The Baobab tree of Madagascar has always been a fascination to me. I have not been to Madagascar but when I caught the first picture of Baobab tree online, it got registered in my mind. The tall bulbous tree looks like giants walking on earth. The smooth bark with absolutely nothing, not one branch or leaf till it reaches all the way to top and at the top is a fringe of branches and leaves like frizzy hair. Getting to see a Baobab tree might be a distant dream was what I was thinking until I stumbled into one at Mandu. I didn't even have to travel to Africa and I was surprised to see the stout tree standing right there between the ruins of Mandu. And in my two weeks of touring around Madhya Pradesh, I got to see it nowhere else apart from this particular town. And here it is popularly called as Mandu Ki Imli.
The first time it caught my attention was when a seller cart had a basket full of the greenish huge bulb-like vegetable. I pointed out to ask what it is and he promptly replied, "Mandu ki Imli". Imli meaning tamarind, I was wondering how would they use such a big thing as an alternative to tamarind. Usually, we let a lemon sized ball of tamarind to soak in water, dissolve it and use it in curries. Mandu Ki Imli, however, is something I had to hold it with both my hands.
And then came a few revelations from the seller. It is not a vegetable but a fruit. And the inside of the fruit looked more like a dried up custard apple. White pulp segments with seeds, that can be pulled out and chewed on. Packets of dried up Imli was available for sale and out of curiosity I got one. Popped in one of the dried up Imlis and it was more like a stone that I had to eternally chew on. It was too mildly sour to call it Imli and very little flesh around the seed. But it is said that it is extremely rich in Vitamin C and hence good for your health. Apparently, this is also used in the curries to give it a distinct flavor. Having tried out the fruit, I went on a hunt for the tree.
Not far off from the shop, a little away on the way to the ruins, I spotted the first tree. It was winter and the tree was void of leaves. The thick trunk was shining white and the branches were like creepy frizzy white hair of an old man. It was not as tall as the ones in Africa. But a variant of the baobab tree. A folk tale says that the baobab tree was so tall and it was so proud of its stature that it used to make fun of all the other trees. So the God thought of teaching it a lesson. God then uproots the tree and plants it upside down and hence the branches look like a bunch of frivolous roots. From then on it was all I could see. Wonder how these could look at night. The shadows for sure would look like giant dancing on the way.
There is very little info on how these trees are found only in Mandu. Maybe the dry area of Mandu helps in these trees growing there in abundance. In all possibility when the Africans were trading with India once upon a time they brought the seeds along to plant their "Tree of Life". Or it just got transported along and got dispersed in India. Some studies say when India and Africa were part of the same continent centuries ago the trees were planted in this region and it continues to be. And few say the seeds got washed away by water currents and got distributed to India. Fascinating huh! Seeds traveling all the way from Africa to only Mandu so we get to have Mandu ki Imli.
Africans consider this tree as a Tree of Life. Apparently, they store up a lot of water and during summers or when the land is parched, people would cut open the bark to quench their thirst. The fruit is rich in vitamin C much more than what could be found in oranges. The leaves are also added in cooking and consumed like a green leafy vegetable. And the bark is fibrous that it is used for various purposes. Pretty much like how we Indians use the plantain tree, everything in it is used in one form or the other. But the Mandu Ki Imli tree is not put to use so much. I wonder if they know that the leaves are edible. Or maybe I wish I visited when the tree was lush..
Have you seen the baobab tree anywhere else in India?