Our academic campuses are known for their distinct buildings – some for their unique architecture and some for their heritage buildings. In India, we have a number of such campuses: the iconic IIM Ahmedabad campus designed by Louis Kahn, Mumbai University’s buildings steeped in Gothic architecture and many more.
But I sometimes wonder – what are our campuses without trees and their foliage? Trees are everywhere in most of our academic campuses, sometimes planted strategically to enhance the look of the buildings and at other times planted for botanical diversity. They become a quintessential part of our academic lives as students – we sit under them sometimes for solitude on a quiet afternoon, feeling the sound of leaves and chirping of birds. We look out of our classrooms at a rain tree on a rainy day, we sit with friends under a grand Banyan and share a hearty meal, we look at falling leaves and bare trees during the autumn, and we even sometimes identify buildings with trees – ‘that building near the Gulmohar tree’. In fact, the Indian Institute of Science’s Bangalore campus has named its paths after trees. Similarly, IIT Madras is home to a number of grand Banyan trees with their numerous prop roots.
In fact, the trees are as iconic as the buildings of these institutions. Over the years, I have learnt to not only identify trees in the institutions I was studying in but also learnt about my shared existence with them in that place. In fact, observing the rhythm of trees gave me insights about my own life – the shedding of the leaves, a long dry period before the arrival of rains and even during the harsh winters, profuse flowering, emergence of new foliage, and the cycle would go on. In fact, trees offered me a space of contrast to look at life in my native city versus the life in the metros I was studying in. Without them, college life would have been really dull.
Going to Delhi University’s office in north campus on a February morning, I immediately fell in love with an arresting sight of a red silk cotton tree in full bloom; the tree was bare except for its heavy petaled flowers. On many other occasions, I would always look for a lone Jacaranda (sometimes called as blue Gulmohar) with its distinct purple flowers while going to the Vishwavidyalaya metro station.
Also read: Amphan: The Fallen Trees in My Neighbourhood
My love for campus trees reached its peak when I came to Mumbai. There was a distinct quality about Mumbai trees, not found in Delhi and in my native Rajasthan where I grew up. Mumbai, perhaps because of the heavy rainfall that it receives, is home to large trees. At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I first experienced the subtle fragrance of the many Copper Pod’s (also called as the Rusty Shield Bearer for its copper coloured seed pods) yellow flowers and I was quite amazed by a large Champa tree I saw in the new campus of TISS. Then I would always look at, while going for classes, a Cannon Ball tree with fragrant flowers and fruits hanging from the main trunk of the tree. The folding (or closing) of the rain tree’s leaves around the onset of evening always both amazed and amused me and I unsuccessfully tried to know the reason behind its nomenclature.
But my tree story is not yet finished. And I perhaps would never want to finish it. When I came to IIT Bombay’s Powai campus for my doctoral studies, I was more attracted to its trees than its buildings. Large rain trees forming avenues on the KV link road, two very old Palmyra Palms (one female and another male) in front of the main building, a lone specimen of an African Sausage tree delighted me when I first saw it. Some trees, having seen them for the first time, teased me to find their identity and it would be difficult to ignore them every time going and coming back from classes. Pradip Krishen’s Field Guide to the Trees of Delhi and Charles McCann’s Hundred Beautiful Trees of India helped me identify the beautiful Wild Guava (Careya Arborea) tree, the arrestingly beautiful flowers of Garlic Pear or Sacred Barna tree and the beautiful flowers of the Pride of India (Lagerstroemia speciose).
But it was not all about flowers, sometimes the leaves became important in identifying many trees – I learnt about the fan-like and feather-like leaves of almost all palm trees, the palmate (like the five fingers on a hand) leaves of the Red Silk Cotton, the trifoliate leaves of Palash or the flame of the forest, doubly compound leaves and Gulmohar and many more.
Because of the educational institutes I have gone to, not only has my tree quotient become high but I have also become more aware of their existence around me and of their importance in my academic life. As a result, the first thing I note whenever I go to an educational institute is its trees – what are the varieties, are there more native trees important to the local ecology or are there just ornamental trees, what is the rhythm of those trees and so on.
Falling in love with the trees is the best thing that could have happened to me. It has left me a changed individual, and perhaps a better one.
Vinay Suhalka is a researcher working on disability issues with a deep interest in trees and culture.
Featured image credit: Flickr/@fiko