Express News Service
CHENNAI: Imagine the city of Madras nestled in punnai trees (Alexandrian laurels), the roadsides paved with panai maram (Palm trees), and the small waterbodies adorned with blue water lilies. This is the image of a green Madras that historian Meenakshi Devaraj painted through her Instagram live on ‘Lost Greenery of Madras’ hosted by Architect Aafreen from Nam Veedu, Nam Oor, Nam Kadhai a community of artists, heritage enthusiasts, and storytellers. Even though Madras was not a prominent agrarian place, Meenakshi affirmed that the greenery that we see now is probably only three per cent of what had existed in the 7th century.
Greenery from history
Meenakshi drew links between different trees mentioned in Sangam literature and the original trees that existed in the city. She started by explaining the landscape of Madras Neithal. “The Neithal landscape offers water lilies and other plants which are found in the seashore areas. Punnai, thazhai (screw pine), njazhal with small yellow flowers, serunthi with red flowers, palm trees, magizham (Spanish cherry), neem, kandals (mangrove forests) a long list of trees are found in this landscape and according to Tevaram and other books during the Sangam period, nearly 90 per cent of these plants were found earlier in abundance in Madras,” shared Meenakshi.
From giving a peek at the water lilies that decorated the ponds of Triplicane and Nungambakkam, Meenakshi continued to the 7th and the 8th-century era of Mylapore, filled with punnai trees. “The entire Mylapore and the adjacent Triplicane regions were punnai forests. It was mentioned by poet Gnanasambandar. Even in the North, Tiruvottiyur side, we had a lot of punnai trees.
People used to wear the punnai flowers and used it for beautification and other medicinal purposes,” she said, remarking that now we get to see the punnai branches only during the Krishna Jayanthi celebrations. Another tree that used to grow with punnai was the thazhai. These two trees, along with neem and palm trees can be found in the city, but in traces.
Explaining how the trees helped sustain the ecosystem, she said, “Palm trees not only produce nungu (ice apple) but also store a lot of groundwater. Likewise, the mangrove forest helped prevent tsunamis. A large number of palm trees were destroyed, especially during the pre-independent period when revolts against the arrack shops happened.”
Apart from the literature, when the historian looked into the temples and their list of holy trees, she was able to find another list of precious green additions. “Magizham is a tree with small fragrant flowers. It is now also found in Adyar and Neelankarai. The arasa maram (sacred fig), vilvam (Indian bael), mango trees, banana cultivation, shenbagam (Magnolia Champaca), also make into the list,” she stated.
Reviving the glory
Remembering that the sugarcane fields in Thiruvanmiyur in the 18th century, the paddy fields producing red rice, and the pastoral lands on the northern side, Meenakshi instilled a hope to revive the glory of Madras through small contributions. “We cannot bring back what we have already lost. We can promote awareness of the plants and trees from the past years to the residents. When we go for plantation drives, instead of going for foreign plants like Bougainvillea, we can consider planting the sarakondrai (Golden Showers), punnai, and magizham. While making a bouquet you can go with Madras plants, instead of tulips. Small initiatives like these will help preserve the greenery,” she summed up.