A few kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of the gleaming pile that is the international airport at Devanahalli lies a wonderland that seems to be straight out of the pages of a fairy tale, an arboreal fairy tale at that! The wonderland is called Nallur and it is home to a sacred tamarind grove that is also a bit of a scientific curiosity. The grove has the distinction of being India’s first Biodiversity Heritage Park. The Government of Karnataka declared it a Heritage Site in January 2007, and assigned its management to the Karnataka Biodiversity Board.
The 53-acre grove has 295 tamarind trees. And what marvels they are! Trees, trees all around, and all vying with each other for the title of the ‘Most Eye-popping’. There are giant, gnarled trees that twist and turn their way toward the skies; there are knotty trees that creep along the ground before rearing up; trees with hollows big enough for me to hide in; and trees with bizarrely shaped calluses (outgrowths) that have grown to be as big as a man. And interestingly, there are also trees that seem to have sprouted prop roots. What, you may wonder, are prop roots and root suckers doing on tamarind trees? Surely only Ficus sp. have such roots?
Some scientists wondered about this too. In 2008, the Karnataka Biodiversity Board commissioned a study of Nallur’s trees. One of the first things that TR Singh, R Nandini and GN Dhanapal from the University of Agricultural Sciences did was to determine the age of the trees using radiocarbon dating. It turns out, the oldest tree in the grove, Tree No 155, is at least 410 years old. I pondered on that astounding figure a while. Though there are the odd exceptions that live much longer, the average tamarind tree has a lifespan of about 200 or so years. But here was this Methuselah that had been around since at least the year 1605. Why, that was the year Akbar died and was succeeded to the Mughal throne by Jahangir. Queen Elizabeth in England had died just two years before that. And closer home, Kempegowda II, grandson of the founder of Bangalore, was building his iconic towers about the time when the oldest tree in Nallur was planted!
The other trees in Nallur were less than 200 years old, while the youngest was a mere baby at 84 years. But age is not the only way Nallur’s tamarind trees are striving for immortality. The investigating scientists found that some of the trees had produced clones. What I had taken to be Ficus-like prop roots were actually meristematic tissue from the trunks that had produced root and shoot-like structures that had then become full-fledged clones of the mother plant, which was also something unheard of in tamarinds.
Of course, there is a colourful story about these venerable and unusual trees. We heard one version from a forest guard, who told us that in times of yore, there was a large fort in Nallur. The chieftain’s daughter fell in love with a prince from a neighbouring principality. When her father forbade the match, the princess sent her beloved a note telling him that he should come and get her. She also told him that the only entry into the fort was by draining a tank just outside it. This the prince did, and then the prince and princess were married and (hopefully) lived happily ever after. Meanwhile, the prudent chieftain, sensing trouble was afoot, had buried all his gold. To help him identify the spot later, he buried tamarind seeds along with his treasure. And that, the story goes,is how Nallur’s tamarind trees came to be.
For the lover of history, Nallur has more than medieval trees to marvel at. Hidden behind some scrub about half a kilometre from the road was a ruined little stone temple. Some call it a Gopalaswamy temple, others a Chennakeshava temple. Whichever moniker you choose, the temple is a charming little gem. The temple had all the pathos and allure typical of a ruin in the wilderness. It immediately evoked images of a past long gone, of imagined tales of valour and romance. Popular legend dates this temple (and the tamarind grove) to the Cholas but the bas-relief along its outer walls places it squarely in the early Vijayanagar period, sometime in the 1300s. The lively frieze along the temple’s outer wall depictsepisodes from Krishna’s life. Dr SK Aruni, of the Indian Council for Historical Research, points out that the frieze is a typical example of the Vijayanagar style of sculpture, reminiscent of the bas-relief on the temples in Hampi.
I found some of the sculptures truly spellbinding. How did the sculptor, working on hard granite, infuse that soft expression of innocent mischief on the face of Krishna eating butter? One image shows Krishna sitting gleefully on a tree: you can almost hear the gopis as they entreat him to return their clothes! And in the panel that shows Krishna and Radha dancing, every twist in Radha’s long plaits and every frill on her dress have been painstakingly delineated. How much time, effort and love had the sculptor expended on just this one panel, I wondered. Time has wrought its havoc here and people no longer worship at the temple, but its sculptures remain as lively and vibrant as ever.
The ground around the temple is littered with bits and pieces of pillars and columns that seem to have belonged to the temple. Inside the temple is a beheaded statue of Durga.
I was told that the tamarind grove was considered sacred, but it seems that sanctity does not extend to the temple itself. As I left the ruin, I wondered how much of the poignant little temple would remain the next time I visited.