Bodhi Tree in Islamabad

Posted on March 19, 2007
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, History, Religion, Society, Travel
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Guest Post by Mast Qalandar

In my last two posts on Islamabad (here and here) I talked about the woods and the forest trails that I love so much and take to them whenever I can.

In those woods, at the foot of the Margallas, until a few years ago, there was a very large and very old tree, believed to be several hundred years old. Its gnarled branches sprawled like an umbrella over a very large area around the tree.

It was a pipal tree (ficus religiosa). Pakistani residents of Islamabad were generally unaware of the significance of this tree. But the tree attracted many expatriate residents, mostly from South East or East Asian diplomatic missions in Islamabad. They would come and simply contemplate the tree and its surroundings. Someone had even a built a concrete kiosk and a concrete bench next to the tree for visitors to sit. The tree was believed to be a Bodhi tree.

What is a bodhi tree and how it came to be in Islamabad?

As many of us would remember from our history books, that is, if one graduated before the 1970s, for afterwards they stopped teaching history of pre-Muslim era of the subcontinent in schools, prince Siddhartha Gautuma meditated under an old pipal tree in Gaya, a village near Patna, Bihar, some 2,500 years ago. Ultimately he achieved nirvana, or was “awakened”.

Consequently, the tree under which he sat was named Bodhi, meaning “awakening.” Sidhartha Gautuma became Buddha (the awakened) and the village came to be known as Bodh Gaya, the name it still carries today. The Bhodi tree that grows in Bodh Gaya today is believed to be a direct offspring of the original Bhodi tree.
In the centuries after Buddha, the Bodhi tree became a symbol of Buddha’s presence and an object of devotion for Buddhists.

A little more history before I get to the pipal tree in the woods of Islamabad.

King Ashoka (died 232 BC), the third Maurian king, converted to Buddhism and became a great advocate of the religion and actively propagated Buddhism throughout his empire. The Mauran Empire included, other than the present Northern India, the Gandhara region, which included the area around present day Islamabad, the Peshawar valley and parts of Afghanistan and Iran. Taxila (then Taxshashila), Peshawar (then Parshpura) and Charsaddah (then Pushklavati) were important cities of Gandhara. It was at this time that Taxila reached the peak of its development and became the center of Buddhism. Chandra Gupta Mauria and Asoka spent time at Taxila and so did their famous political adviser, Chanakya, who taught at Taxila.

King Asoka’s daughter, Sanghamitra, who became a Buddhist nun, is said to have taken a cutting of the Bohdi tree from Bhod Gaya to Sri Lanka and planted it at Anaradapura, the ancient capital of the island, where it still grows. Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have bodhi trees growing in them, which are or are believed to be offspring of the one from Anaradapura.

Now, back to Islamabad.

The old pipal tree that grew in the woods of Islamabad was also believed to be “descendent” of the Bodhi tree in Gaya, possibly planted, centuries ago, by a devotee, alongside a temple that might have existed there. Taxila, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from Islamabad, and is full of Buddhist monuments – stupas, statues and remains of monasteries.

In the 1980s, Ziaul Haq ruled Pakistan. In his zeal to “Islamize” the country, he encouraged and helped build madrassas all over the country, many with Saudi money. One such madrassa was built in the woods of Islamabad, not far from where the Bodhi tree stood. Over the years, the madrassa expanded, as most madrassas do, violating the building codes and encroaching upon state land, to become one of the largest madrassas in Islamabad. Today, it occupies 5-7 acres of prime real estate in Islamabad and has a sprawling building complex, and a very large playing field – probably larger than any school or college in Islamabad might have.

The madrassa houses a couple of thousand students ranging in age from 6 to 26, or even older. One sees them during breaks in their classes when they swarm into the playground and overrun the nearby children’s park, driving the children and women out. It is a bizarre sight to see young bearded men swinging and sliding on the swings and slides meant for children. Other contributions of these madrassa students to the community are: street signs defaced with posters soliciting sacrificial animal skins, and vandalized letterboxes.

