Posted on April 01, 2022
Deccan plateau is filled with dull mega-boulders and is semi-arid with very little vegetation. The tiny spaces between the boulders are invaded mainly by a recent immigrant yet highly aggressive mesquite tree (Prosopis Julifora). The mesquite tree is full of thorns and does not serve as a food source for most native fauna. Distantly related to the native Babul or Tumma tree (Vachellia Nilotica), mesquite is locally referred to as Vilayati Babul or Sarkar tumma, indicative of its foreign origin. Since its arrival around a century or two, the mesquite has occupied much of Deccan's arid land and is as common as the boulders.
Deccan plateau is, therefore, an acquired taste. One must be knowledgeable enough to recognize the plateau's unique geological feature of the Deccan traps. Alternatively, one has to look for ruins of ancient cities such as Hampi, the capital of the mighty Vijayanagar empire, where one can glimpse how the bland and barren boulders can be transformed into magnificent architecture.
Even the barren lands of Deccan come alive in Spring. In the middle of the mesquite forest, the occasional bastard teak tree (Butea monosperma), also known as Moduga or Palash, springs to life with its beautiful reddish-orange flowers. But the undoubted queen of the land, with a suitably royal Latin name Azadirachta indica, makes its presence felt by its flowers' subtle yet distinct fragrance. The neem or the Vepa tree survived the onslaught of the mesquite invasion and continues to thrive on the plateau as the second most visible tree. The state of Andhra Pradesh aptly named the neem as its state tree.
My first encounter with the neem tree was on a fateful day when I forgot to carry my toothbrush to a relative's house. I was then given a neem twig and asked to manage with it. I was asked to bite into the twig to make enough bristles for brushing. However, the utterly bitter taste of the twig makes it impossible to reach a stage where I have fine strands to complete the job. At that time, many in the villages brushed their teeth with either a neem twig or some kind of ash or a few other twigs.
As I grew up, the neem flowers became synonymous with the festival of Ugadi as it serves as a special ingredient in what we call Ugadi Pachchadi. The bitter flowers and leaves are believed to have many healing properties. When I was sick with measles, my mother gave me a branch of neem leaves to get relief from the itching associated with the illness. Traditionally, measles is believed to be an annual plague unleashed by the mother goddess. Therefore it is only befitting to see images and idols of the mother goddess decorated by neem twigs. The fruits are primarily unused except when we occasionally relished their mildly sweet but strange flavor while playing under their shade in hot summer. The oil extracted from the seeds serves as a pesticide. My grandmother always used need leaves either directly or as a paste to keep her skin healthy.
The neem, the banyan (Ficus benghalensis), and the peepal (Ficus Religiosa) are India's three most sacred trees. The banyan and the peepal command reverence just by their majestic look. The neem with its tiny leaves compensates for its look with its medicinal properties and ubiquitous presence. It is not uncommon to see a pair of these trees intertwined. They are invariably far more respectful than their individual counterparts. The tree pair is worshipped as a marriage between a god and a goddess. They are especially popular with newly married couples seeking blessings for a happy marriage.
Here is a compelling account of how a neem tree can be the genesis of a bustling trading center. When my family settled in Hyderabad, my grandparents relocated from South Karnataka to the Raichur district in North-East Karnataka to be closer to us. Raichur was historically part of the Nizam state of Hyderabad. It was one of the most underdeveloped parts of the South. This is despite the mighty rivers Bhima and Krishna flowing through the region. The government has only recently constructed a few reservoirs and irrigation canals. The area remains backward with sparsely distributed villages. I regularly traveled for over forty years from Hyderabad to Raichur. The bus used to have only a small number of designated stops. But over the years, travelers necessitated more stops on the road. One such stop was next to a neem tree so that the travelers had shade while waiting for the bus. Over time, under regular foot traffic from neighboring villages, the neem-tree bus stop became the confluence of many dirt roads. A budding entrepreneur started selling water and snacks under the tree. As more people used the bus stop, more vendors joined, and the neem tree bus stop evolved into the most prominent market in all the neighboring villages. Subsequently, people started living near the bus stop. A small shrine showed up soon after that as a protection for the tiny hamlet. Eventually, what began as a request bus stop next to a mundane neem tree ends up a vibrant trading center bigger than any other local village.