My query on the suitability of palmyrah as green cover and my specific request for Nizhal’s views (Miscellany, September 16) brought several responses which only leave the answer worse confounded. The ‘Nizhal Team’ itself feels “the palmyrah tree is as good a tree as any to grace Chennai and is very suitable for river bank planting.”

The Nizhal team goes on to write: “Greening an urban area need not be equated with planting trees with large canopy. Aesthetics and cultural values too are an important component of urban planting. Even today, our 34,000 irrigation tanks will be drab without these elegant palms on their banks. We stand to gain by reclaiming such scenery by planting palms on the riverbanks.

“Those who have seen the palmyrah groves on the irrigation tank bunds would have also seen other trees such as neem and figs. (Unfortunately, in recent times the ever-invading Prosopis has taken over many bunds.) About a thousand years ago when irrigation tanks were constructed it was common to plant five other types of trees on the bunds. These were: Indian gall-nut/ kadukkai (Terminalia chebula), tanri/myrobalan (Terminalia bellirica), nelli (Phyllanthus emblica), pungan (Pongamia pinnata) and arasu (Ficus religiosa). It is believed that besides supplying medicinal and oil seeds and fruits for birds, the tannin found in some of these trees helped sweeten the water. Perhaps we could consider planting these trees at regular intervals along with the palms. The palmyrah itself is home for some seven birds, including the weaver bird and the mynah. Parrots and Blue Jays occupy the holes in older trees.

“We understand that the Public Works Department (PWD) engineers in the Coimbatore region have saved an estimated 5,300 palm trees while implementing the Integrated Agriculture Modernisation and Water-Bodies and Restoration Management project. If so, we may have a ready source of material for planting along the banks.”

In an echo of this, Dr. Promode Kant, IFS, Director, Institute of Green Economy, New Delhi, says, in a paper by him sent to me by a reader, that “palms have significant food value and have thus the potential of making Clean Development Mechanism projects enhance food security in contrast to other forestry crops that tend to reduce food security. Palms like palmyrah and date sequester carbon dioxide on lands that produce almost no other woody vegetation, thus providing the most suitable tree species for CDM afforestation/reforestation projects for arid zones.”

A. Raman, writing from Australia, tends to agree with these two views. He writes: “As a biologist, I think the palmyrah palms are wonderful, as are many other splendid South Asian palms, e.g., Talipot utilitissima and Caryota urens. Being tall trees, their roots are prolific and can spread to extensive lengths, binding loose sandy soil, a general trait of Madras soils. They also produce a set of tuberous (storing) roots, which the coconut palm cannot (and does not); notably, these roots of the palmyrah are also used by us as a vegetable, the panan-kizhangu. Biologically these trees are unique; the male and female trees are separate and they live a long life, usually between 80 and 120 years. These palms are highly suited to the semi-arid environment of Madras and are water economical. When I talk of the palms to my students, I always say that they are green elephants: as sturdy as these animals are and as slow growing, importantly, they perform equally powerfully.

“From my specific-research interest, the palmyrah palm has always intrigued me because it houses so few pests and pathogens, compared with those that attack the coconut palm. In terms of getting to know more of its hidden biological mysteries, the palmyrah palm stands majestically, fanning its massive leaves invitingly, thus telling us to come close and know more about it. Unfortunately, even biologically we know little of the palmyrah palm, which is a great gift from Nature to us, the people of Madras.”

K.V.S. Krishna, a veteran planter who has worked in many other parts of the world, however, feels differently. He thinks the palmyrah will not increase the green cover of Chennai and “it may be better to get seedlings of good quality coconut from the Coconut Board.” As for the greening of river and pond edges, he suggests growing Meliluca alternifolia (Tea Tree Oil) which can stand water-logging and which has high economic value; its foliage can be cut back twice a year to distil oil.

The palmyrah, on the other hand, he writes, serves another purpose. He recalls an incident about five or six years ago involving the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, and the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative in Tamil Nadu. Apparently the palmyrah hosts red scorpions and, so, the Irulas were contracted to supply the Delhi institution these scorpions for research purposes. They captured over 11,000 scorpions which supplied AIIMS nearly 4,500 grams of venom.

Striking a different note, Krishna says that the South Indian palmyrah (Borassus flabelifer) grows best in Bengal, Bihar and in Tamil Nadu in particular, “with some 40 million trees growing here”. He goes on to point out that the same species grows well in Cambodia, particularly around Angkor Wat. Did this palm, sacred to South Indian kings, go from India to Cambodia, he wonders.


Madhaviah’s prize-winner

Sending me a copy of Madhaviah’s prize-winning Inthiak Kummi (roughly translated ‘India Clap Dance’) (Miscellany, September 9), a 51-stanza poem, Mani Natarajan writes that K. Ravi, a senior lawyer and a Bharatiyar fan who holds an annual Bharatiyar meet, and other Bharatiyar admirers wonder “how Inthiak Kummi, which did not have even a iota of poetic flavour, or fervour, got the first prize.” Even more surprising, according to Ravi, is “how Madhaviah joined this contest held in Madras. That will remain an enigma wrapped in a mystery.”

As examples of the verse in the poem, Natarajan sends me a “rough translation” by the side of the first and last stanzas. They read:

Clap, girl, clap;

Clap with fervour and joy

Clap with the welfare of our people in mind;

Clap, singing the fame of our Mother India.


Live, Our Mother, live,

Our gem of a Mother live,

Eternally with the thought

of Bharat’s welfare.

The poem was published in Podhudharma Sangeetha Manjari, in 1914.

E. Selvarasan thinks that both Madhavaiah’s and Bharati’s efforts were part of a competition for patriotic national songs held in Tinnevelly c.1913. The poems were given to the judges with the respective authors’ names in sealed envelopes attached to their poems. The names of the authors of the prize-winning poems were known even to the judges only after the results were announced.

Of that final result, writes Dr. Meenakshi Thiagarajan, “Bharati’s Senthamizh Nadenum Podhinile might have missed the prize but it has won the test of time and popular acclaim and is today perhaps the best known and best loved of his poems.”


The first foreign-qualified?

Seeking more information about Dr. Gunamudian David Boaz, who he says was “the first Indian professor with a foreign education background”, is Samuel J John. I’m afraid I do not have much to contribute on this academic who introduced Psychology to Madras, but I look forward to readers contributing more to what I narrate below.

Dr. Boaz, after getting a D. Phil from Oxford, returned to Madras and was appointed in 1943 Senior Lecturer in Experimental Psychology, with a mandate to start the University’s Department of Psychology. He was made Reader in 1949 and in 1957 Professor and Head. He led the Department till his death in 1965.

When Dr. Mathuram Santhosham decided to close the Abraham Santhosham Memorial TB Sanatorium he had founded in Chromepet in 1946, he sold it to Dr. P.D. Boaz, a leading psychiatrist and his brother-in-law. Here, Dr. Boaz raised in memory of his father, the Dr. G.D. Boaz Memorial Hospital and School for Psychiatric Treatment. Dr. G.D. Boaz is considered by many the ‘Father of Psychiatric Treatment’ in Madras.


Passengers on the Canal...October 27, 2013