I’ve always liked being amidst trees, touching them, luxuriating in the shade they offer. But they were in a way “distant”, and my awareness of them meagre. A few years ago, I moved to work with a school located within a sprawling 300+ acre campus on the outskirts of Varanasi (Benaras). This campus, on the banks of Ganga, is home to numerous trees, many old and large. I fell in love with the campus after the first couple of evenings of strolling around it. I wondered about the coexistence of such a space alongside one of the most densely populated towns in India. Over time, I have walked the campus on many evenings, learnt more about the trees, and grown closer to them.
During my initial weeks on campus I got to know of a barhar tree (lakoocha, monkey jack, Artocarpus lacucha). When I visited it, I saw an old man standing near it with a sack. His son had climbed up the tree for the fruits, which he threw down to his father. The father was able to break the speed of their fall with help of his sack. The two collected more than a sack full. On my asking they said “Barhar to kathal ka chota bhai hai” (bahrar is the younger brother of the jackfruit). I also learned that barhar makes a preferred pickle. But increasingly, I am told, this tree species is becoming rare.
The kathal (jackfruit, phanas, Artocarpus heterophyllus) on the other hand I know well, and its produce is also a favoured vegetable. It’s a tree I am partial to when it comes to touching. I call it the tree that gives birth to green coloured teddy bears! Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman write in Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats, “The jack is the quintessential tree at the interface of nature and culture, the wild and the cultivated”. I have, on some late evenings during the fruiting season, stood silently under the jackfruit tree on campus soaking in its hunger-inducing fragrance.
Then there are two large pakhads (white fig, pilkhan, Ficus virens) at the campus goshala (cowshed) that provide shade to around 70 cows. They are a sight to behold, especially on moonlit nights. I had never imagined trees could be so stunning in the dark. I have also been to the goshala during the day to look at them from close quarters and from underneath. It is a different sight, and such a pleasure every single time. Three, much younger, pakhads stand smartly at another unit, their appearance very different from the older ones at the goshala. Trees, unlike many humans, appear to have cracked the secret of ageing gracefully.
We also have the bael tree (mahaka, Bengal quince, Aegle marmelos). Pradip Krishen writes in Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide for Tree Spotting, “It looks particularly striking when its large, yellow-orange fruit ripen on leafless branches in April, and it is also very beautiful in new leaf”. For a tree which enables us to get lip-smacking muraba (jam) and juice, its English name sounds rather dry and silly — wood apple.
Let’s consider the neem (limba, margosa, Azadirachta indica) trees we have, the younger ones are often seen swaying happily in the breeze. “The flowers are not as bitter, giving out a very delicate fragrance that perfumes the area in which the tree is planted, attracting a number of bees, butterflies and even bats” note Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli in Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. The senior trees on campus have branches on which civets may be seen scampering around. The goolar tree (doomar, red river fig), near the student hostels, is another one I have seen civets on. The campus is home to both the small Indian civet and common palm civet.
For some reason, the teak trees (sagon, sagwan, Tectona grandis) on campus appear to me as unhappy. A few of them fell during the rains. I wonder if their being lonely in a far corner of campus is the reason.
Together students and teachers have planted mangoes (aam, aambo, Mangifera indica) next to the school. Two plots adjacent to the school house mangoes. The larger plot has around 12 large trees of the local langda variety. Elders on campus say that the fruit tastes better after the first rains. Langda is also the preferred variety for making Benarasi mango kulfi. A few of the old trees on this plot have come crashing down during the past year.
On the smaller plot, students participated in planting and maintaining another 12 mango saplings. Now a few trees have started bearing fruit. During the fruiting season it is not uncommon to come across people seeking or guarding these fruits.
Next to my home stands a sitaphal tree (sharifa, custard apple, Annona squamosa). Both species of barbets — coppersmith and brown-headed — which grace the campus, love its fruit. Treepies and bulbuls join them occasionally. Squirrels, active as ever, pick on what remains or is spilled. Once in a while the children living in the vicinity come by and clear the tree of all its fruits.
Occupying pride of place on campus is a tall tree with a thick trunk. When we tried to hug it, it took seven of us with arms spread wide to encircle it. This is the baalam kheera (sausage tree, Kigelia africana), or that is at least how my colleagues refer to it. I love how its flowers start of milky white when they gently fall from the branches, and then slowly turn saffron and then copper. Grey hornbills are frequent visitors to this great tree. A friend I shared images with was confident that this is a baobab species. A 75-year-old gentleman, who has put in much time with planting and maintaining the trees on campus, referred to it as being similar to the khurasani imli. The latter, he added, is not uncommon in the Dhar region of Madhya Pradesh. He also introduced me to other trees bearing fascinating names. One afternoon, as I walked the campus with him, he pointed out the akash neem (Indian cork tree), tallest amongst all around it, and the jungle jalebi (sweet tamarind) hedge. He pointed out different species I was unfamiliar with including the putranjiva (lucky bean, Putranjivaceae) and the kala siris (black siris, tea shade tree, Albizia odoratissima).
Single red silk cotton trees (semal, semra, Bombax ceiba) dot the campus, covering the ground beneath them with petals during the flowering (spring) season. I have often stopped cycling to pick up a flower. There is one near the school and each morning I collect a few flowers that caress the ground to place on my table. What will you do with them? I am often asked. The only action I indulge in besides touching, seeing, feeling them, is to place them around another tree — after few days — to add to the mulch.
Mulching is an activity that we have taken up with our students. We pile up fallen leaves together and water the pile over time. During the first mulching cycle it was a revelation to watch the colours and textures of leaves alter over a period a time. When, finally, we took the mulch out to add the manure to the vegetable plots, it was warm, brown, and teeming with tiny organisms.
Leaves of different ages, colours, and shapes are such a pleasant sight to behold. I enjoy the feel of leaves, their various textures, listening to them as they crunch under my feet, or if I am barefoot, feeling them tickle my soles. I am very glad that there are so many of them around.
On the 5th June 2019, which was World Environment Day, a semal tree was cut down, near the Police Chowki. My colleague who went to the site of the action was threatened. On our complaint a team came to enquire. The person who cut the tree then displayed his skills at storytelling. Earlier that year, another tree, a chilbil (chirhol, karanji, Holoptelea integrifolia), had also faced the axe at the bend of the road near the river.
Staying on a greenery filled campus has enabled me to become friends with many trees. And though I may sometimes mess up their names, I am in awe of trees, and have forged a bond with them. Walking and cycling in their midst has brought us closer. They appear to trust me, and I enjoy sitting silently with them.
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