Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cannonball Tree - Nagalingam

Do you remember Jekyll and Hyde?  Or the story of an artist who in his search for painting the most beautiful and the ugliest face on earth ended up meeting, over a span of several years, the same man for both his portraits?  These, I believe, are not unbelievable (excuse the pun).  Our own life is a cycle of good and bad, positive and negative, or yin and yang as they say in Chinese.

Like the song Manidhan Paadhi Mirugam Paadhi (half-man, half-brute), there is a tree which we all have seen, if not known, that presents, on the one hand, the most beautiful, colourful, delicate and fragrant flower on earth, and on the other hand prevents us from approaching the tree by releasing a foul stench  from its ripening fruit.  Meet the Cannonball tree, botanically Couroupita guianensis, and in Tamil, the famous Nagalingam tree.

In my young days, in the large palace-like bungalow in Kumbakonam that was home to my grand-father’s uncle, there was a big hall in which a huge Tanjore painting of Lord Rama was placed on a beautiful rosewood table. Having been polished or at least wiped clean daily, its surface was as smooth and shining like glass. In front of the frame we would always see about 10 to 15 big flowers, filling the entire hall with their mystique aroma. From a distance, they would appear floating in water because of the smooth shine of the table top.  It was when playing with these flowers and enquiring about them that I was introduced to this flower and taken to the huge tree in the backyard.  I must say I was overwhelmed by the number of flowers the tree was bearing. 

As I looked up, holding a flower near to my nose and taking its fragrance in deep breath, I was even more fascinated with the huge balls hanging amid the flowers, which I learned were the fruit of the tree.  It was only when I took the flower off my nose that I started to realise a funny, foul odour wafting off and on in the air.  Initially I thought some animal or bird must have dropped decaying flesh somewhere nearby, but my cousin who lived there (I only visited Kumbakonam during holidays) corrected me by enlightening me about this fruit.

It is, indeed, very strange that I have not seen this flower or tree anywhere else during my many visits to other places in the country.  Other than Kumbakonam, I have seen this tree only in Chennai, and only in three places – one, in my office compound itself.  The poor tree, flanked by concrete high-rises on one side and well laid arterial tar road on the other, continues to survive and give off a few flowers every day.  How it does so looks like sheer magic to me.  The other one I noticed, long time back, was in T-Nagar, in one of the roads on the rear of the famous silk saree shops, through which parking for these shops are accessed.   In fact, when I tried to pluck a flower from that tree, a little boy of that house raised such a hue and cry calling his mother out and yelling at the top of his voice,  அம்மா, நம்ம வீட்டுப் பூவை திருடறாங்க! (mom, they are stealing our flowers!).  I had to quickly abandon my effort and move away!

Commuting from Ambattur to my office in Mylapore has been both tedious and exploratory.  Over the years, because of the various developments taking place in the city, I have had to change my route often.  Currently I am taking the route via Kilpauk Garden Road to cross Poonamallee High Road.  En route, on a particular day on Manickeswari Road I think, I noticed this third, magnificent tree in front of an old building.   It was only a fleeting glance, as I was speeding to work. But the image of over a hundred flowers on the trunk stayed put in my memory, and I remembered to watch for the tree the next day, to confirm if it really was the Nagalingam.  And yes, it was.  That was a Tuesday, and I started planning on how to photograph that tree. 

I chose a Saturday, when I could afford to go a little late to work.  I started a little earlier than usual, and made a stop at this place to capture a few photos of the wonderful tree.  I must admire the owners of this house for giving this tree the breathing space it requires.  It was on the roadside, giving a good view without having to go in, thereby eliminating the need to disturb the owners.  I took shots to my heart’s content and continued my commute to work.  On entry into my office building, I picked up two flowers from the tree in our premises for close-up shots from my desk.

While you can get serious information on this flower from Wikipedia and other sources on the internet, let me just give my version here.  The tree is quite huge, growing up to 25-30 metres high.  Unlike other trees that bear flowers at the tip of their leaf-bearing branches, this tree sprouts root-like stems all through its trunk, on each of which appear several buds like you see on the coconut tree.  While many of the buds wither, a few stay on to grow and blossom into this most picturesque flower on earth.  Some trees blossom profusely, even producing a thousand flowers in day!

This is a very beautiful, pink-red flower, big enough to fit in the palm of an adult’s hand. There are six petals and a bunch of stamens that are shaped like a hood of a serpent with several heads, and the base of the stamen resembles a soft pedestal on which the Shiva Lingam is located, and hence the name Naga-Lingam. The petals, on the reverse, take a yellow hue.  Though big and bulky, the flower is actually very tender, delicate and fragile. A mere twist or drop would break it in pieces. The flower has a strong and pleasant fragrance.  In fact, as I had mentioned in my childhood memories above, a few flowers are enough to fill a large hall with a pleasant scent for hours together.  The flower offers a good challenge for photography too!

The fruit, when ripe, emits an unpleasant odour, attracting scavenger birds and animals to come and break it open, paving the route for natural dispersal of its seeds.  I read that the pulp of the fruit is edible, but I don’t know whether anyone eats this fruit, which looks like a giant version of the wood apple. 

My post on this flower/tree in a photography forum has been received well, and one of the members has been so inspired by this flower that he has committed to ‘propagate’ this tree!  I am immensely happy that the hobby of photography (and casual writing) has, after all, been of some purpose too!  Looking at this tree, I keep wondering about nature’s designs – the fragrant flowers, when stowed away and heaped after their use, rot and stink, whereas from the stinking fruit comes this tree that gives such fragrant flowers!  Perfect Yin-Yang!

Post-Script: What a coincidence! It is as if the tree has heard my lament. I was attending a condolence call in Besant Nagar today (5 Sep).  Abutting the compound wall in the adjacent flat, I saw this young tree, grown slim and tall, and starting to sprout flowers.  A couple of photos: