City Nature – The Grand Pilkhan Tree, Feroz Shah Kotla Ruins
The season’s great gift.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Our hapless world is caught in the middle of future-shaping events of profound significance. In such a time, do we have the luxury to pause and look for hints of extraordinary beauty lurking about us?
The other day The Delhi Walla came upon a most spectacular tree in Delhi. It sounds a little indulgent on my part to get so passionate over a tree but… you have to see to believe it.
This gigantic Pilkhan tree stands like an unbeatable sultan in the ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla, the fortress of Ferozabad, the fifth city of Delhi whose stones were used to build the foundation of Old Delhi.
I had originally meant only to survey the bleak monuments here. Once this place was the heart of a royal capital and today it is nothing but a wasteland of trimmed grass and ruined buildings. The remnants of the great Jami mosque, particularly, evoke a deep sense of loss.
However, the magnificent bloom of Pilkhan tree stole the entire limelight off the ruins. I kept on gazing in marvel at the tree’s astonishing dignity.
In his landmark Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, author Pradip Krishen said of Pilkhan: “A fairly common strangler fig in Delhi with an immense, spreading canopy that displays wonderful changing tints when it renews its foliage in spring. It has long aerial roots like the banyan’s but they tend to wrap themselves around the top of the trunk instead of becoming dangling prop-roots. One of Delhi’s most beautiful shade trees.”
The Pilkhan of Feroz Shah Kotla shone in fluorescent green. The gardener told me that the tree had received its new leaves just a few days ago.
By this time of the year, when the hot dusty months are knocking at our door, most trees in Delhi have more or less shed their old leaves and are bare. This is unlike in the western world where leaves fall before the onset of winter. “For a tree in a weather system such as Delhi’s, to survive in prolonged drought, it needs to shut down,” Mr Krishen told me on phone. “The best way for it to do that is to drop its leaves and stop transpiring water.”
Pilkhan, however, seems to have dressed up for the summer.
Mr Krishen explained that most trees begin to shed their old leaves by January when the last rains have already become a distant memory . They start to sprout new leaves in April, an exercise that continues till May.
This also means that most trees in the Capital, that are bare today, will soon show new foliage. This is their response to the forthcoming flowering and ripening of fruit, which demands extensive energy, and cannot do without the leaves.
But why am I not able to see the flowers in this grand Pilkhan?
Mr Krishen tells me that they remain hidden inside the figs.
In any case, I did not miss the flowers. Strolling under the freshly formed canopy of Feroz Shah Kotla’s Pilkhan was like being in a dense equatorial jungle where the sun never reaches.
Every branch seemed a green sanctuary, with its own ecosystem. Just then a young boy appeared and started to climb the tree. Reaching at the top of the graceful trunk, he stood still and flashed a beaming smile, looking like Delhi’s very own Mowgli.
Season’s most beautiful shade