All these violations of civic rules would be a minor misdemeanor compared to what they did to the Bodhi tree one night. They set it on fire! A symbol of a different faith standing so close to the madrassa was something too defiant for the trainee clerics to tolerate. What was really sad and frightening, though, was not just the loss of an old tree or the act of wanton vandalism but the mindset that wouldn’t tolerate anything that did not fit into their pattern of beliefs. I suppose, the madrassa students were simply replicating the example of the Taliban who, earlier that year, to the horror of the whole world, had blasted the 1500 years old Bamyan Buddhas, in Afghanistan. Obviously, the Taliban virus had spread pretty wide and deep into Pakistan

Fortunately, because of its very large girth, the Bodhi tree did not burn down completely even though it was badly damaged. It survived with half of its branches still intact. The city administration tried to preserve what was left of the tree. They even posted guards at the site for sometime after the incident to protect the tree from any further attacks. When I saw it last, a few years ago, it was still green and seemed as if it was struggling to recover from the wounds inflicted upon it.

Last week, having returned to Islamabad after two years, I decided to look up the tree, as if you would look up an old friend, and see how it was doing. I was shocked. There was no tree there! Only a few logs of the decapitated tree were lying around like dead bodies. The concrete kiosk next to it was partially demolished, its remaining walls covered with graffiti, and the bench was gone. Through the woods, I could also see the madrassa, some construction work going on it. Still expanding, I guess.

No one knows, or is willing to say, how the tree finally perished. Did it just die of its old age or past injuries, or was it chopped down by the same people who had tried to burn it down earlier?
(All pictures, except the first, by the author)

128 responses to “Bodhi Tree in Islamabad”

  1. ashfaqueshah says:

    nice i like .keep it up

  2. Tomas del Carpio says:

    My parents were diplomats and I lived in Pakistan from 1993-1999. During my time there I remember visiting that Bodhi tree in E7 and thinking how great it was.. I was trying to see if there were pictures of it online when I found your article. It saddens me to think that a tree which was around before the times of Muhammed (pbuh) and Christ has been destroyed because of the intolerance of some people. It was nice to read that someone else shared the same sentiments of that once magnificent tree.

  3. Shaukat Masood Zafar says:

    BY: Shaukat Masood Zafar
    Email Address:
    Capital Affairs—Departure of clean and Green Environment.
    The Capital Development Authority, established under CDA ordinance 1960 having a Board of Directors appointed by the Federal Government vested with general direction and superintendence of the affairs and the Business of the CDA. Working under Establishment Division, the Capital Development Authority is the overall administrative, developmental and regulatory authority of the city with the objectives of city maintenance, citizen’s satisfaction, availability of indispensable necessities, further expansion of city with the passage of time, Planning and execution of development schemes, and such like other tasks and is required to take measures to improve civic amenities including parks, playgrounds, udyans and gardens identified as such in Master Plan and maintain the same. Capital Development Authority is the principal authorizing and controlling agent for any building construction and development activity within the territorial jurisdiction of Islamabad City and is responsible for strictly implementing the Master Plan of the City. One of its key tasks is to undertake and execution of development projects like open spaces, parks, playfields, lakes, etc. The Federal Government Employees Housing Foundation is another body set up by the Federal Government during 1988 to provide shelter to employees of the Federal Government by launching self-financing housing schemes for them including serving and retired and for other specified groups of people. Working under Ministry of Housing and Works, the Foundation is registered as a company limited by guarantee under the Companies Ordinance, 1984.
    With the putting into action of Islamabad, a unique outline of master plan of the new capital city was devised by an international architecture firm, Doxiadis Associates and then details of the plan with all its intricate and complex nuances was made possible by the dedication, professionalism, expertise and tireless efforts of the then members of the CDA and after lengthy struggle that multiple team was able to complete the master plan. the said Master Plan tends to define `open space` as including but not limiting to parks, playgrounds, play fields, botanical gardens, fountains, reflecting pools and other bodies of water, walkways and non-build able rights of the way, and nullahs.

    On creation of the Housing Foundation in 1988, the CDA and the Foundatin joined hands to share the responsibility of allotment of plots obviously within the ambit of Master Plan of Islamabad city. Responsibility of allotment of plots to the general public was of Respondent “CDA”, and “Foundation” was responsible for allotment to the Government employees and attached autonomous organizations. The Foundation has fixed a quota for allotment of plots; 75% for employees of Federal Ministries/ Divisions/ attached department and their subordinate offices; 8% for autonomous/ semi-autonomous Government organizations and public sector corporations under Federal Government; 5% for employees of constitutional bodies/ professionals; 5% for retired Federal Government employees; 2% for widows of those Federal Government employees who died during service; 3% for journalists; 15 for disabled; and 1% for hardship cases.

