Encounter – Monsieur Baobab

Since I am from Pondicherry, it is only natural that my first blog post concerns this small, serene (now losing it) former French colony on the east coast of India.

A fallen baobab flower

It was a chance discovery.

Prompted by my son to figure out what the huge tree in front of his playground was, I, for a moment, thought it might be a baobab (it is a Silk Cotton really, I found out later). Why would I zero in on the Baobab and nothing else requires me to rewind a bit.

Baobab or the bottle tree as my geography text called it fascinated me right away when I first saw the grainy B&W picture. I immediately launched a determined and secret search for it, notwithstanding the fact that I was in the completely wrong geography. I even located a possible target, a thick bottle-like trunk of a friendly neighborhood tree (identity unknown till date) and announced the discovery to my classmates. They had a look and disagreed (more out of envy I maintain). Since then the search did lose some vigor but never did it cease.

So here, 28 years later, was a chance to redeem myself. It was a blind search – on Google the words Baobab and Pondicherry threw up the magic result. Yes, Pondicherry had two baobabs in the campus of the Law Courts and another one somewhere in the city.

A baobab sapling springs roots on the elephantine bark

The Adansonia digitate or Baobab trees of Pondicherry were lost in time and rediscovered in the 13-acre forest patch located in the campus of the now defunct Swadeshi Cotton Mill Complex close to the new Law Court buildings.

The patch is a small sanctuary — a dense green island of thick undergrowth and liana-entwined trees right in the centre of a bustling town. A five-minute walk from the gate gets you to the Baobabs — a majestic pair accentuating the stillness of the forest with their brooding presence. They have a circumference of 9 m and 8 m respectively, a beautifully textured skin with folds, eyes and knots that remind one of an elephant hide. The ground is littered with dry flowers and fruits. The bounty keeps the tree bugs and myriad ant species busy and now we are the intruders (“We have stepped into their domain,” I tell my son. “I wish we could walk on air,” he responds).

We do not know who planted them or why. The obvious suspects are the French colonial masters but it could very well be a homesick African retainer. They are quite likely more than 150-200 years old but there is really no reliable information yet. Neither do we know who re-discovered them.

The baobab “twins”

We spend two hours with the Baobabs under the watchful eyes of the forest guards. Like the Dodda Sampige of B R Hills (Karnataka), the presence of the Baobabs demands veneration. Luckily the forest has protected them (and the fact they were “lost” has helped) and there is no shrine. This allows us more intimate contact. We feel the texture of their skin, smell the flowers, walk around, hug, paint, photograph and sketch them. Perhaps the sum total of these will let us keep the impressions for a while and recreate the semblance to the satisfaction of the mind’s eye.

The gnarled texture of a baobab bark
Text and pictures: Sahastrarashmi


  • SR

    Traveller, photographer, philosopher, art connoisseur, trekking guru, and master trip planner, Sahastrarashmi (SR or Sahastra to his friends) is on a relentless quest for the story of life. An engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, he works in Chennai, India and lives (on weekends) in the former French enclave of Pondicherry (Puducherry to the officious). He is on a mission to introduce the uninitiated to the glory of the Himalaya.

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