Knowing our trees – knowing our roots
Recently I read Independence, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a wonderful novel about three sisters. The story is set at the time of partition, in rural Bengal. Apart from the beautiful characters of the story, the novel describes various trees and plants in great detail. The jungles, trees and flowers that were once the integral part of our lives.
A generation back, most Indians had roots in villages. Most of my friends and acquaintances had a native village to go to. People regularly visited their villages during summer vacation or to celebrate festivals. Most of us grew up seeing mango orchards, paddy fields, ponds, and coconut trees. We grew pumpkins and bitter gourd in our backyards.
Over the last generation, goaded by economic development and urbanization, a lot of the rural connect has vanished from urban lives. High-rise apartments with little or no space, malls, parking lots became the norm. On a particular road trip with my young daughter, I remember pointing out various trees to her – this is a banana tree, that is mango tree, this one is a papaya tree and so on. She had seen vegetables and fruits only in the super market till then.
In my last Jungle safari in the heartland of India, I came across some of the trees whose names I was quite familiar with but was seeing them for the first time in real life. I decided to document them here.
A popular name for boys, especially among Bengalis. A wild tree with very beautiful flowers of bright red color. They are also known as ‘Flame of the forest.’ A row of bright red Palash trees was indeed setting the forest on fire. Palash flowers are soaked in water and the paste is used as color during Holi.
A familiar word associated with tribal life and forest wine. A popular name for girls as well. Mahua trees are big and found in the wild. The wine is prepared from Mahua flower. Mahua flower and other parts of Mahua tree are widely used in local food as well.
Teak Wood (Sagun)
Teak wood is known to be a very expensive variety of wood given their sturdiness, longevity, colour and grain. Teak wood furniture has been in great demand for centuries. Teak wood jungles are known as ‘Open-air Treasures’ for their value. Sometimes illegal felling and smuggling of teak wood have also been heard of. However, the national parks are protected areas where such activities are prevented from taking place. In our last jungle safari, we saw a vast area with this open-air treasure.
Nag Champa/ Nag Lingam/ Nag Kamal tree
A very rare and auspicious tree. The flower of this big tree has a unique look, with the center resembling the hood of a snake, hence the name Nag Lingam. The flower is bright pink in color and has a strong fragrance. The flower is offered to deities in temples. The fruit of the tree is big and round in shape. Hence it is also known as cannon ball tree.
A tree with shiny white trunk and small leaves. The Kulu tree is known for providing natural gum from it’s trunk. The white trunk gives it a ghost or skeleton-like look. Hence it is also referred to as ‘Bhootiya’ ( Bhoot means Ghost in many Indian languages) by the jungle dwellers.
Few years back I visited the Sundarbans which hosts the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world. It is also a UNESCO heritage site due to the rich biodiversity it presents. Home to the Royal Bengal tiger, crocodile and many other species of birds and animals, the mangroves are a collection of dense trees and shrubs that grow in the muddy banks of the delta. The soil looks black and slippery and is often partly submerged under water. In many places sharp nail-like roots grew above the soil. It is an extremely difficult as well as dangerous terrain to explore on foot. Since it is a protected area, it could only be seen from a boat.