Famous for its restless and often stressful urban living, sparing the time to take a walk in the park can be a luxury for many Hong Kongers. In fact, many may not even notice the existence of parks and gardens in the business district of Hong Kong. Behind the towering skyscrapers of Central (中環), a rather hidden 5.6 hectares area on the slope of Victoria Peak stands the oldest public park in Hong Kong. Long before the city was promoted as a shopping paradise, or a foodie haven of Michelin star restaurants, or a recreational hub of amusement parks and vibrant nightlife, or an exotic destination of subtropical beaches and seaside hiking trails, Hong Kong Botanical Gardens (香港植物公園) was one of the primary tourist attractions in the Victoria City. Founded in 1864 and completely opened to the public in 1871, the gardens was established in times when botanical gardens were founded by colonial powers in different locations around the world. The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens was used by the British as a regional hub to study plant species collected from the Far East before transferring back to the Kew Gardens in England, or before planting at other areas in Hong Kong.
Bounded by Garden Road (花園道), Robinson Road (羅便臣道), Glenealy (己連拿利) and Upper Albert Road (上亞厘畢道) in the Mid-Levels (半山), Hong Kong Botanical Gardens is often referred to as Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) by the locals. Literally means “Head of Soldiers” Garden, “Bing Tau Fa Yuen” references to the former Governor’s House built at the Garden’s location. In 1975, the official name of the Gardens was changed to Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens (香港動植物公園), as a result to the growing collection of display animals. Despite initial researches of botanical science (which led to the founding of Hong Kong Herbarium in 1878) at the Gardens, most people would remember the Gardens as a place to check out animals and floral displays. Though the history of how the Gardens had played a role in botanic research for tree planting on the Hong Kong Island shall always be remembered. After all, transforming Hong Kong Island from a barren and rocky island with no forests, no trees and only grass in the 19th century (resulted from centuries of reckless deforestation) into the relatively lush green metropolis that we see today was no small feat.
Situated right across from my primary school, Bing Tau Fa Yuen is an essential part of my childhood memories. Going to Bing Tau Fa Yuen (兵頭花園) to check out the howler monkeys, orangutans, peacocks and even jaguars was a small after-school treat for me as a child. Every spring, Azalea (杜鵑花) would flourish across the park, attracting a large crowd to take selfies. Many years have gone by and the neighborhood has significantly transformed since my childhood’s time. Though the annual blossom at Bing Tau Fa Yuen is one of the few things that could remain unchanged throughout the years.
Day 2 (4 of 5).
In 288BC, a sapling of Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred fig tree in Buddha Gaya of India under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta Theri, the eldest daughter of Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great. The sapling was brought to the island in a golden vase on the ship, and planted by King Devanampiya Tissa on a 6.5m high terrace in the Mahamevnawa Gardens of Anuradhapura. Sangamitta stayed in Anurādhapura and established the nun-lineage of Bhikkhunī with several other Indian nuns. Along with his elder brother Mahinda, Sangamitta was a vital figure for spreading Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The ancient capital Anuradhapura continued to flourish and develop into a hub for Buddhist teachings that lasted for many centuries.
Today, the sacred tree Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi continues to thrive and has become one of the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world. The amazing 2308-year-old tree is also known as the oldest living tree planted by human hands on record. Given the significance of the tree, the Sri Lankan government banned all construction within 500m from it. Walls were also erected in the 18th century to protect the tree from wild elephants. Golden fence around the tree was later added in 1969. Buddha statues were placed at four sides of the sacred tree by different ancient kings. Ceremonies are held at the site to celebrate new year and several other festivals every year.
After a light lunch, we ventured out the Sanctuary Tissawewa and head east. Following the instruction given by the hotel staff, we found our way towards the legendary fig tree.
From the main road, we followed a pedestrian only path for about 10 minutes towards the sacred tree. At one point, we passed by a tree full of monkeys.
Most worshipers arrived at the sacred tree with lotus flower as offerings.
A green garden mat surrounds the terrace where the sacred Bodhi is located.
From the semicircular Moon stone (Sandakada pahana, a floor feature unique to Sinhalese architecture), worshipers would go up the steps to the shrine at the second level of the platform.
At each cardinal direction, a shrine is built for worshipers to leave their offerings and receive blessing from the monk.
The shrine is relatively simple, with an offering table and small Buddha statues.
Offerings of lotus flower can be seen at all Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, including Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
Some shrines are more popular than the others.
Dressed in white, worshipers would leave a handful of lotus flower at the shrine, and receive blessing and a white string wrist bracelet from the monk of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.
At the platform, monks and worshipers interact and chat prayers towards the sacred Bodhi tree.
Behind the shrine further up the platform, we could see what must be the 2300 year old sacred Bodhi tree.
The lush green crown of the sacred tree provides a perfect backdrop for the golden features of the shrines and colouful Buddhist flags. The golden sunlight, peaceful aura, and sounds of rubbing leaves in the gentle breeze convey a strong sense of spirituality.
Structures painted in gold are erected to support certain branches of the sacred tree.
A small temple is located at one side of the platform.
Inside the temple, a decent sized worship hall houses a Buddhist statue.
Apart from the sacred Bodhi tree on the highest terrace, younger fig trees are planted at the lower platforms. These trees are meant to provide protection to the sacred tree against storm and animals.
We enjoyed the spiritual atmosphere of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. After checking out the shrines at all four sides of the sacred tree, we left the compound at the south gate.