Trees give a distinct identity to some localities. While listing them, Hema Vijay discusses the eco-sensitivity behind the tradition of flora-based names

We don’t think twice before axing trees these days, and so do not pause to realise that this city once had a close connect with trees. In fact, many of areas of Chennai derived their identity and their names from the trees that were locally grown. were harboured

Proof of this still exists, though sometimes, we tend to be oblivious to the obvious. For instance, there is Pelathope in Mylapore (derived from Pala Thoppu or jackfruit orchard), Mambalam (Mango fruit), Triplicane (Thiru-Alli-Keni - sacred lily pond), Teynampet (Thengai or coconut trees), Purasawalkam (from the Purasu or the flame of the forest tree), Vepery (Neem), Koyyathoppu (Guava orchard), Pulianthope (tamarind orchard), Panayur (palm village) on the ECR, Poonamallee (which was originally poo-virunda-malli - malligai or Arabian jasmine), Perambur (cane trees), Alandur (Banyan village)………

“Well, the people of this region were innately eco-sensitive, and it was a tradition to name localities after the flora of the place,” remarks Nanditha Krishna, founder-director C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre (CPREEC), and author of books like Madras-Chennai: Its History and Environment, and Sacred Animals of India. The CPREEC and Dr. R. Pauline Deborah, Professor of Plant Biology, Women's Christian College, in her doctorate thesis ‘Tree Diversity in Urban Landscaping with Special Reference to Chennai’ have independently compiled lists of areas in the city named after trees.

Today, there aren’t too many coconut trees in Teynampet, or lilies in Triplicane. “There is probably no purasu tree in Purasawalkam with the exception of the lone one in the Gangadeeswarar Temple there, where it is still worshipped as a sacred tree,” remarks Dr. Deborah. “But such nomenclature has a direct relevance because these names are indicative of the ecological history and geographical terrain of an area. A region predominated by palms, indicated by the name Panayur, must have been a sandy coastal area or a lake bund, while a locality where cane flourished (Perambur) must have been marshy with lakes or some other source of moisture,” points out Prof. D. Narasimhan, associate professor, Department of Botany, Centre for Floristic Research, Madras Christian College. Chennai region had a rich orchard culture, thanks to the fantastic irrigation it enjoyed from its rivers — Adyar, Cooum, Kosasthalaiyar and Palar. Apparently, localities got ‘tree names’ because of a few other reasons too, such as intentionally created plantations and the ‘sthala vriksham’ or the temple trees there. “Jasmine was grown in Thiru-alli-keni for the presiding deity in the temple there,” says Nanditha. While these localities might have grown their flora for various reasons, the underlying fact is that they began to be identified and named after their flora, unlike our current penchant for naming places and streets after politicians and popular personalities.

The name game

Of course, it is no longer feasible for our city to play host to orchards or let a single tree species predominate any area, but wouldn’t it still make sense to let our localities get a green tag or tree identity of sorts? “Naming areas after trees and plants could help keep us rooted to eco-sensitivity. Areas could be either named or renamed after trees. Abroad, the practice of naming roads ‘Maple Lane’ or ‘Oak Avenue’ continues even today,” remarks Dr. Deborah. Despite rapid urbanisation and consequent congestion of the city, sensitive and careful greening is possible. “Though not connected to only one species, it is important to carefully choose the species we plant, so as to regenerate local biodiversity of flora, and ensure that indigenous species do not vanish,” adds Shobha Menon, Nizhal.

Finally, we might ponder over the fact that our ancestors shared a connect with the fauna of the region too. Consider Mylapore (peacocks or mayil), Thirukazhukundram (hill of the sacred vulture)… “In fact, the ancient name for our current Chennai region was Puliyur, because of its population of tigers and leopards,” informs Nanditha Krishna.

Some areas named after trees

Pelathope in Mylapore - Pala Thoppu (jackfruit orchard)

Mambalam - Mango fruit

Triplicane - Thiru-Alli-Keni (sacred lily pond)

Teynampet -Thengai or coconut trees)

Purasawalkam - the Purasu tree (flame of the forest tree,

Vepery – Neem

Koyyathoppu - Guava orchard

Pulianthope - tamarind orchard

Panayur - palm village

Athipet - fig tree,

Poonamallee - poo-virunda-malli (malligai or Arabian jasmine)

Perambur - cane trees

Alandur - Banyan village

Thiruvalangadu - sacred banyan forest

Illuppaithoppu butternut tree orchard

Irumbuliyur near Vandalur - Ironwood tree

Thiruverkadu - vilvelam tree

Mangadu - Mango forest

Thirumullaivoyal - mullai or jasmine plants