City Nature – Semal Tree, Connaught Place
The small wonder.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The most beautiful thing in Connaught Place, Delhi’s Colonial-era shopping district, cannot be purchased. It’s a tree in E-block: semal, or bombax ceiba.
The towering deciduous tree clashes with the harmonic series of white columns that line the Inner Circle corridor. This is nature’s welcome intrusion. Although there are many trees in Connaught Place, this particular semal – its trunk draped with vines – offers a most fantastic sight.
Semal is one of the 252 species of trees found in Delhi. Its branches grow in tiers. They radiate from the trunk like the ribs of an umbrella. The best place to see it in great numbers is in the diplomatic avenue of Neeti Marg, central Delhi, which is completely wooded with semal. Two huge trees on the front lawns of Teen Murti Bhawan are also worth a view. But this lone semal in E-block has a most unique perspective: it stands against a backdrop of showrooms; wood versus the concrete.
With vines crawling about the trunk, with insects spreading out on the vine leaves, this is a one-tree wildlife sanctuary. Upwards, the trunk ends voluptuously in a dense foliage of branches. Beyond lies the infinity, the blue sky.
This semal gives a glimpse of the vanished wilderness of Connaught Place, which was a babool forest before the British destroyed it to make a market. Sadly, this tree is barely noticed by pedestrians. Shoppers throw empty ice cream cups at its base. Beggar children play around it. When out of work, Kashmiri guides sit on a nearby bench and stare blankly at its trunk.
Semal plays out the poetry of seasons extravagantly. Its leaves start falling in January. In February, it is bare. By March, new leaves appear. Scarlet flowers follow the next month. Squirrels feed on them. In May, fruits – sort of woody capsules – ripen and splits open to release masses of silky fibres that are collected to stuff pillows and quilts. The fruit vendor of E-Block doesn’t know the tree’s name but he knew that it gives cotton. The bark and roots of semal are used as an aphrodisiac.
Semal, however, is referred a bit unflatteringly in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book:
“The semal tree is straight as an arrow; it is very tall, and very thick. But those birds which visit it hopefully, depart disappointed. Its fruits are tasteless, its flowers are nauseating, and its leaves are useless.”
The Delhi Walla doesn’t mind.
For cities to be livable, trees have to be cut for houses, rivers have to be dammed for power. And so we drift further from the nature. But this semal, surviving so joyfully in the city’s heart, is a civilizing influence on the metropolis. It has made Delhi a little less barbaric.
Suggested book: Trees of Delhi, by Pradip Krishen
Pillar Vs Tree
Come on, look cheerful
Shoppers, stop, see
Meet me here
Season’s poetry (Semal in different times)