An ode to the chinaberry - Hindustan Times
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An ode to the chinaberry

Apr 19, 2024 03:39 PM IST

The flowers of this close cousin of the neem are the most fragrant harbingers of good weather in the capital and its branches are the venue for many conferences of the birds

Now that summer is upon us in Delhi, we can look back at the city’s wonderful spring with nostalgia. Oh, what a sight the capital was with clear blue skies and fragrant flowers blossoming everywhere. Delicate petunias at the roundabouts and colourful tulips in Chanakyapuri are often appreciated but there is one underrated beauty among Delhi’s trees.

A red-whiskered bulbul intent on eating chinaberries (Prerna Jain)
A red-whiskered bulbul intent on eating chinaberries (Prerna Jain)

A male Asian koel (Prerna Jain)
A male Asian koel (Prerna Jain)

Spring announced its arrival in my neighbourhood with the blooming of the chinaberry. The flowers of this close cousin of the neem are the most fragrant harbingers of good weather. The phrase “Udar charitanam tu vasudhaiv kutumbkam (For the large hearted, the world is their family)” from the Upanishads is apt for this tree that’s also variously called the Pride of India and the Persian lilac. In Hindi it is bakain, bakayan or mahaneem; in Punjabi it is darek; and in Sanskrit it is the mahanimba or the himarudra.

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Brown headed barbet sniffing the flowers (Prerna Jain)
Brown headed barbet sniffing the flowers (Prerna Jain)

After lying bare and dormant in the harsh winter, the chinaberry puts out shiny green leaves that contrast beautifully with its lilac flowers that have already bloomed in the first flush of spring. Soon the tree is covered with foliage and the flowers turn into green marble-sized fruits, which ripen into warm yellow berries. These narcotic golden pearls stay on the tree until the following spring as most birds are wary of them. A few like bulbuls and grey hornbills, however, enjoy nibbling on these fruits.

Like a haiku: Tailor bird on a chinaberry. (Prerna Jain)
Like a haiku: Tailor bird on a chinaberry. (Prerna Jain)

Spring is also nesting season and several avians court, share food, and explore safe sites for building homes. The fruit might not be a universal hit but the branches of the chinaberry are a popular hangout zone; the favoured spot for mating barbets, singing tailor birds, calling koels and yellow footed green pigeons intent on collecting nesting material.

A yellow footed green pigeon collecting nesting material. (Prerna Jain)
A yellow footed green pigeon collecting nesting material. (Prerna Jain)

Chinaberry seeds were often used as beads, which is why it’s also called the bead tree. Another name, phew! Every part of this plant is said to have medicinal properties and it is extensively used in Ayurveda.

A female Asian koel (Prerna Jain)
A female Asian koel (Prerna Jain)

In The Dog Star, novelist Donald Windham writes: “Beneath the chinaberry tree at the school, on the wide rolling clay earth scattered with fallen berries, he had thought himself homesick. But he felt as though the place he wanted to be no longer existed in the world.”

“To eat or not to eat, that is the question” - Yellow footed green pigeon. (Prerna Jain)
“To eat or not to eat, that is the question” - Yellow footed green pigeon. (Prerna Jain)

That same melancholy feeling grips us as April melts into May and we can no longer wander around the city on foot gaping at the vegetation and the birds. But whatever the season, whenever I spot this tree, I’m reminded of the high spirited bulbuls twisting and turning to reach the golden fruit on the old chinaberry in my neighbourhood. And then, even in the scorching summer and the depth of winter I feel lifted up by the memory of glorious spring.

Prerna Jain is an artist and photographer based in New Delhi. An extensive collection of her work can be found at her website www.prernasphotographs.com and at facebook.com/prernasphotographs. She is the author of My Feathered Friends.

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