    Quite contrary to the norms of equality, while entering into agreement with the CDA, the Foundation fixed 20% quota of plots for the employees of the CDA. The CDA being an autonomous body should have been included/ placed alongwith other corporation employees for the purpose of allotment of plots. In addition, contrary to clear verdict given by the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan the CDA authorities are of the view that deputation officers require the completion of one year service in the CDA to qualify for the plot. Similarly allotment of plots to the officers of the Housing Foundation are made on the basis of one per cent quota to those employees who have served 10 years in government and have served in the Foundation for not less than six months. Allocation of separate quota for a class of employees relating to an autonomous body and showering plots on the officers completing one year service in CDA for CDA employees and six months service for employees of the Housing Foundation is quite discriminatory and clear violation of Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan.
    For the last two years CDA as well as the foundation has been involved in clearing green belts, nullahs, area not announced for any building or any other purpose and such like other spaces in sectors I-8, I-9, I-10, G-10, G-11 and D-12 for new plots to be allotted to the employees of the CDA while 967 plots were allotted to only officers including 120 DMG group officers in sector I-8 by abolishing the Green areas, creating various issues for the already settled residents. 4, 767 plots were allotted to the officers and the employees during the terms of the former Chairmen CDA Kamran Lashari, Tariq Mehmood and the current Chairman Imtiaz Inayat Ilahi by mostly abolishing the green belts and unspecified areas. The illegal construction made on newly created plots is hindering in smooth flow of rain and nullah water causing severe inconvenience in those areas. Such activities of both CDA and the Housing Foundation are dangerous and impact of this illegal construction will cause loss of property and deterioration of health of the new and old residents in those areas. New houses are being constructed without fulfilling the set criteria of the housing ministry and are being rented out. Furthermore, these new constructions are blocking the natural flow of sewerage and rain water into a nullah in these sectors.
    Due to illegal activities being carried on by both the departments the value of houses around has gone down by half, both in terms of capital and rental value, including loss of view, open space, plenty of greenery and natural light, and the people of those areas are feeling suffocated and are not able to enjoy fresh air as was two/three years back. There are houses in the corner of almost every street that is almost touching the road from the front and side. This action not only has made these sectors over crowded, but has caused imbalance in power supply to the area, and has also destroyed the roads due to construction activity. In order to avoid the objections/ satisfy court Appeals of corner plot owners of those streets, the respondents have played a trick and left a 10 feet street in between the two houses, which is of no use because it is closed from the other side and which resulted in the new corner plot to look like being constructed in the middle of the road when viewed from the side, which of course, creates problems for the vehicle drivers entering or leaving the street. The trees provide shade, and give us oxygen, which makes the atmosphere cool and keeps a better environment. The indiscriminate cutting of trees in the areas has a severe impact on the atmosphere of the area. There were beautiful trees in green belts, which was providing shades to the many and was keeping the atmosphere cool. Under the guise of development, many of them were already cut and a few remaining which too is being abolished for creation of new plots. This indiscriminate deforestation is destroying this natural heritage therefore it needs to be protected on top priority.
    How plots are being allotted in posh and expensive sectors of Islamabad is an interesting phenomenon. In one case the officer who was obliged to allot plots to others has himself acquired an expensive plot, and says he has the right to do so. Interestingly before Mr. Sher Afzal, who was responsible for allotting plots to federal government employees from junior cadres to federal secretaries, himself got the plot in Sector I-8 in excess of his entitlement (as 600 square yards plot was allowed to officers in Grade 20 and above but not to a Grade-19 officer), the Foundation’s Executive Committee offered plots to CDA chairman and all the six CDA members in other sectors, obviously, as bribe. However when they came to know the scandalous nature of the whole episode and learnt that media had started probing into it, they dropped the idea to take these plots. How the Executive Committee of the Foundation allowed Category-I plot to a 19 Grade officer is also a question mark. Currently the Housing Foundation has made allotments to federal government employees in sector G-14 but to some other blue eyed employees have been allotted plots in I-8 and other posh sectors. The location wise value of plots in the capital city Islamabad is very different from other cities as according to real estate experts the prices of plots existing in luxurious sectors like I-8 and “F” Series are extremely high than those existing in far flung sectors like G-14. Disparity can be seen that the price of 600 square yard plot in sector I-8 and “F” sectors is more than Rs30 million while that a plot with the same measurement in sector G-14 is merely Rs3 million to Rs4 million.
    In utter violation of the rules and regulations as well as the verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the CDA has also allotted plots worth billions of rupees to the officers who had joined the CDA on deputation or allotted more than one plot to the same employee mainly in the Sectors I-8, F-10, F-8, F-7, F-6, G-10, and others by abolishing green belts and nullahs clearly in violation of Master Plan. Certain deputation officers gained the plots despite the fact that they had a very dull and bad performance during their tenure in their offices merely on the basis of having 10 years government service and completed one year service in CDA. It is an established position that till no amendment is made in the master plan, anything done against it is a violation of CDA rules but the present regime is grossly violating it saying that master plan is not a sacrosanct document. The concerned authorities have absolutely ignored that original master plan was in line with the rules of CDA Ordinance 1960, but the recent changes are not. Construction on green belts is banned in Islamabad but this is the second time that the CDA has occupied green belts for residential purposes in these posh sectors. Establishment of Jinnah Convention Centre and McDonald’s in F-9 Park are some of the violations of the master plan.
    That the environment and ecology of Islamabad, are being continuously endangered and threatened by various activities originating from both the CDA & Foundation. The City of Islamabad is no exception to this where the dwellers are faced with horrible congestion and havoc of unplanned urbanization, affecting their legitimate rights to healthy environment and enjoyment of the open spaces for fresh breath and natural panorama for physical, mental and spiritual well being.
    The CDA who is in charge of all the properties and works is cutting and removing all the trees in Islamabad and clearing the greenery. The reason is stated to be for the creation of additional plots to be allotted to the employees of the CDA which is absolutely illegal. Dozens of main roads, streets and link roads have been blocked by the CDA to create space for new plots. Clearance of greenery have also severe ramification on the environment of the area, especially in this summer season where the temperature has gone to the maximum in this city.

