- A charming retelling of the history of our trees, Cities and Canopies offers precious insights into our social and cultural past.
If you’re on social media, chances are that you’ve stumbled upon ‘mindfulness’ or ‘meditation’ app adverts. These are basically apps that let you stare at pictures or gifs of an idyllic setting (like trees and waterfalls), thus giving you a fleeting escape from the grind of everyday hustle. It is, I believe, one of the many ironies of our times – an app that encourages you to engage with nature by staring at your screen.
This is what makes a book like Cities and Canopies – Trees In Indian Cities so much more relevant and almost necessary for our generation. It compels you to notice the trees that you drive past each day and be curious about them. Did you know, for instance, that the Khandava forest in the Mahabharata burnt down by Arjuna and Krishna to establish the city of Indraprastha, is believed to be present day New Delhi? That the tamarind tree, deeply rooted in the Indian way of life, may be of African descent after all? Or that the mighty Banyan tree, a favourite among poets and prophets has a humble story of its christening – the Portuguese often saw ‘baniyas’ sitting under it.
‘Did you know that the mighty Banyan tree, a favourite among poets and prophets has a humble story of its christening – the Portuguese often saw ‘baniyas’ sitting under it.’
What adds to the charm of the book is the nonchalance with which its authors, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, teachers at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru make this seemingly botany-heavy read, anything but. Tales of history and mythology are interwoven with folk lore with home remedies thrown in for good measure. It explains the abundance and disappearance of certain trees from our cityscapes.
‘Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda or an ancient botanical text, says that “he who plants a single Peepal tree goes to the abode of Hari.’
The Peepal tree for instance, is a common sighting in many parts. Famed for providing cover to Gautam Buddha while he attained enlightenment, it has always been considered sacred. Surapala’s Vrikshayurveda or an ancient botanical text, says that “he who plants a single Peepal tree goes to the abode of Hari.” Not all trees that extend cover have had the same luck though. The tamarind tree over legendary musician Tansen’s tomb stands as a sapless trunk; stripped off its leaves and bark because of the belief that a brew made with the tree’s parts will transfer the melody of the singer’s voice to the one who consumes it. But here’s the thing about folklore. It is contained by boundaries. Which explains why the Amaltas, considered to cause family discord in the Gond community, is celebrated as the national flower in Thailand.
‘The tamarind tree over legendary musician Tansen’s tomb stands as a sapless trunk; stripped off its leaves and bark because of the belief that a brew made with the tree’s parts will transfer the melody of the singer’s voice to the one who consumes it.’
For those of us perpetually seeking offline activities to engage our children, Harini and Seema provide a bunch of ideas for games and quizes revolving around our natural environs. Packed with gems that will fascinate adults and children alike, the book devotes a chapter to each popular tree – coconut (which also may not have Indian roots), tamarind, banyan, peepal, palm, jamun etc. So the next time you’re out on a stroll and stop to stare at the magnificence of a tree, you can dive straight into the pages that explore its roots. In a world where our noses are buried firmly into our smartphones, Cities and Canopies gives delightful reasons to look up.
Sushmita Murthy is a features writer with a penchant for exploring topics related to sustainability and a seasoned procrastinator who ironically makes a living by chasing deadlines.