City Landmark – Semal Tree, Connaught Place
An urban sanctuary.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One of the most beautiful things 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. One ought to see this as nature’s polite intrusion. Although there are many trees in Connaught Place, this particular semal – its trunk draped with dainty 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—as described in the website of Delhi government’s forest department. The best place to see the tree in great numbers is in the diplomatic avenue of central Delhi’s Neeti Marg, which is almost totally wooded with semal. Two huge trees on the front lawns of Teen Murti Bhawan are also worth a view. Another grand semal stands tall in Jor Bagh market. But this lone semal in E-block has a most unique perspective: it stands against a backdrop of showrooms; here’s a lone wood making a quiet statement against a cluster of commercial concrete.
With greens 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 (these days at least).
This semal is like a homage to 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. In the pre-corona era, when Connaught Place tended to be super-crowded, insensitive shoppers threw empty ice cream cups around the trunk. Beggar children played around it. When idle, tourist guides—for some reason most of them working in Connaught Place are from Kashmir—sat on a nearby bench and stared blankly at the tree.
Semal, as any observant Delhiite will tell you, plays out the poetry of seasons extravagantly. Its leaves start falling in January. In February, it is bare. By March, red fleshy flowers appear that fall on the ground making a soft plopping sound, covering the roadside like a battlefield stained with martyrs’ blood. This is that brief period in the year when semal catches the attention of the thrill-seeking masses, if at all. Squirrels feed on these flowers. In May, fruits – sort of woody capsules – ripen and break open to release masses of silky fibres that are collected to stuff pillows and quilts. (In fact, a shoeshine boy walking by doesn’t know this tree’s name but he does know that it gives cotton.) While the bark and roots of semal are said to find use as a tonic and stimulant, the stem is used to prepare an aphrodisiac, according to Pradip Krishen’s book Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide.
But semal is more than its utilities — this one especially is a phenomenon, and not just during its flowering time. The more you crane your neck to trace the upward progress of the tree here in E-block, the faster you escape from the claustrophobia of this bustling metropolis, and enter into a space peaceful and meditative.
To make cities, trees are cut for houses, rivers are dammed for power. And so we citizens drift further from the nature. But this semal, surviving so joyfully in the capital’s heart, is a civilizing influence on the metropolis. It has made Delhi a little more loveable.
The E-Block wonder