    The CDA is celebrating the Golden Jubilee. If we glance through the efficiency and performance level of this government department it transpires that even after 50 years of its establishment half of Islamabad is yet to be developed, last residential sector developed in Islamabad was F-11 that was opened 23 years ago in 1987 and since then no residential sector has been given to the people increasing housing backlog to highest level, sectors G-12 and F-12 indicate the helplessness of CDA, People are still facing acute water scarcity in the city which aggravates in summer, sewerage system has become obsolete, basic civic amenities are not available, federal capital has no bus service/ urban transport system, rate of pollution has increased manifolds mainly due to reckless cutting of trees marring the green image of the city. With this efficiency level showering countless facilities to these departments and even allowing them to freely play with the lives of the inhabitants of the city by taking actions like narrated above is absolutely incomprehensible and is a joke with the Rule of Law.

    I am resident of Islamabad and I strongly protest against the indiscriminate cutting of shady trees, clearance of green areas, and abolishing nullahs in Islamabad by the CDA in collaboration with the Federal Government Employees Housing Foundation to create additional plots for their employees, which is contrary to the endeavors of environment conservation, internationally accepted.

    To avoid litigation and then cursing the courts of law the concerned ministries i.e. the Cabinet Division and the Ministry of Housing and Works should immediately look into it at their own as state of affairs adopted by both the departments is detrimental to the environment of the city and health of its habitants, and is absolutely against the law of equality of citizens. Any litigation would put the Government in a very embarrassing position. The concerned Ministries should immediately:

    1. forbear the CDA and the Foundation from cutting and removing the trees from the city;
    2. forbear both the departments from abolishing the nullahs and green belts/ open places from the city;
    3. cancel all the plots allotted to the employees of CDA and Housing Foundation by clearing the nullahs and green belts in all the sectors;
    4. demolish the illegal construction made over those plots.
    5. cancel the quota system of allotment of plots to the employees of CDA and Housing Foundation which is clear violation of Article 25 of the 1973 constitution.
    6. direct both the departments to replant the trees in the areas from where they have cut the same.
    7. ensure that such practice is never repeated in future.

    Shaukat Masood Zafar,
    House No.1060, Street No.95, Sector I-10/1,

    Cell: 0333-5499592.

  4. cassandra says:

    I used to ride my bike to the Pipal tree when I was growing up in Islamabad in the 70’s…it was a mystical place transcending religion…there were no madrassas then. The ignorant, semi-literate deviants who destroyed the tree have a special place reserved in hell. I look forward to the day when the madrassa is burned to the ground with all the bearded pedophiles inside.

  5. Sara says:

    Article of Bodhi Tree have useful and workable entry in this blog. These entries is very reasonable.

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