TREEING OFF AT SAVISTA: The Babul
Celebrating Christmas at Savista with the Babul tree!
When trying to dream up ideas of how we could evoke the atmosphere of Christmas in the Rajasthan countryside, we found the perfect candidate in the Babul! With its dark, vertically fissured bark, straight stiff branches, sharp pointed white paired spines, and feathery leaves, the Babul comes closest to the fir tree, and became our “Christmas Tree” this year. Babul trees can be seen on the edge of the Savista grounds, and in the countryside all around Savista, and it did not take us long to find one with branches that appealed to us. Our enthusiastic staff – for whom a Christmas tree was a novelty – quickly got down to work, and within hours we had a sturdy branch about 6 feet long set in a pot filled with earth, with tinsel wrapped around it and little coloured lights twinkling all over. By the time it was sundown on the day before Christmas eve, our brightly-lit “Christmas tree”, with Christmas carols playing in the background, truly brought home the spirit of the festival!
Known as Acacia Nilotica and also called Acacia Arabica (from the Greek Akis meaning sharp point), the Babul (its Hindi name) is a wild tree that is native to all of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Indian sub-continent, including Burma. It grows easily and is propagated by birds that feed on its pods. In India, it grows abundantly in arid and semi arid climates, where it is also often deliberately planted as a measure to prevent soil erosion. Perfectly suited to sandy or degraded soils because of its capacity to make the maximum use of whatever little water is available to it, and with its leaves capable of folding up against the bright summer sun, the Babul is a tree that is superbly adapted for survival. When travelling through Rajasthan – or even just hiking cross-country around Savista – it can be seen everywhere, often taking on a dramatic appearance with its tall trunk, spiny branches growing outwards, and dense cloak of yellow sweet-scented flowers when in season (July and November, its flowers giving it the name “Scented Thorn”).
Due to its thorns, it is often planted as a boundary wall around farms. The wood is durable and termite resistant, and farmers use it to fashion ploughs, cart-wheels and other heavy duty farm equipment. The dark bark and pods have an astringent quality, making them ideal tanning and dyeing materials. The leaves make for good fodder for camels, sheep and goats; they are also used to make a a poultice for ulcers. The tender twigs are chewed by villagers as an excellent herbal toothbrush-cum-toothpaste-cum-mouthwash-cum-gum-strengthener (“Babool” toothpaste is a brand that figures prominently among the products made by a reputed Indian company manufacturing drugs and personal hygiene products based on Ayurvedic principles for modern markets). The gum ( a dark resin) of the tree (giving it its other name Arabian Gum Tree) is an integral ingredient of medicines prepared by practitioners of indigenous Indian systems of medicine for a variety of uses, e.g., to cure wounds, and to treat diarrhea, dysentery, liver and spleen disorders, tuberculosis, typhoid, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.