September 24, 2007 / 9:34 AM / 12 years ago

Singapore's "magic monkey" trees inspire cult, cynics

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Buddha sat for years under one to find enlightenment, and scientist Isaac Newton had his epiphany in another’s shade. But for many Singaporeans, trees are useful for a more prosaic quest — lucky lottery numbers.

A man kneels to pray to the monkey god, revered in Chinese legends and the Hindu religion, at a shrine erected beside a roadside tree in Singapore's Jurong West district September 23, 2007. The discovery of two "monkey heads" poking out of the bark of an otherwise non-descript African Mahogany tree have sparked a minor craze in the southeast Asian state, as devotees seek numbers from what they believe to be a god living in the tree. REUTERS/Gillian Murdoch

The discovery of two “monkey heads” poking out of the bark of an otherwise non-descript African Mahogany tree have sparked a minor craze in the southeast Asian state, as devotees seek numbers from what they believe to be a god living in the tree.

Bananas, peanuts and peaches have been left as offerings to please the monkey god, sacred in Chinese mythology and Hinduism. A wheel-like device which kneeling gamblers turn by hand in front of the tree to spit out numbered balls has helped fuel the mania.

“Most people come for lottery numbers”, explained Madam Kang, who had traveled half way across the island to join a crowd of a hundred onlookers milling around the tree on a weekend afternoon.

“There were three car accidents by the tree but no one was hurt, so people believe it was the monkey god protecting them.”

Not long after the monkey god reportedly aided a series of wins, another three trees bearing gnarls that resemble gods were discovered along the same — now jammed — road.

Cartons of milk and more joss sticks garnish a small shrine set up in front of the elephant god Ganesha on a nearby tree, where a nobbly “elephant” head juts from the trunk.

Meters away, more onlookers snap images of a bark outline of the Chinese mercy goddess, Guan Yin, while others pat an oval bark eruption on another tree, ringed with garlands and said to be a tiger-dragon god tree.

SPIRIT PANTHEON

Despite the sacred trees’ popularity, not all are convinced.

“The uneven bark surface at the base of the tree trunk is the result of callusing, a natural reaction in which the tree grows new bark over injured areas”, a spokeswoman for the National Parks Board told the official Straits Times newspaper.

Other skeptics say the concept is simply too good to be true.

“If the tree can give money, most of the people in Singapore are not going to work. They’d just go to the tree and ask for the number,” laughed taxi driver Mahmud Sanusi.

“After a few months maybe somebody will find a rock, with Mickey Mouse on it,” said another taxi driver Chan Chee Siong.

But for others, sacred and lucky trees are a reality.

Bamboo and wooden “wishing trees”, where devotees pray and hang written wishes, are found in several Chinese temples. And small shrines, nestled into the trunks of the roadside trees, are a common sight on this verdant island.

Henry Yap finds nothing strange about worshipping each week at a yellow-painted shrine set up in the roots of a massive banyan beside a shopping mall. “When you come here you set your mind free. It’s what you call a holy place. It’s very different from an indoors place,” he explained.

For lucky tree-devotees, winning is believing. In February, 26-year-old Han Weili won $2,000 in the lottery with what he said were numbers gained from a lucky tree outside his housing block.

“I’d never won before” he said. “After I won I said thank you to the tree and bought it some food and some small flowers. I didn’t buy anything with the money.”

Despite local protests, estate renovations have now fenced off the tree. Devotees say the god “moved” to another sacred tree — a 120-year-old, 30 meter (98 foot) tall Bodhi that towers over a temple, and which is now mobbed at weekends.

Volunteers at the temple, who believe the tree is Singapore’s oldest and most sacred, are perplexed at its new fan base. But they can not stop them.

“No one can explain it. God appears in different forms to suit the culture,” said temple volunteer Alice Chua.

“Being greedy is against our precepts, in Buddhism we don’t encourage gambling. But we can’t stop their luck if they do win.”

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