of its trees, vegetation and environment indeed is a fortunate society. We are aware of the
importance the "Red" Indians of North America attach to their trees - many of which they consider sacred. Chief Seattle's poems on the environment is not only legendary but literary classicas well. I am also aware there is a school of thought in the USA that casts studied scepticism in the matter.

But there do come occasions when there is conflict between development and conservation. It is the difficult task of officials sometimes to take the side of development - although they often do their best to strike a balance - while national treasures are sacrificed in its wake. But so long as this is done by
men of learning and competency the country is protected. Our fear is the sudden surge of men with Doctorates of all forms put in charge of matters far beyond their horizons as that one who decides to tie officials to trees; dictates on what people should grow and what they should eat and so on. It is in that context I used the term "learned" But what is distressing is that such despicable Doctors are elevated to h9gh office and let loose on society under a regime that pays lip service to religion and a form of governance based on
misplaced "thinking" or chintanaya. If Mao can do it so can we is the challenge here.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | March 16, 2011 07:11 AM

They advocate "Ancient trees with historical land and religious value must be protected " but not the ancient or indeginous people from the NE with historical land and religious value and their communities who had the inherent quality of socio economically standing on their own feet and self-sufficent. Trees are more valued even after a war in which innocent civilians were anihilated without any last rites.

They crow about their history by destroying without any traces the history of others who are indeginous and occupying the latter's lands.

Posted by: Member of the Indigenous Palmayrah Clan | March 16, 2011 10:40 AM

Thank you Mr J.G.
We know how much you have done to this country, keep up the good work.

Posted by: chatura arangala | March 17, 2011 06:43 PM

Let me comment on the unsavory remarks of the Palmyra Clan (#3) and Eureka (#1):

Remember that the "best Palmyrahs" produced in the North, the Thiyagarajahs, Duraiappahs, Amirthalingams, Dharmalingham, Alalasundaram, ..., and so on the list goes on., of leaders, intellectuals, journalists like the the Thinamirasu editor Arjunarajah Nadarajah, school Principles like Rajeswari Thanabalasingham who opposed the forcing of the young shoots of these great trees (i.e., children) into cannon fodder were ELIMINATED by the likes of Eureka and the writer of the note "palmyrah clan".

Among the souther Tamils too, the killings of Thiruchelvam, Kadirgamar, Raviraj etc etc -- and the list of great trees felled goes on an on. But it is not just the great trees that were felled, it was the whole forest, and its young shoots were felled and burnt at the Alter of a psychopath.

Remember that Prabhakaran and those of the Palmyra clan who supported him killed more Tamils than the whole Sinhalese army did. Also, they were about to make sure that there would be no second generation by feeding all the young children to the armed frontier. If things had gone on for another couple of years, the Vanni would have been a waste land. Fortunately for the Palmayrah clan, the Govt army, perhas supported by the Indians, cleared and cut off the horribly malignant cancer that had attacked all the Palmyrahs. Some of us had to run away to foreign lands to escape this malignant virus, while others found refuge in the suburbs of Colombo. But the virus still resides in the likes of the writer of notes #1, #2, and large factions of the diaspora blinded by the virus. They still have the potential to kill and divide the Tamils, and destroy the gains in the professional, financial and cultural sphere that have already taken place among the Colombo Tamils and up-country Tamils.

Posted by: Sam Edwards | March 26, 2011 08:52 AM

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