- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

NEW DELHI — Concerns are mounting for a sacred tree believed to be the latest incarnation of the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago.

The “Bodhi tree” in Bihar state, eastern India, has been afflicted with a mystery ailment, causing it to shed its leaves.

The giant peepal, or ficus religiosa, situated outside the Mahabodhi shrine is sacred to Buddhists, who make pilgrimages from around the world to worship at it.

Scientists have been called in to examine the tree, which began dropping large quantities of fresh leaves late last month, raising fears that it was starting to die.

“We have taken soil and leaf samples, which are currently undergoing laboratory analysis,” said A.K. Singh of the Agricultural Research Institute in the nearby town of Patna. “The concern is that the new, young leaves are falling from the canopy.”

The fate of the tree — which is 110 years old and is, according to the temple authorities, the sixth regeneration of the original tree under which Buddha attained perfect insight — is a sensitive subject in the Buddhist world.

Last year rumors that a local mafia gang had lopped off a branch to sell to Japanese pilgrims caused several countries, including Sri Lanka, Burma and Japan, to send high-level diplomatic delegations to inspect the damage.

Temple authorities vigorously denied the incident had occurred, saying the branch was an “old cut.” As rumors of a cover-up flared, scientific tests were ordered to ascertain how recently the branch had been cut. The results were inconclusive.

Mr. Singh, who was visiting the shrine late last week, said he was quietly called in 10 days earlier after local monks noticed that the tree, whose leaves are sold to pilgrims for up to $9 each, was shedding at an unusually high rate.

He is reserving judgment until the test results are known. “It is normal that the tree sheds its old leaves in January and February, but the new growth which comes with the summer in March shouldn’t be falling to the ground,” he said.

“The leaves we have sent for testing have shown a certain amount of yellowing, although this may be due to more benign causes such as unusually high summer temperatures or problems with water or nutrition. As yet we cannot tell.”

Mr. Singh was among a group of scientists who were called in to save the tree after it showed signs of sickening. An infestation of mealybug was diagnosed and a course of pesticide and fungicide prescribed.

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