Living quietly in the ultra high-security military area of Colaba, in Mumbai are a group of African nationals. More interestingly, they've been there for hundreds of years. No, these aren’t the Siddis (The medieval Abyssinian kings of coastal India), in fact, they aren’t even human. They are a species of trees called Baobabs. But what are they doing in tropical Mumbai? They are also scattered far and wide across India. What are these trees doing such a long way from home? And why are they so special?
‘Adansonia digitata’ is the botanical name for a species of the baobab tree, of which only nine species exist on the planet today. Belonging to the genus Adansonia – named after the French botanist Michel Adanson who first identified the baobab in Senegal, in Africa, in 1750 CE – six baobab species are endemic to Madagascar, two to Africa and one to Australia.
The baobab is steeped in myth and legend, the most common ones relating to the tree’s weird and even grotesque appearance. Its trunk is like a barrel and devoid of branches, and can achieve a diameter of 30 feet. Some species are squat while others can grow very tall, some even reaching as high as 60 feet. The tree’s only branches burst out of its crown, giving it its typical umbrella-like appearance. Hence the nickname ‘upside-down tree’.
According to an Arabic legend, the devil, affronted by the tree, yanked it out of the ground and plunged it back in, head first, leaving its spindly roots to form a canopy in the air. African myths say that the Creator gave each animal on the earth a sapling to plant. The hyena was given a baobab and, disgusted by its peculiar look, planted it upside-down. An equally interesting myth comes from the African nation of Burkina Faso. It says that after God planted the baobab, it kept walking, so God uprooted it and planted it upside-down, to keep it in one place!
Even if legend is fixated on the baobab’s strange form, this gentle giant is much loved and revered in Africa. In its homeland, the baobab is known as the ‘tree of life’ for its life-giving properties and the hope and shelter it offers in a barren and unforgiving landscape.
The tree is considered a fount of life for many reasons, especially due to its ability to store massive amounts of water in its trunk. Also, its fruit pod is nutrient-dense and is super-rich in Vitamin C. Its leaves are consumed as a vegetable, and its seeds are roasted and eaten, and are also used as a source of oil. The bark can also be manipulated into rope.
It is the baobab’s mega-dose of Vitamin C – the Vitamin C content of its fruit is six times greater than that of oranges – that contributed to its geo-political journey across the globe. The tree travelled far, first with Arab voyagers and then with Portuguese sailors, who carried its pods with them to stave off scurvy.
This was a debilitating and potentially fatal disease caused by lack of Vitamin C on long ocean journeys. These traders and sailors dropped the baobab seeds wherever they landed, probably unintentionally, spreading the reach of the baobab to distant shores.
India is home to only one of the nine baobab species in the world – Adansonia digitata – and it is found at medieval sites on the west coast. The baobab is known for its longevity and some specimens in Africa have been dated to between 1,100 and 2,500 years old. Thanks to its extraordinary lifespan, the tree looms among ancient mounds and the remains scattered around them are invariably Early Medieval and / or Portuguese.
These sites are usually entrepots of medieval trans-oceanic trade and the ceramic debris of these merchants and seafarers is found littered at sites like Sanjan, Chaul, Mandad,Sopara, Tarapur and Velha Goa, among others. This makes the baobab a very important indicator of hitherto unknown archaeological sites.
The tree is also found in the hinterland of Northern and Western India, cropping up at important trading sites and in places where Arab traders congregated. One such place is the medieval city of Mandu, capital of the Malwa Sultanate, in Madhya Pradesh (1392 – 1562 CE). The baobab is common and prolific in this medieval city and is locally known as mandu ki imli, and when the fruit is in season, thelawalas sell it and a sharbat is made from its pulp. Baobabs are also seen at other important crossroads, like Allahabad on the Ganges and Wai in Maharashtra, at the foot of the Western Ghats.
In India, the baobab is identified as the mythical Kalpavriksha or the celestial wish-fulfilling tree that appeared during the Samudra Manthana (churning of the ocean by the gods and demons) in the Hindu epics.
The Harivansha Purana says there is only one of them in Kintoor, in Baranki district of Uttar Pradesh, and the rest reside in heaven. The one in Kintoor was used by Kunti (the mother of the Pandavas) to offer flowers to Lord Shiva, and it was actually brought here by Lord Krishna to please his wife Satyabhama. It has many other local names where it proliferates.
In Gujarat, the baobab is known as the Chor-aamlo (‘chor’ meaning ‘thief’ and ‘aamlo’ is the tamarind tree) as thieves are said to hide in its crown. In Maharashtra, it is called the ‘Gorakh chinch’ (‘Gorakh’ after the great Natha Saint Gorakhnath, who is said to have taught his disciples under a baobab tree, and ‘chinch’ is the local word for the tamarind tree).
The fruit of the baobab is of great medicinal value in Africa and, interestingly, the tree is seen as a source of Ayurvedic medicine in India too. Ayurvedic texts prescribe its parts as medicines to cure dysentery and diarrhoea. The oil from its seeds is recommended to cure eczema and psoriasis.
Today, the baobab has begun to provide a livelihood to many communities in Africa and has empowered many women’s groups. The oil is used medicinally and the tree and its beautiful, white, lantern-like flowers are planted in ornamental gardens. This weird-looking gentle giant has offered a bounty for thousands of years, and it is still giving. It is truly a kalpavriksha – a tree of life.