Three holy rivers merge with their gushing waters here; so do millions of pilgrims from across the country congregate at the Sangam in Allahabad for a holy dip to ward off their sins. At this very same venue stands a massive, magnificent yet lonesome tree. Probably one of the largest and longest living trees in India, this monolithic tree has been thriving albeit precariously by sipping water at the confluence. Reportedly over 1000 years old, this Baobab tree is a living monument and a mute witness to numerous Kumbh Melas held under its boughs.
On my recent visit to the Maha Kumbh Mela in the last session of this nearly 60-day-long festival, I found the tree forlorn and neglected. Neither the organisers of the Mela who have spent crores of rupees in creating the ‘overnight’ township nor the Botanical Survey of India (BSI) has bothered to protect the tree. Even NGOs, naturalists and the millions of pilgrims have not paid heed to its ordeal of deterioration and destruction.
Bearing a bloated hole of nearly 50-feet in circumference, the tree stands imposingly with widespread branches that are 40-feet. Its strange appearance and enormous trunk which tapers into thick branches were naked and devoid of leaves. Looking from a distance, it gave the impression of a deliberately grafted giant bonsai. Up-close its ancient trunk was all covered with humps, bumps and plenty of bulges. Some of the bark has been ruthlessly striped, sliced and peeled off exposing the soft tissues. (Compare the photographs taken in 2008 and 2013).
Considered by some to be of “immense rarity and antiquity”, Baobab’s scientific name is Adansonia digitata. It belongs to the botanical Bombacaceae family. The District Gazetteer of Allahabad (1968) contains an account that says: “A gigantic tree supposed to be more than 500 years old locally called vilaiti immli which has not been identified botanically. It is growing on the left bank of the Ganga at Prayag and is sacred to Hindus and Muslims alike.”
According to Professor H.Y. Mohan Ram, a prominent botanist from Delhi, “This enormous tree supposedly has its origin in the African continent and brought in by sailors who came to establish trade links with India; they thereafter planted them across the Indian subcontinent.” However, a handful of scientists believe Baobab trees to be a part of Indian culture and attribute their existence to have been influenced by various mechanisms of evolution. According to the theory of continental drift, the super-continent Pangaea broke up some 50 million years ago creating new continents and subcontinents. The resultant fragmented landmass drifted away across the oceans to form Africa, India and Australia. These drifting continents carried away the ancestors of the Baobab species.
A minority of botanists have suggested that this tree is an Indian tree which has been mentioned in historical books, etched on some of our ancient temple walls and even worshipped for ages as Kalpa Vriksha — the mythical wish fulfilling tree.
Another theory floated by an American taxonomist said that sturdy seed pods of Baobab might have been swept by sea currents and reached India. Thus the Baobab trees which love arid zones have been found growing as stragglers in the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka.
Strangely uncommon, some of the mega-sized Baobab trees do occur in remote locations of our country. A few even managed to exist in busy cities like Aurangabad, Mumbai and Hyderabad but people are not aware of their existence. Even the BSI and various universities with botany departments have not shown any inclination to conduct research, catalogue or even save them from destruction.
“The amazing thing about Baobab trees is how invisible they are despite their outsized vital statistics,” says Thomas Pakenham of Ireland, who has travelled the world writing books about remarkable trees. He showers praise about the tenacity of the Baobab and says that they may live for 500 to 5,000 years.
In any case, the historic Baobab tree at the Sangam deserves a better deal. It needs urgent protection, not only from vagaries of nature and vandals, but also from an eroding riverbank that has exposed its huge roots.