The God Trees of Singapore

I saw this enormous tree recently in a suburban neighborhood in Maryland. I love seeing old trees, but especially old trees in the suburbs. They beat the odds. They survived, and thrived.

Old trees also remind me of the “god trees” in Singapore. These god trees (called “shen shu” in Mandarin) are usually old. One famous god tree grows in the midst of a busy neighborhood of apartment blocks.

The tree is said to be more than 100 years old. It existed long before the first apartments were constructed. According to local lore, the tree was so difficult to uproot, even with the use of bulldozers, that the developers gave up and built around it.

People have worshiped at it for so long that the shrine at its base is now a registered place of worship, with its own trustees and list of charities.

The tree, like many of the god trees in Singapore, is a banyan, a type of fig with aerial roots that hang from its branches. Buddha was said to have gained enlightenment under a banyan tree, so it’s not strange that Buddhists consider the banyan a holy tree.

A banyan tree

Other god trees, however, attain their holy status seemingly out of the blue. Makeshift altars spring up overnight at their feet. People start burning joss sticks around them and leaving food offerings. Devotees tie colorful strips of cloth on the low-hanging branches, on which they write their hopes and dreams. Quite a few of the requests will involve lucky numbers and winning the lottery.

Soon enough, the tree will attract a community of elderly men. They come every day, sitting on plastic stools and gossiping among themselves as they watch the worshipers pray.

The devotees of god trees are often Buddhist and Taoists, but you can find people from other religions as well. It isn’t always clear whether the worshipers are praying to the tree itself, or the god that resides in its branches.

God trees can become sacred overnight, but reverence for their power can also suddenly disappear. The food offerings stop, the objects laid at their feet disappear. The tree is back to being an ordinary tree, its holiness forgotten.


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