Madras, or Chennai as we now call it, was founded 382 years ago by the British East India Company. The city — with its colonial bridges, crumbling statues, a British-era court and a museum, broad boulevards and a bustling coast — was born over centuries of trade and methodic city planning.
When we think of the Madras today, we only remember its concrete landmarks, the heritage buildings which define the city’s colonial past. But even before these landmarks, there stood certain ‘living landmarks’ in the same land — ancient trees which still dot the city’s landscape.
Some of these trees were brought by the British from foreign lands and planted in the middle of the city, as Madras was being planned. Centuries later, these trees are keepers of Madras’s history, witnessing its birth and growth to become the bustling metropolis that it is today.
While unsustainable development has killed some of these trees, what remains has been fiercely protected by a strong community of the city’s tree lovers. TNM spoke to Nizhal, an NGO associated with tree-conservation, to map the most iconic trees of Madras.
A part of the African Big Five, the Baobab is not a naturalised tree in Madras. This means that ages ago, the British planted Baobab trees across the city and over time, these trees adapted to the climate and soil conditions and grew into giants. The tree looks ‘upside down’, almost like its roots have replaced its branches. According to mythology, when God planted the Baobab tree, the trees kept walking away which prompted God to uproot them and plant them upside down, says the book Living Landmarks of Chennai, released by Nizhal.
Today, the Baobab species is rare in Chennai. But little known to most Chennaites, an old Baobab tree grows inside the Egmore Museum theatre compound.
“It is on the same campus as the Connemara Library and for some reason, this specific tree is filled with fruit bats or flying foxes. If you happen to be close to the tree and make some noise, the entire colony of bats might fly out, making you feel like Batman,” says Dr Diwakar Babu, tree conservator and a trustee of Nizhal.
Another Baobab tree is also found opposite the Bodyguard Muniswaran temple on Pallavan Salai, and near the Alagappa College of Technology in Guindy. All of these are over 200 years old and were planted by the British.
A Baobab tree on Greams road that was uprooted
But lack of awareness has also led to the city losing these trees.
“There was also a 250-year-old Baobab tree growing inside a petrol pump on Greams Road. We lost it in January this year, after employees of the petrol station lopped some of the tree’s branches, causing it to destabilise and uproot itself. We lost the tree as the lopping was done unscientifically and it is a huge loss as there are precious few Baobabs in Chennai,” Dr Babu explains.
Despite being rare, the species thrives in the Indian sub-continent. Its trunk can grow up to 30 m in thickness as it retains water. It also bears white flowers and its gourd-like fruits are edible.
“There is a Ghanian proverb referring to the massive trunk of the tree that goes — Knowledge is like the Baobab, one person’s arms cannot encompass it,” Dr Babu adds.
Word of this mighty Banyan has travelled far and wide, attracting tourists from across the world to Chennai’s Theosophical Society. The Great Banyan tree, known as the Aalamaram in Tamil, is believed to be over 450 years old, older than Madras itself. History says that the tree was discovered in 1908 when Annie Besant bought 200 acres of woods around the Theosophical Society after she became its President.
The Adyar Aalamaram inside the Theosophical society in Adyar
The tree, which is located close to the Blavatsky Bungalow, grows despite having lost its main trunk to a gale in 1989.
The Theosophical Society is located in Besant Nagar, named after Annie Besant, who held this Banyan tree dearly. Its prop roots are spread out across 65,000 square feet and in its heydays, this Banyan has hosted several meetings, witnessed iconic speeches, and given shade to hundreds of the society’s members.
The tree has also had several high profile visited including the 14th and current Dalai Lama on his first visit to India in the 1950s. In 1959, he returned to the Theosophical Society where he was hosted under the Adyar Banyan and a tea party was organised in his honour.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama came back to the Banyan Tree and the Theosophical Society, but under less happier circumstances.— krtgrphr (@krtgrphr) April 3, 2021
A tea party nevertheless was given in his honor, and you can see the Banyan - the star of the show - in those pictures as well. pic.twitter.com/BiYS1wFxOH
Sangam literature refers to this ancient species, known as the Vanni Maram in Tamil, and mentions its drought resistant quality. The Sangam texts describe the Vanni tree as growing in Palai or drought prone areas.
