Have you heard of the Madras spotted skink or chanced upon the lovely Madras pea flower? They are just two of a handful of flora and fauna that derive their monikers from this city.
Thirupurasundari Sevvel, a Chennai-based architect and the woman behind Nam Veedu Nam Oor Nam Kadhai, an enterprise celebrating all things Madras, was intrigued by city-specific scientific nomenclature. Her latest project aims to shine a spotlight on the city’s natural history through illustrations and activities.
“We were inspired by a book on the Madras hedgehog by ecologist Brawin Kumar, and further guided in our quest by Kalaimani, a research associate at Care Earth Trust,” says Thirupurasundari.
With local illustrators Aafreen Fathima SK and Shrishti Prabakar, the project has taken on a life of its own, not only as a means to elucidate these rare species on social media, but to educate students as well.
Thirupurasundari explains, “We have reached out to over 70 students in Aminjikarai and Naduvankarai, mapping out their local history, and using scientific names for local biodiversity. We found this really aroused interest, and helped them connect to the lessons, during our online workshops.”
In addition to the Madras hedgehog, called mul / irmal eli in Tamil, there is the Madras spotted skink (Madras pulli aranai ), a rare limbless lizard discovered in 1916 by Scottish zoologist Thomas Nelson Annandale, in the northeastern corner of the Madras Presidency (now the area surrounding Chilka Lake). “This fossorial (burrowing animal) species is now only present in Odisha,” explains Kalaimani, who then leads us to the third species: the Madras tree shrew (Madras moongil anaththaan ). It is a tiny animal found scurrying in moist deciduous forests, South of the river Ganges.
The fourth on the fauna list — the white-browed wagtail, locally called vari vaalaati kuruvi — has Madras in its scientific name, Motacilla maderaspatensis . The medium-sized birds are conspicuously patterned with a white brow, shoulder stripe and outer tail feathers. Native to South Asia, they can be found near small water bodies and have adapted to urban environments where they often nest on roof tops. The last amid the fauna, from a bird’s eye to a worm’s eye view, is the flatworm or / Lobotrema madrasi , a common parasite found in fish.
A host of botanical species also derive their scientific name from the city. Ventilago maderaspatana or red creeper is a creeper plant that matures with reddish leaves, while Blepharis maderaspatensi s or the creeping Blepharis ( naalilai naagam poo ) can be easily spotted by its arrangement of four leaves. A purple-white hooded flower, Phyllanthus maderaspatensis or Madras leaf-flower (Madras nelli/nila nelli ) is noted for its leaf arrangement similar to flowers, while Mukia maderaspatana and Cucumis maderaspatanus (the Madras pea pumpkin or Muchumuchukkai ) bears red berries when ripe, with thorny green fruit and yellow flowers.
For all these species, “the Tamil or local names are very important, for they hold adjectives that can help envision the species even without a photograph,” explains Srishti Prabakar, who has illustrated the Madras- inspired flora.
Another organisation prioritising using local names for native plants, understanding their location, and helping city-dwellers connect to their environment, is Madras Inherited, a Chennai-based initiative that focusses on cultural heritage tourism, with heritage walks and community outreach augmented by research.
Ashmitha Athreya, the head of operations at Madras Inherited, explains their initiative Marupeyar: “We came up with the title to indicate that everything has another name or face to it. The primary aim is to share the Tamil names of vegetation found in the city, in the hope that they will be used at par with the English names. We want to provide information on how to easily identify this vegetation, with geographical markers, so that city dwellers can look for them on their morning walks or trips around the city.”
Accuracy is key
The group lists local vegetation, like the Indian almond wood, night blooming jasmine and Indian kino-vengai among others, collating content and creating illustrative posters.
The poster on the Arjuna tree, for instance, lists distinguishing features of the tree, like its white bark, and the Tamil name vellai maradhu . Technical knowledge and fact-checking is provided by the Care Earth Trust.
“Currently, the project is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and our website, and would go on our monthly newsletter. We would be more than happy to share this with educational institutions and other interested parties in the future,” says Athreya, forging a green connection to a city that named its neighbouhoods by tree — Triplicane ( thiru-alli-keni or sacred lily pond), Purasawalkam (from the purasu or flame of the forest tree), Panayur ( panai maram or palm village) and Alandur (Ala mara or Banyan’s oor or village).