The Vanni is the state tree of Rajasthan and is known as Khejri in Hindi. During the famous Chipko movement of 1973 in Uttarakhand, over 300 Bishnois sacrificed their lives to protect this tree — paving the way for hundreds of future environmental movements in India.
The Vanni tree at the Marundeeswarar temple in Thiruvanmyur
“This species is so ancient and considered to be sacred. Which is why it is found near many temples in the city. For example, the Vanni maram is the Sthala Vruksham, or the tree of the place, in Thiruvanmiyur’s Marundeeswarar temple. This basically refers to the species of tree which is commonly found around the temple that, back in the day, supported the livelihoods of the people,” says Dr Babu. For example, an idol in the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore is the Punnai Vana Nathar, named after the Punnai tree or the Alexandrian Laurel, which was found in plenty around the temple. This makes Punnai the Sthala Vruksham of the region, Dr Babu adds.
A Vanni tree is also found at the entrance of the Kendriya Vidyala inside the IIT campus in Guindy.
Also known as the Malabar Ebony or the Pale Moon Ebony, this is a flowering tree which is rare to the city, although native to the Indian subcontinent. When young, the leaves of this tree are red and turn into a glossy green as they age. The Black and White Ebony’s leaves and fruit are used to dye cloth black. Its bark is also used in Ayurvedic medicine.
The Black and White Ebony or Diospyros malabarica at the Fourbecks Memorial in Nandanam.
In Chennai, a 200-year-old Ebony grows near the Fourbecks Memorial in Nandanam. This massive Ebony, which boasts of a 3 metre girth, is widely known as a contemporary of Adrian Fourbeck, who built the Fourbecks Bridge connecting Nandanam to Saidapet.
Another one of its kind grows in the Gajendra circle within the Guindy IIT campus.
Another non-native species which was naturalised in Chennai, this evergreen tree is originally found in the rainforests of Amazon and other tropical regions of north and south America. The tree got its name as its unripe pods were used to make boxes which could hold fine, dry sand.
The sandbox tree at CPT, Rajiv Gandhi Salai in Chennai
The sandbox tree fruit is pumpkin shaped and it naturally explodes to release its seeds. In Chennai, these trees were planted by the British. While the city has lost many of its kind, specimens of the Sandbox tree can be found on the Anna university campus, at the entrance of the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani, at Greenways Road in West Mambalam and also on the side of the Rajiv Gandhi Salai.
“The tree near the Rajiv Gandhi Salai will not last for long as it has been harmed by road expansion, flyover construction and development of the IT corridor. We have asked for the tree to be protected several times,” Dr Babu says.
Known as the Freshwater Mangrove, the Neer Kadambai indicates the presence of water bodies, swamps or rivers wherever they grow. These are middle sized trees that are tolerant to a wide range of climatic conditions. They are also tough and protect the soil from eroding.
As the city grew, many of its catchment areas and river beds dried up and made way for high-rise buildings. But the presence of a Neer Kadambai will tell you that once upon a time, there existed a water body in that place, Dr Babu says.
The tree can be found on the Old Mahabalipuram Road, in Mylapore’s Nageswara Park and in the May Day Park in Chintadripet among other places.
Laws to protect these trees
Unlike Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu lacks any state government formulated acts to preserve heritage trees. "We had submitted a draft tree preservation act back in 2011 which was accepted by late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. But sadly it wasn't enforced in the state," Dr Babu adds.
However, a National Biodiversity Authority of India declares heritage trees as protected species. For instance, the Bio Diversity Authority in Karnataka had in 2010, declare an 883-year-old Tamarind tree at Devara Hipparagi in Bijapur among 9 other ancient trees as a 'heritage tree'. This was declared under Section 63 (2) (i) of the Biological Diversity Act 2002. Similary, in 2010, the Punjab government declared the Inami Bagh, a mango grove with 165 trees and 37 rare and native varities of mango in Punjab's Hoshiarpur as the state's first biodiverity heritage site. The government did so despite Inami Bagh being a privately owner mango grove.
Despite the National Biodiversity Authority being headquartered in Chennai, the authority is not strong in Tamil Nadu and the state governments too have not taken an iniative to pass bio diversity protection laws, Dr Babu adds.
Note: There are several more rare trees which have been mapped in Chennai, found in the DPI campus in Nungambakkam and in the IIT and Anna University campuses in Guindy. The article features a few of the most notable and rare species.